To supplement or not to supplement, that is the question. As a result of the recent media blast concerning dietary supplements and death rates among older women, using data from the Iowa Women’s Health Study, it may no longer seem clear that taking a daily multivitamin or mineral supplement is beneficial to one’s health.

The study looked at more than 38,000 women age 55 and older who participated in the research beginning in the mid-1980s. The researchers found that when they specifically looked at supplements and their impact on reducing the risk of early death, they had no effect on women’s health. I believe that the majority of people take supplements expecting that they will help improve or maintain their health, not necessarily to have a big impact on reducing their risk of death.

The researchers cautioned that their study doesn’t prove supplements are harmful. Instead they concluded that there is no evidence for the health benefits of supplementation.

The 2010 U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend getting nutrients from foods instead of supplements. We have known for some time that a balanced diet has a positive influence on our health. We also know that people who eat a nutritious diet don’t usually need to take supplements. Initially supplementation was encouraged only for people who had some kind of nutrient deficiency, such as is found in osteoporosis, anemia or beriberi. Many people who take supplements today are actually quite healthy to start with.

With the help of the $20-billion-per-year dietary supplement industry, we have been led to believe that supplements can only be helpful. Older people, especially, often are willing to reach out for the magic potion that will help them liver longer, healthier, more independent lives.

Many choose some extra vitamin B6 or zinc, or maybe just some extra magnesium each day, not really knowing if they need it but believing the advertisers that health benefits will follow. But some people believe that if a little is good, then a little more might be even better. Many supplements contain well above the 100 percent daily value of many nutrients. If a person is not in a deficient state, do they really need to consume all their daily niacin in a pill form? How much are they getting in their diet in addition to this?

Don’t take a supplement with out knowing how much of it you need, how much of it you are getting in your diet and what other supplements or medications it might interact with. Where could you find out this information? Speak with a registered dietitian or other health care provider.

Nothing replaces the nutrients found in foods. Supplements are just that – dietary supplements, not food substitutes. Research on the nutritional benefits of foods continues. We just don’t know all of the good things that are contained in our food. So in the meantime, rely on eating a variety of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products and lean sources of protein for your nutrients, and if you have a deficiency, then consider taking a supplement.

Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian and adjunct nutrition instructor at Eastern Maine Community College who lives in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at or email her at