Eating a variety of foods is the best way to ensure you are meeting your nutrient needs. A high quality diet including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and fish is by far the best way to supply your body with the micronutrients it requires for optimal health.

North American consumers spend billions of dollars each year on supplements. Advertising and media placements convincingly claim that such supplements are a necessary and vital part of a healthy lifestyle. There are limitless options available, from vitamin A to Zinc and everything in between! The options are so plentiful and diverse that one might consider a supplement to improve brain function as we sort it all out! Which ones should I take? If I don't take them, what health advantages am I missing?

Use of supplements is generally more related to personal perceptions of health and wellness than it is to actual nutrient needs. According to a recent study by Statistics Canada, 47% of females and 34% of males take vitamin or mineral supplements (1.).

Do I need a vitamin or mineral supplement?

Eating a variety of foods is the best way to ensure you are meeting your nutrient needs. A high quality diet including fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and fish is by far the best way to supply your body with the micronutrients it requires for optimal health. A diet rich in nutrients can be attained by following Canada's Food Guide (2.). While it is recommended that people obtain the vitamins / minerals that their bodies require directly from food, there are groups of individuals who cannot or do not meet their nutritional needs and therefore are in need of supplements. Specific supplements are necessary for women who may become pregnant, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and adults over the age of fifty. Dieters, vegans, people with specific diseases, people who smoke and individuals who do not have an adequate diet or those who live in countries with restricted access to foods are also in need of supplementation. A physician can help advise regarding specific requirements as taking too much of a single vitamin or mineral can be just as great a concern as getting too little.

Group with specific needs:

Women who may become pregnant and women who are pregnane or breastfeeding

During pregnancy a mother's diet must meet her nutritional requirements as well as those of the growing child. Although a well-planned diet can meet the needs of pregnancy and lactation, it is recommended that all women who could become pregnant take a multivitamin containing folic acid to prevent neural tube defects. Iron needs also increase during pregnancy so it is wise to carefully consider the selection of an appropriate multivitamin.

Men and wome over 50 years of age

The need for vitamin D increases after the age of 50. Food sources include fish, fortified eggs, milk and cod liver oil. It is generally recommended that everyone over the age of 50 should take a daily vitamin D supplement of 400IU. Vitamin B12 may also be necessary due to decreased absorption from natural sources such as milk, meat and eggs.

People who don't drink milk

Cow's milk is an excellent source of calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin D aids in the absorption of calcium, helping to form and maintain strong bones. Those who drink less than 2 cups of milk daily may need calcium and vitamin D supplements if alternative dietary substitutes are not consumed. In adults, vitamin D deficiency results in the weakening of bones. The sun contributes to the daily production of vitamin D, and as little as 10 minutes of exposure can enough to prevent deficiencies. Dietary requirements of vitamin D are affected by skin color, climate and season, clothing, the application of sunscreen, pollution and buildings that block the sunlight.

Infants and your children

Since vitamin D is especially important during bone development, the requirements are higher in periods of rapid growth. Breast-fed infants are commonly given supplements of vitamin D. After 4-6 months of age infants who are still breast-fed may need an iron supplement since iron stores from birth are depleted.

Disease states ad drug interactions

Some diseases increase nutrient needs or decrease the body's ability to absorb or utilize vitamins. For example, people with kidney disease cannot convert vitamin D to its active form. Also, conditions such as anemia and osteoporosis have specific requirements. Antibiotics can interfere with the production of vitamin K. Individuals who routinely take medications should discuss nutrient-drug interactions with their doctor or pharmacist.

Limited access to foods

This may be due to socio-economic factors or related to issues of accessibility and variety if one is living in a country with limitations in this area. For individuals with limited dietary intakes, a multivitamin and mineral supplement that supplies no more than 100% of the RDA may be beneficial.


Individuals who are strategically consuming fewer calories to lose weight are also consuming fewer micronutrients. Supplements are necessary if energy intake is less than 1200 calories per day no matter how nutrient dense the calories are.


Although vegetarian diets are usually high in micronutrients, a diet that excludes animal products will be deficient in vitamin B12. This vitamin needs to be obtained from fortified foods or from supplements. Young women who are vegetarian may also need to take an iron supplement.

Smokers and alcohol users

Smoking increases the need for vitamin C. A supplement should be taken by anyone who smokes. Smokers should also ensure their diet includes food sources of vitamin C such as citrus fruits. Alcohol can inhibit the absorption and metabolism of thiamin, niacin, vitamin B6 and folate in heavy drinkers.

How can I distinguish scientific facts from misinformation?

When one is considering a dietary supplement - whether it be a vitamin, mineral or a herb - it is important to research with care. Ensure you check with reliable sources such as those listed below. Reliable sources include government health agencies (3), professional health organizations (4), volunteer health agencies, reputable consumer groups and nutrition and food science departments at a university or community college.

If you are taking a supplement, don't see this as an excuse to overlook the food that you consume. Over 50 different nutrients are required for good health. Eating a variety of foods is the best way you can ensure you are getting the nutrients you need for optimal health. Another important factor is exercise. It would be beneficial for everyone to ensure adequate activity levels, which in turn allows for adequate levels of food to be consumed. Foods are the best source of nutrients for everyone because they also contain carbohydrates, protein, fibre, essential fats and phytochemicals. Supplements are exactly what their name suggests - supplements to foods not substitutes for them. Are you motivated to live a healthier lifestyle? It is never too late to make small, incremental changes. Remember to eat nutrient dense foods, drink water, exercise regularly and avoid harmful choices such as smoking and excessive drinking.