Good nutrition means making appropriate food choices and consuming a wide variety of foods in moderate amounts, which decreases the risk of inadequate and excessive nutrient intakes. There are many different reasons why people choose to use supplements; healthy people use supplements to prevent illness and slow ageing, while sick people use them to combat illness.

Dietary supplements are important for some at-risk groups, for example:

  • Vitamin B12 for vegans as this vitamin is only found in animal products.
  • Vitamin D for housebound elderly as sunlight is required for the production of this vitamin in the body.
  • Calcium for women who consume little or no milk products and are at risk of osteoporosis.

The following groups of people may also need to use supplements:

  • Aged – the ability to be able to absorb vitamins decreases with age.
  • Smokers – smoking causes extra stress on the body so there is an increased requirement for Vitamin C.
  • Sports people – require a balanced diet to meet the requirements of exercise. Supplements may be required if not enough food is eaten to meet the energy/nutrient requirements of the body.

Low-dose multivitamins may benefit those people whose dietary intakes are limited either due to weight loss or illness, but they are of little benefit to those people who are consuming a variety of foods. Interestingly, people who choose to take supplements generally have a higher dietary intake of nutrients that those who don’t take supplements.

There are still many components of foods that are not fully understood. By choosing a supplement over a food source for a nutrient, you may miss out on some of the protective factors present in foods. The cost of supplements compared to the cost of food needs to be considered, for example,the cost of purchasing Vitamin C tablets rather than a bag of oranges.

If choosing a multivitamin, choose a supplement that offers up to 100% recommended daily intake (RDI). Supplements offering 200-300% of the RDI will either be excreted in the urine in the case of water-soluble vitamins, whilst with fat soluble vitamins the effects could be toxic. It is also important to take into account the level of the particular nutrient that the body is already receiving from the diet.

Before taking any form of supplement it is important to check with a medical professional.