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Does A Supplement A Day Keep The Doctor Away?

Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen on February 5, 2023

Americans love supplements. A large percentage of adults take them regularly and many give them to their kids as well. They buy them with specific goals–for their bones, hearts, or intestines–but most of all with the hope that they will make them healthier. This optimism supports a huge industry. Despite scandals and scepticism, America’s supplement industry looks healthy. It seems like simple, obvious advice: Eat your vegetables, get some exercise, and of course, take your vitamins. Or not. Decades of research has failed to find any substantial evidence that vitamins and supplements do any significant good.


When it comes to eating habits, millennials have a clear preference for clean eating. But with this focus on whole, clean foods, where do supplements fit in? Millennials have a more holistic outlook, placing more weight on how their body feels, whether they have enough energy, or if their digestion is on track. This holistic outlook seems to align with the supplement industry, which can’t make disease prevention claims but can make holistic and lifestyle claims that speak directly to how millennials assess their health.


Do supplements even do anything?


Research has found that many of us are not consuming sufficient nutrients from our food. Many of us take supplements not just to make up for what we’re missing, but also because we hope to give ourselves an extra health boost—a preventive buffer to ward off disease.


Getting our nutrients straight from a pill sounds easy, but supplements don’t necessarily deliver on the promise of better health. In fact, recent studies skew in the opposite direction, having found that certain vitamins may be bad for you. Some supplements can even be dangerous, especially when taken in larger than recommended amounts.


We need a variety of nutrients each day to stay healthy, including calcium and vitamin D to protect our bones, folic acid to produce and maintain new cells, and vitamin A to preserve a healthy immune system and vision. Yet the source of these nutrients is important. Usually it is best to try to get these vitamins and minerals and nutrients from food as opposed to supplements.


Fruits, vegetables, fish, and other healthy foods contain nutrients and other substances not found in a pill, which work together to keep us healthy. We can’t get the same synergistic effect from a supplement. Taking certain vitamins or minerals in higher than recommended doses may even interfere with nutrient absorption or cause side effects.


What to take–and what to skip


Vitamin D: Take it. It helps keep your bones strong, and it’s more difficult to get from food. Vitamin D isn’t present in most of the foods we eat, but it’s a critical ingredient that keeps our bones strong by helping us absorb calcium. Getting sunlight helps our bodies produce it as well, but it can be tough to get enough in the winter. Several recent study reviews have found that people who took Vitamin D supplements daily lived longer, on average, than those who didn’t.


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Wellness - Vitamin D Deficiency

Wellness - Vitamin D Deficiency

Antioxidants: Skip them. An excess of these has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and you can eat berries instead. Studies suggest that when taken in excess, antioxidants can actually be harmful. Occurring naturally in many fruits and vegetables, especially berries, find them in food not pills.


Vitamin C: Skip it. It probably won’t help you get over your cold, and you can eat citrus fruits instead. The vitamin C hype is just that; hype. Study after study has shown that Vitamin C does little to nothing to prevent the common cold. Plus, megadoses of 2,000 milligrams or more can raise your risk of painful kidney stones. So get your Vitamin C from your food instead. Strawberries are also packed with this nutrient.


Vitamin B3: Skip it. Eat salmon, tuna, or beets instead. For years, Vitamin B3 was promoted to treat everything from Alzheimer’s to heart disease. But recent studies have called for an end to this often over-prescribed nutrient.


Probiotics: Skip them. The science isn’t advanced enough yet for them to have a significant benefit, and you can eat yogurt instead. This is an important nutrient that supports the bacteria in the gut. Probiotics are pricey and are found naturally in smaller amounts in yogurt and other fermented foods. 


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What are Probiotics?

What are Probiotics?

Zinc: Take it. It’s one of the only ingredients linked to shortening a cold. Unlike Vitamin C, which studies have found likely does nothing to prevent or treat the common cold, zinc may actually be worth it. The mineral seems to interfere with the replication of rhinoviruses, the bugs that cause the common cold.


Vitamin E: Skip it. An excess has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, and you can eat spinach instead. A 2005 study linked high doses of Vitamin E with an overall higher risk of death. 


Folic acid: Take it–if you’re pregnant, or if you might want to get pregnant. Folic acid is a B vitamin which our bodies use to make new cells. Folic acid supplementation before and during pregnancy has been linked with decreased rates of neural-tube defects, serious and life-threatening birth defects of the baby’s brain, spine, or spinal cord.


Of course, if you’re lacking in a particular nutrient, ask your doctor whether you need to look beyond your diet to make up for what you’re missing—but don’t take more than the recommended daily intake for that nutrient unless your health care provider advises it. Before you take any supplements for disease prevention, it’s important to know whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks. 


It seems like millennials may have just gotten it right, and that a refrigerator packed with whole, nutrient-rich foods (or an apple a day as the age-old saying goes) is more likely to keep the doctor away than unnecessary or excessive supplement use.

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