Sleekly packaged portions of nutrients you "need" is big business: Each year Americans spend $1.5 billion on dietary supplements and vitamins, according to a 2020 report by Exercise.com.
If you want to have it all — glowing skin, boundless energy, and all the other benefits labels tout — the price adds up, whether you're buying in bulk at a local retailer or have been wooed by one of the shiny new direct-to-consumer brands. A 30-day supply of vitamins can range anywhere from $4.99 to $69.99, depending on the brand and number of vitamins included. While a monthly subscription might shave off 10% or help save on shipping, the cost of keeping up a daily regimen is still significant.
Whether you're getting value out of that purchase is up for debate. You're mostly buying hype, says Dr. Davis Liu, chief clinical officer at Lemonaid Health: "Number one, if you eat an otherwise healthy diet, you actually don't need to buy vitamins." Here's why, and what exceptions to be aware of.
If people want a supplement or vitamin, health professionals typically recommend a basic multivitamin. Women might also consider taking calcium and vitamin D to improve bone density and decrease risk of osteoporosis, says Liu.
Beyond those basics, "unless you've had some sort of true surgery and you need iron and other supplements, which your doctor will tell you," he says, vitamins aren't usually necessary.
Video by Helen Zhao
If you do want or need specialty vitamins, Liu cautions you not to overdo it, "because more is not better." In fact, some of the most popular vitamins are known to cause harm if used irresponsibly or without the proper guidance of a doctor.
Avoid taking "megadoses" of fat-soluble vitamins like Vitamins A, D, E, and K, as they can be absorbed and stored and not easily cleared by the body, says Liu. You can use this NIH fact sheet to determine what is a safe dosage for consumers and work with your doctor to find the right regimen.
The FDA has a "laissez-faire approach" to vitamins and supplements, says Liu. So make sure to "use a brand you know and recognize."
Brands are responsible for evaluating the safety and labeling of their products before marketing to ensure that they meet all the requirements of DSHEA and FDA regulations. The FDA is responsible for taking action against any adulterated or misbranded dietary supplement product only after it reaches the market.
Purchasing from retailers that offer memberships or otherwise track purchases can have built in protections for consumers. "Vendors like Costco vet their stuff very seriously and when they have medicine recalls, they can easily track and notify consumers using their membership card," says Liu.
There are better and even more cost-effective ways to invest in your health than buying vitamins and supplements, Liu says. "Go get a good pair of sneakers, right? Get a good pair of leggings for yoga. That I would say is more beneficial than vitamins."
There is no easy substitute for good old-fashioned exercise and a healthy diet. In the long run, Liu says, your money is better spent on physical activity, "whether you get a gym membership or you want to upgrade your phone so you can listen to podcasts when you walk."
Video by Mariam Abdallah
Liu warns consumers against falling into the trap of convenience.
"The vitamins make things easier, and the illusion is that this is a replacement for eating healthy versus actually doing the real stuff," he says, like learning to meal prep and prioritizing a balanced diet. "It may cost more, but you'll have more life skills and know how to cook and maintain. Instead of a pill, learn a skill."
"The good news is our bodies are built for resilience," he says. "As long as everyone eats a healthy balanced diet, there is no special supplement or vitamins needed for otherwise healthy individuals to continue to stay healthy."
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