What patients — and doctors — need to know about vitamins and supplements

spoon with variety of pills, dietary supplements on blurred vegetables background

recently published clinical guideline on vitamin and mineral supplements reinforces every other evidence-based guideline, research review, and consensus statement on this topic. The bottom line is that there is absolutely no substitute for a well-balanced diet, which is the ideal source of the vitamins and minerals we need.

The brief article, co-authored by nutrition guru Dr. JoAnn Manson, cites multiple large clinical trials studying multiple nutritional supplements’ effects on multiple end points. The gist of it is, our bodies prefer naturally occurring sources of vitamins and minerals. We absorb these better. And because commercially available vitamins, minerals, herbs, etc. are lumped together as “supplements,” the FDA doesn’t regulate them. When we ingest processed, concentrated, and artificially packaged “supplements,” we may be doing ourselves harm. They may be toxic, ineffective, or contaminated (all of which are not uncommon).

In other words: Most people who eat a healthy diet are unlikely to benefit from nutritional supplements.

Note the very important qualifiers. We’re talking about most people (not all) who eat a healthy, well-balanced diet.

Does anyone need vitamin and mineral supplements? Well, yes

There are medical conditions that put people at high risk for certain nutritional deficiencies, and there are medical conditions that can be treated with certain nutritional supplements. This is important, and is why the authors support targeted supplementation. But who needs what and where to acquire these are important discussions to have.

There are guidelines for specific groups, such as pregnant women. Folic acid is especially important for healthy fetal development, and a deficiency can cause spina bifida, a neurologic condition. I advise my patients to start either a prenatal vitamin with folic acid, or at the very least folic acid itself, ideally before they begin trying to conceive. As pregnancy advances, mom needs to provide her growing fetus with everything, and so she will benefit from a prenatal vitamin (either by prescription or a well-vetted over-the-counter one) which contains things like iron and calcium.

Older adults can have difficulty absorbing vitamin B12, and I have a low threshold when checking this level; if someone is taking an acid-reducing medication, it is very likely that they will become deficient in B12, as well as iron, vitamin D, and calcium, among other things. These folks may very well benefit from a quality multivitamin.

Of course, there’s a long list of medical issues that predispose people to vitamin deficiencies. For example, people who have had weight-loss surgery may require a number of supplements including A, D, E, K, and B vitamins, iron, calcium, zinc, copper, and magnesium, among other things. People with inflammatory bowel disease (like Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis) may have similar requirements. People who have or are at risk for osteoporosis may greatly benefit from vitamin D and, depending on the quality of their diet and other factors, possibly also calcium supplements.

There are other medical conditions that can be treated with supplements. One that immediately comes to my mind is inflammatory arthritis (or other inflammatory conditions) and turmeric. While quality scientific studies are lacking, there are plenty of smaller studies as well as historical experience suggesting that turmeric has anti-inflammatory properties, and I see some of our rheumatologists routinely recommending this to patients for pain relief. Then there’s prediabetes/diabetes and cinnamon, which has blood sugar-lowering properties. With these compounds, I advise that people use the regular spice in normal culinary amounts, not a processed/concentrated packaged supplement.

Not all vitamins are created equal

And here is another key point that bears repeating: Manson suggests choosing vitamins that have been tested by independent labs such as US PharmacopeiaConsumer Lab, and NSF International, and certified to have the labeled dosage of the correct ingredient, and not have toxins or contaminating organisms. Many commercially available supplements here in the US will bear a label from one of these labs.

On that point, gummy vitamins are often not certified and often do cause cavities. Yes, everyone loves them, because they’re basically candy. I do not recommend gummy vitamins for anyone, but especially not for pregnant women.

I’ll also add a warning: I often hear about providers who are selling supplements or other products directly to their patients. This is a conflict of interest, and it’s unethical, as well as fraught with all sorts of potential problems. Please use caution if purchasing anything directly from the provider who is prescribing it.

The bottom line

In summary, enjoy a varied, colorful, healthy diet, consider supplements when they may be needed or helpful, and choose your sources carefully.


Vitamin, Mineral, and Multivitamin Supplements for the Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease and Cancer: U.S. Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation StatementAnnals of Internal Medicine, April 2014.

Dietary supplements and disease prevention — a global overviewNature Reviews: Endocrinology, May 2016.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

Acts 4:18-31 And when they had summoned them, they commanded them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But Peter and John answered and said to them, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge; for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”     

2 Chronicles 25:19 “You said, ‘Behold, you have defeated Edom.’ And your heart has become proud in boasting. Now stay at home; for why should you provoke trouble so that you, even you, would fall and Judah with you?”

1 Samuel 2:3 “Boast no more so very proudly, Do not let arrogance come out of your mouth; For the LORD is a God of knowledge, And with Him actions are weighed.

Proverbs 11:2 When pride comes, then comes dishonor, But with the humble is wisdom.

Proverbs 16:5 Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; Assuredly, he will not be unpunished.

Micah 2:3 Therefore thus says the LORD, “Behold, I am planning against this family a calamity From which you cannot remove your necks; And you will not walk haughtily, For it will be an evil time.

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