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You may have noticed the shelves of your local supermarket or pharmacy groaning under the weight of hundreds of bottles of vitamin and mineral supplements – each one making a bigger and bolder claim than the last.

If you read the labels, it’s easy to believe that a simple daily pill can bolster your immunity, cure your common cold and have you bouncing brightly out of bed every morning with a spring in your step.

Is it really that simple, though?

We’ve taken a closer look at some of the vitamin and mineral supplements on the market, and whether they’re potentially helpful or harmful.

What are vitamins and minerals?

Vitamins and minerals are nutrients that our bodies need in small amounts. They play an important role in keeping us healthy.

The amount we need varies between nutrients and depends on many individual factors including our age, gender, diet, medical conditions, and even where we live.

Apart from vitamin D, which we mostly receive through sunlight contacting our skin, we get most vitamins and minerals through our diet.

Getting what you need through food

Before you head to the supplements aisle, it’s wise to look at your diet. If you’re eating a balanced and varied diet, you’re probably getting enough of each nutrient – and importantly, you’ll be getting them in the right amounts.

What’s more, when we eat vitamin and mineral-rich foods, we’re eating them alongside other nutrients that can support our bodies to absorb and use them. For example, calcium is better absorbed in our gut when it’s consumed with lactose – both of which are naturally found in dairy products like milk and yoghurt.

Eating a balanced diet means focussing on foods from the five core food groups. As a starting point, check out the recommended food group serves for women and men. For most healthy Australians, this will give you all the nutrients you need for health – no supplements needed!

Woman selecting vegetables at the grocery store

Supplements don’t replace a healthy diet

So, you’ve looked at your diet and found a few gaps – is now the time to reach for the supplements? Not just yet.

Vitamins and minerals from foods typically work better than those found in pills. Making positive changes to your diet means you’ll benefit from eating whole foods, rather than just isolated nutrients.

For example, vegetables are rich in different vitamins, but their goodness doesn’t stop there. They also provide us with fibre, which slows our digestion rate and gives our bodies time to absorb nutrients. Vegetables also contain other health promoting compounds like phytochemicals. If you’re not eating enough vegetables, supplements may compensate to a degree, but they don’t replace the real thing.

Too much of a good thing

When we get vitamins and minerals through a balanced and varied diet, we’re consuming them in the right doses for good health. Taking supplements can make it very easy to get too much of a good thing, which can be harmful to our health.

Iron supplements can be a prime example of ‘too much of a good thing’. We need iron to transport oxygen around our body. It’s possible to get enough iron through our diet by regularly eating lean meats, eggs, green vegetables, and other iron-rich foods. If we’re not getting enough iron, we can feel fatigued, weak, and short of breath. However, if we self-prescribe iron supplements without medical guidance, we can put ourselves at risk of iron overload or iron toxicity, which can be very dangerous.

Supplements can also interact with prescription medications, reducing their efficacy and giving unwanted side effects.

In short, just because you can buy supplements over the counter, doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Always speak with a health professional to understand your individual needs.

When supplements can help

For some people, supplements can be beneficial.

Pregnant women, or women planning to conceive benefit from folic acid supplements, which reduce the risk of the baby developing neural tube defects like spina bifida. They may also benefit from a boost in iodine and iron.

Vegetarians and vegans may need vitamin B12 supplements, as this vitamin mostly comes from meat, fish, and dairy foods. Iron from plants is less easily absorbed and may also need supplementation.

Post-menopausal women and older adults may need to take calcium and vitamin D supplements to maintain bone health.

Some medical professionals may also recommend dietary supplements for children who are fussy eaters.

Certain health conditions can restrict our dietary intake or affect our body’s ability to absorb or use certain vitamins and minerals. In these cases, and under medical guidance, specific supplements are needed.

Woman looking at supplement labels

Speak with your health professional

Speak with your doctor or health professional before taking supplements. Your doctor can help you determine a safe and effective dose. Not only will this help you address your health needs, it’ll also save you from spending money on supplements you don’t need (or ones that aren’t backed by strong scientific evidence).

An Accredited Practising Dietitian can help you find ways to address your vitamin and mineral needs through your diet.

Useful links

How are vitamins regulated in Australia? – Therapeutic Goods Administration
Vitamins: common misconceptions – Better Health Channel