Skip to main content

Sometimes, meeting your nutritional goals can be a challenge. Enter nutritional supplements. 

Nutritional supplements, also referred to as dietary supplements, are designed to deliver a concentrated dose of nutrients, many of which are essential for your health. They are often marketed as an easy way to support your body’s regular functions and give it the tools it needs to thrive. 

But what exactly are dietary supplements, and are they really necessary? Here’s what the research has to say. 

What are nutritional supplements? 

A layer of herbs and supplements lies across a counter.

Nutritional supplements provide a variety of nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like protein. They come in various forms, including capsules, pills, powders, and drink mixes. 

You may be wondering why you might need nutritional supplements in the first place. Modern diets can be lacking, which means that nutritional inadequacies are fairly common

Many supplements are intended to bridge the gap between the amount of nutrients you get from your diet and the amount that your body needs

Other nutritional supplements contain herbs that are thought to have active ingredients that can also benefit your health in different ways. Finally, there are sports nutrition supplements that are intended to improve your athletic performance or help progress your body composition goals. 

When can supplements be beneficial? 

A woman prepares a nutritional shake in a beautiful kitchen.

There are several reasons that people choose to take supplements. In many cases, they can be helpful for making up deficits in nutrition or advancing a fitness goal. 

However, it’s important to note that supplements should be thought of as supplemental. They are not a substitute for a healthy diet, nor should they be relied on alone for reaching your health goals.  

Specific dietary restrictions 

You might benefit from adding a dietary supplement into your routine if you have dietary restrictions that prevent you from getting all of your nutrients from food alone

For example, some vegans need supplements to make up for nutritional deficiencies that are linked to not eating animal-based foods like meat and dairy. They tend to be more at risk for deficiencies of Vitamin B12, calcium, Vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, iron, zinc, and selenium than people who regularly consume animal products. 

By taking nutritional supplements that target these specific inadequacies, vegans can improve their overall nutrient profiles in spite of their restrictions. 

Medical conditions that affect nutrient absorption 

Some people also benefit from dietary supplements if they deal with conditions that interfere with their body’s ability to use all of the nutrients in the foods they eat

For example, your ability to absorb nutrients tends to slow down with age, which may increase the necessity of supplements. 

Increased nutrient needs 

Finally, some people may benefit from using dietary supplements if they need more of a specific nutrient to reach a health or fitness goal. 

This kind of dietary supplement use is especially pertinent in sports nutrition. For example, protein supplements can be a useful tool for people who are trying to build muscle and increase their muscle hypertrophy

This use case also applies to people with dietary restrictions, such as vegans who want to build muscle but need some help getting additional protein since they can’t eat meat or dairy. 

Finally, supplements may be helpful for increasing protection against certain conditions. For example, taking omega-3 fatty acids at doses of 1g/day of EPA + DHA is recommended to protect heart health, and higher doses are also often recommended to reduce high triglyceride levels.

EPA and DHA are found most abundantly in fatty fish. So, if you don’t eat enough fatty fish per week to meet this recommendation, supplementation may be helpful here. 

Possible dangers of nutritional supplements

A man holds a nutritional shake sideways, as he's about to pour it out.

Even though there are positive applications for nutrition supplements, it’s also important to understand their limitations. 

Lack of regulation and quality control 

One of the biggest downfalls of dietary supplements is that they are regulated much less strictly than drugs and medications

While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does have the power to take supplements off of the market if they are found to be unsafe or make false claims, supplement manufacturers do not need FDA approval prior to selling their supplements unless they are made with new ingredients that aren’t already found in other products.  

Unfortunately, this can sometimes lead to issues with the safety of supplements. This problem was highlighted in a recent case study of Vitamin D toxicity. 

After testing, clinicians found that two patients had extremely high levels of Vitamin D, despite not taking a Vitamin D supplement. It was determined that the Vitamin D came from a creatine supplement that did not claim to contain Vitamin D on the label at all.

Overconsumption and toxicity 

There are also dangers with consuming too much of certain nutrients. Even though vitamins and minerals are generally good for your health in the right amounts, too much of them can be dangerous. 

Vitamin A, for example, is a crucial vitamin that plays roles in reproduction and cell development, but consuming too much of it through supplements can lead to Vitamin A toxicity. This is linked to an increased risk of certain cancers, low bone density, and pregnancy complications. 

Interactions with medications and other supplements 

The FDA warns that combining certain dietary supplements with medications can interfere with their effectiveness. Certain combinations can even be dangerous

For example, taking prescription blood thinners along with supplements that may thin your blood, like ginkgo biloba or Vitamin E, can increase your risk of complications like internal bleeding and strokes.

Because of this, it’s extremely important to consult with your doctor prior to starting any new supplements and to let them know about your current supplements, so that they can prescribe medications appropriately. 

Relying on supplements as a treatment 

Finally, it’s important to recognize that supplements are not designed to treat or cure any medical conditions. While they may be supportive of certain aspects of your health, they are not approved to be used as treatments. 

For example, even though various supplements have been reported to help assist your body in the improvement of various heart-related biomarkers, the research doesn’t always support the idea that taking vitamin and mineral supplements can actually lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in healthy adults. 

How to take supplements responsibly

A man consults with his physician.

1. Talk to a healthcare provider first. Speaking with a medical professional is crucial if you want to add a supplement to your diet, especially if you have other health conditions or dietary restrictions. A doctor can help you determine which supplements you might benefit from as well as the potential for any complications.

2. Know your dosage needs. Similarly, a healthcare provider can also help you determine the correct dosage for your health. Remember, it’s possible to overdose on certain vitamins and minerals, which means that you need to take your current nutrition status and diet into account.

3. Don’t take supplements with the intent of treatment. It’s important to have realistic expectations about what your supplement use can accomplish. Supplements are not a recommended replacement for medication in many cases.  

4. Read labels and check up on the manufacturer’s reputation. There are many different supplements available on the market, and not all of them are made equally well. Because the FDA’s regulation of dietary supplements is not as strict as their regulation of other medications and drugs, it’s important to do your research and read up on your supplement brand’s reputation and product quality. You can also look for third-party certifications, like NSF International or a Consumer Lab seal.  

What to avoid when adding supplements to your daily routine

1. “Too good to be true” promises. Remember, supplements are intended to support your body, but they aren’t approved for medical treatment. Products that are marketed with dramatic claims are often untrustworthy.

2. Proprietary blends. Some supplements are made with “proprietary blends,” which means that the supplement manufacturer does not have to disclose every ingredient that they used. Unfortunately, this means that proprietary blends have hidden, undisclosed ingredients that may or may not be dangerous. Look for supplements that are created with pure ingredients instead.

3. Dangerous and/or under-researched supplements. Though many dietary supplements have plenty of research behind them, there are also several options on the market that are under-researched. There are also plenty of supplements that research has shown to be potentially dangerous. For example, hormone-related supplements like testosterone and steroids can have extremely dangerous consequences, such as renal failure, infertility, and liver toxicity. Thoroughly research any supplement you are interested in taking and, as always, check in with a doctor first.  


If you have nutritional deficiencies or want to reach a health goal, nutritional supplements can be a useful tool.

However, it’s important to use them realistically and understand that they are simply supplements, not substitutes for a healthy diet or cure-all over-the-counter products. 

Make sure to consult with your doctor prior to starting any supplements, so they can determine the right dosage for your needs. 

Close Menu