“To supplement or not to supplement?” can be a tricky question. The FDA defines a dietary supplement as “a product intended for ingestion that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.” But, how do you know if you need further nutritional value added to your diet? And how can you help make sure supplementation for your situation is safe? Ask yourself the following questions first:

What foods contain nutrient “xxx”?

A main takeaway from the FDA’s definition of dietary supplements is that they are intended to supplement food with further nutrition, not replace it. Before supplementing, assess whether you’re currently consuming enough food sources of the nutrient of concern. For example, if you’re considering an omega-3 supplement, first take a look at your intake of foods like salmon, oysters, walnuts, and eggs. If there are no allergies or other reasons preventing you from eating these foods, then focus on adding more of them into your diet versus taking a supplement.

Do you eliminate any specific food groups from your diet?

If you do have health issues, ethical reasons, or follow a religion that requires you to avoid any foods or food groups entirely, it might be beneficial to supplement. For example, vitamin B12 is not a component of plant foods, so vegans or vegetarians may want to consider a B12 supplement to fill this void in their diet. Individuals who are allergic to fish, shellfish, and nuts may need to take an omega-3 supplement, since these are some of the main food sources of omega-3 fatty acids. Your doctor can test for nutrient deficiencies to warrant this decision and suggest an appropriate amount, while a local dietitian can help develop a nutritionally balanced eating plan that takes into account your food preferences and restrictions.

Are you taking any other supplements or medications?

Supplements can sometimes unsafely interact with other supplements or prescribed medications. Always report any supplement use to your healthcare team. If you’re thinking of adding something new to your existing medications and supplements, make sure to run it by your doctor first to rule out any undesirable interactions.

Is the supplement certified by a third party organization?

The FDA does not regulate supplements for safety or effectiveness. It is the manufacturers’ responsibility to make sure that the supplement is safe and contains what it says it does, without any impurities or contaminants. Consumerlab.com, USP, and NSF are all third party organizations that test supplements to confirm that they contain what they claim. If you’ve decided that a supplement is beneficial for your unique situation, look for one of these organizations’ logos on the label to help verify that what you see is what you get.

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