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Vitamins, Minerals, and Supplements, Oh My! The Do’s and Don’ts of Over-the-Counter Nutrition

By December 10, 2020October 23rd, 2023Nutrition Well-being
Customer in pharmacy holding medicine bottle. Woman reading the label text about medical information or side effects in drug store. Patient shopping pills for migraine or flu.

Nowadays, over-the-counter (OTC) vitamins and other nutritional supplements are big business. In 2019, 77 percent of Americans reported using these types of products, and the average American now spends around $56 a month on them.

The question is are they even necessary? How many are enough? How much is too much?

Since vitamins are something I’m curious about personally, I’ve spent a lot of time researching the topic. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Do We Even Need Nutritional Supplements?

Nutrition is a very complicated area. But experts agree, and studies confirm, that it’s much better to get your nutritional needs met through the foods you eat every day, if possible, instead of from supplements.

If you’re eating in a healthy way — getting enough protein and eating enough fruits and vegetables, for example — you’re probably doing pretty well nutritionally. That’s because your body is designed to best absorb nutrients from the food you eat.

However, our diets aren’t always the best, and some of us have trouble absorbing certain nutrients. So in some cases, taking some over-the-counter supplements may be a very good idea.

Should We All Be Taking Multivitamins?

Many people’s diets don’t satisfy the recommended levels for optimal health. However, there’s virtually no evidence that multivitamins actually improve people’s life spans or lower their risk of heart disease, cancer, or stroke.

Most people could benefit from just taking a few specific supplements instead of a multivitamin. However, taking a multivitamin could be a good idea if you’re pregnant, elderly, or on a diet that prevents you from getting enough nutrition from food.

Should We Take Iron Supplements?

Many of us don’t get as much iron as we should. If you have symptoms of low iron levels such as tiredness, difficulty concentrating, headaches, or itchiness, consider getting tested to see if your levels are low. But there’s also such a thing as too much iron. If you consume more than you’re able to absorb, you can actually get iron poisoning.

So it’s definitely better to speak to a doctor or nutritionist and get your iron levels tested before assuming that you’re low and taking a ton of iron to compensate.

What About Supplemental Calcium?

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of calcium is 1,000 mg per day for men between 19 and 70, and for women between 19 and 50. Past those ages, 1,200 mg a day is recommended. But it’s pretty easy for most people to get that much from the food they eat.

However, you may have trouble getting enough calcium if you:

  • Are a vegan
  • Avoid dairy products because of lactose intolerance
  • Eat large amounts of protein or sodium, which can actually make your body lose more calcium than it would otherwise
  • Have been taking corticosteroids for a long time
  • Have osteoporosis
  • Have a digestive disease such as irritable bowel syndrome or celiac disease

On the other hand, it’s also possible to consume too much calcium. And if you do you could experience anything from constipation to kidney stones, kidney failure, heart problems, and confusion and cognitive impairment. It’s worth talking to a health professional if you’re thinking about taking supplemental calcium.

Do I Need Protein Supplements? Am I Getting Enough Protein?

It’s recommended that you eat .36 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For the average sedentary man, that’s 56 grams a day. For the average sedentary woman, it’s 46 grams a day.

If you routinely eat animal products like meat, fish, eggs, and dairy, you’re probably doing fine. And if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you can also get enough protein — as long as your diet includes enough plant-based protein sources like soybean products, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

If you’re an athlete, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends eating between 1.2 and 2 grams of protein per body weight a day. But you can still get enough protein from food, as long as you’re conscious about how much protein you’re consuming. (That’s what nutrition labels are for!)

How Do You Know if You Might Have a Nutritional Deficiency?

At your yearly checkups, your primary care doctor will screen you for signs of a possible nutritional deficiency, among other things. It’s also a great chance for you to ask your nutrition questions and get some professional medical advice. So, keeping up with those appointments is a great way to stay on top of your nutrition.

Are There Signs You Should Watch for Between Preventive Visits?

Generally, the chief clue is that you’re not feeling well. For instance, if you have a vitamin D deficiency you may feel depressed, anxious, or irritable. You might sweat more than usual, or experience increased inflammation and/or “brain fog.” Or you may notice that you’re getting sick more often than is normal for you, or that you’re starting to lose some hair.

Another common deficiency is magnesium. And if you’re not getting enough, you might experience loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, weakness, numbness, tingling muscles, or involuntary contractions and cramps.

Because these kinds of symptoms can also result from a lot of other health problems, some of them very serious, it’s best to see your doctor if you’re not feeling well in some way.

Is Fatigue or Low Energy a Sign of Nutritional Deficiency?

A lot of us feel really tired these days or feel like we don’t have as much energy as we’d like. And, it’s possible that these feeling have to do with nutrition. But fatigue can also be a symptom of many medical conditions. Talk to your doctor if your fatigue seems really off the charts.

 Are Nutritional Supplements the Solution to Fatigue?

They might help if your doctor has ruled out other causes, but the first step is to make sure you’re actually getting enough sleep. Aim for seven to eight hours a night. Many people find they sleep better if they get some exercise during the day. Others benefit from meditation or other stress reduction techniques.

People take a lot of supplements to reduce fatigue and boost energy, like chromium, CoQ10, creatine, DHEA, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, guarana, vitamin B12, and MCT oil. Some of these may help, but do your homework to see if they’re a good idea, given your health history and whatever medicines you’re taking.

Are Any Supplements Helpful When You Get Sick? If You Get a Cold, Should You Take Echinacea? Goldenseal? Zinc? Vitamin C? Garlic?

There’s some evidence that echinacea has a slight benefit in preventing colds and that goldenseal may help you recover from bacterial and viral infections.

However, a registered dietitian is more likely to recommend getting enough vitamins, like B6, C, and E. These vitamins have a well-established track record of helping you maintain a healthy immune system. And since your immune system does the actual work of fighting off infections, it just makes sense to give it the fuel it needs.

Vitamin D also helps support your immune system, and there’s plenty of evidence that it helps prevent acute respiratory infections. (By the way, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci also recommends taking vitamin D to help maintain healthy immunity.)

Are There Certain Diets That May Leave You Nutritionally Deficient?

  • Vegetarian/vegan diets can leave you deficient in B12, vitamin D, long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, iron, calcium, and zinc.
  • Paleo diets can result in calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D deficiencies.
  • Atkins diets may not provide enough B vitamins, magnesium, and fiber.
  • Keto diets put you at risk of selenium, magnesium, phosphorus, and vitamins B and C deficiencies.

If you’re on one of these diets, vitamin and mineral supplementation is a good idea.

To Summarize…

Taking certain supplements may be advisable if you know that you, or your diet, lack certain vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients. If you suspect that you’re deficient in some nutrient(s), it’s better to check with your doctor or see a nutritionist before starting on a supplement regimen. Otherwise, if you just start taking supplements blindly, you may risk getting too much of something.

And if you do choose to take multivitamins or other over-the-counter nutritional supplements, do your research first. They can interact badly with each other and/or with medicines that you’re taking. Also, all supplements aren’t created equal, and some may even contain dangerous ingredients.

Sheila Perlick

I am a copywriter at IBX as well as a spouse, parent, dog owner, and kind of meh cook. Just like a lot of people, I am always looking for ways to make my day-to-day life easier so I can spend more time with family, sneak in a little more exercise, and (hopefully) get more sleep.