It may be tempting to think that the right mix of supplements will make us healthier, happier and more focused, especially as we get older and our nutritional needs change. There are more supplements available now than ever before, and 77% of Americans take some form of multivitamin. The University of Michigan’s Mark Moyad, M.D., M.P.H., is considered to be a leading expert on supplements. Interest in supplements is higher than he’s ever seen in his 30-year career.
“We’ve gone from famine to feast because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Moyad said. “By last count, there were several hundred ongoing clinical trials on supplements.”
What has research about the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements shown so far? At best, supplements that don’t build up in the body like vitamin B or C can be a waste of money.
One blunt assessment: “They’re pretty safe, but they’re expensive pee, basically,” said Ashley Reaver, a registered dietician and lecturer with the University of California Berkeley for the Department of Nutritional Sciences and Toxicology.
But there are cases where supplements can be harmful. The Food and Drug Administration cautions consumers that supplements may not include a warning about possible side effects, but that doesn’t mean that no adverse events have been associated with the product. Ingesting too much zinc might cause nausea, diarrhea, and stomach pains. Too much selenium could lead to hair loss, fatigue, gastrointestinal upset, and nerve damage. Excess amounts of vitamin A can be toxic, leading to symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, and even liver damage. Similarly, taking high doses of vitamin E may increase the risk of bleeding. It’s important for older adults to talk to their healthcare provider before taking any supplements to make sure that they need them and are taking the right amount.
While supplements can be beneficial in some cases, it’s important to understand that they are not a substitute for a healthy and balanced diet. In general, older adults can benefit from a diet that includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats. These foods provide a range of essential vitamins and minerals that can help maintain overall health and reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
If you are still struggling to get all the nutrients you need from your diet, consider adding more nutrient-dense foods to your meals or try new recipes that incorporate a variety of fruits and vegetables. You can also talk to a registered dietitian who can help develop a personalized nutrition plan based on their individual needs. And if you do decide to take a dietary supplement, remember to include that information when asked what medications you are on so your doctor can monitor for possible side effects or contraindications.