What Are Dietary Supplements and How Do They Work?

Good nutrition is vital to our health and well-being. Ideally, we would get all the nutrients we need from our diet, but for numerous reasons – from lack of access to healthy food to busy lifestyles – many people may benefit from dietary supplements to help meet their daily nutritional needs.

Hidden hunger, also known as micronutrient deficiency, afflicts more than 2 billion individuals or one in three people globally. In the United States, about 75 percent of the population over one year of age does not consume the recommended fruit intake, and more than 80 percent do not consume the recommended intake of vegetables.

When you consider that these are some of the richest sources of vitamins and minerals, it should come as no surprise that many individuals fail to meet their recommended intakes for many of these important micronutrients. To bridge this and other dietary gaps, many health experts advocate for a supplements approach. In certain populations and parts of the world, for example, babies and young children are given vitamin A supplements, while women of childbearing age are given folic acid supplements.

Understanding the Role of Supplements

We recently partnered with the Council for Responsible Nutrition to get a better understanding of global supplementation trends and how general consumers use dietary supplements.

Surveying 13,000 people across 24 countries, we found that:

Interestingly, regardless of how they find their information, 77 percent said that they would like to know more about the health benefits of different vitamins and supplements to boost their wellness.

Girl taking supplements

Indeed, nutrition education is key to achieving long-term results. According to Brian Wommack, Senior Vice President of the Council for Responsible Nutrition, “Being well informed about the proper use, as well as benefits of nutritional supplements, is critical. Not only can supplements prevent nutritional deficiencies, but they can also optimize health and enhance every wellness journey.”

So, how do we help people understand which supplements to take to support their specific needs? In this guide, we’ll go over the basics of supplements and how they impact our bodies.

What Are Supplements?

The word “supplement” comes from the Latin root supplere, which means to fill up or complete. In the area of nutrition, supplements are used to augment or meet nutrient gaps.

According to the US Food and Drug Administration, any products you’re taking to supplement your diet are considered dietary supplements. These include vitamins, minerals, fish oils, herbal supplements, and more.

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What Are the Different Types of Supplements?

Supplements are meant to be consumed as a source of nutrients to address either a known gap or, more often, to establish a consistent intake of a certain set of nutrients. Many consumers also take dietary supplements for specific health or functional benefits.

Through innovation and technology, these products now come in a variety of forms, including capsules, powders, gummies, chews, functional beverages, and other alternative formats to suit consumer interests and preferences.

Here is a brief overview of the most popular supplements:

Vitamins and Minerals

types of supplement products

Specialized or Targeted Supplements

Phytonutrients, Herbs, and Other Botanical Supplements

Sports Nutrition

Weight Management

Who Should Take Dietary Supplements?

Since most people don’t always consume a perfectly nutritious diet every day, we believe everyone can benefit from taking a daily multivitamin. Many consumers may also need supplements if they’re on a restricted diet, a reduced-calorie diet, or if they need targeted nutrients to support their health and wellness goals.

In the sections below, I partnered with my colleague, Susan Bowerman, Registered Dietitian and Senior Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training, to come up with some helpful tips when it comes to optimizing your nutrient intake with supplements.

But before making changes to your diet or taking supplements, we recommend consulting with your health care provider. Your health care provider can advise if you need specific supplements for any medical conditions or to correct any deficiencies. Always let your provider know of all supplements you are taking, as some may interfere with medications.

What’s the Best Time to Take Supplements?

Generally speaking, supplements are better taken in the morning versus nighttime since digestion slows down during sleep. Do review the product label and take as directed.

What’s more important is consistency. We recommend that you connect the practice of taking your supplements with another aspect of your daily routine – such as while making your morning coffee, after brushing your teeth, or after a workout.

Should You Take Supplements with Food?

In most cases, supplements are better taken with food. Stomach acid assists with absorption, and fat helps you absorb fat-soluble vitamins and certain phytonutrients.

Fluids also help tablets and capsules dissolve, and fluids assist with the absorption of water-soluble vitamins.

Some nutrients are also best taken together. Here are some examples:

Tips for Vegans and Vegetarians:

Because vegan and vegetarian diets restrict the intake of animal products, obtaining enough protein takes careful planning. Protein can be found in a range of plant foods, including beans, peas, lentils, nuts, and whole grains, and vegetarians and vegans can also supplement with easy-to-consume protein powders derived from plant sources such as soy, quinoa, pea, or rice.

Animal foods are also good sources of vitamin B12, zinc, iron, and calcium, so you may want to consider these supplements if you’re consuming little to no animal-based foods.

If You’re on a Weight Loss Plan

In a calorie-restricted diet, you’re eating less, which can make it more difficult to pack in all of your nutrient needs. When cutting calories, multivitamins can be beneficial to help meet your nutrition gaps. Take them with a meal and at a consistent time each day.

Women Who Are Pregnant or Breastfeeding

During pregnancy, your daily calorie needs to increase significantly – 300 calories more than your usual intake. Prenatal vitamins are often recommended because they are formulated to meet the unique nutrient needs of pregnant women.

Folic acid is a critical ingredient that is so important in the prenatal period because of its role in the baby’s developing nervous system. If you’re nursing your baby, you need an additional 200 calories on top of the extra 300 you needed while you were pregnant to meet the nutritional demands of your growing baby. Most health care providers recommend that women continue taking their prenatal supplements during this time.

Premenopausal Women

Premenopausal women lose iron every month during the menstrual cycles. Many women don’t get enough iron in the diet to meet daily needs. Similarly, many women in this age group do not consume adequate calcium, so supplements can help to achieve minimum requirements. Review this guide to learn more about women’s nutritional needs.

How to Choose the Right Supplements

Not all supplements are made alike. It’s important to choose products from well-established brands. My colleague, Kristy Appelhans, Vice President, Global Consumer Safety, offers the following tips to consider when choosing nutritional supplements:

Woman reviews supplements

Do consult with your health care provider for recommendations on specific supplementation needs. And always choose products from a trusted and reputable company that provides clear and accurate information and helps you live a healthy life.

Remember: Supplements Have a Supportive Role in Our Lives

Supplements are meant to support – not replace – a nutritious diet and healthy lifestyle. Don’t think of them as a one-and-done deal, but think of them as part of your life-long wellness plan and daily routine.

Be it exercising, cooking healthy meals, or incorporating more vitamins and supplements into your routine, take the time to invest in your overall health. Consistency is key when one commits to a healthy lifestyle.

Kent L. Bradley, M.D., MBA, MPH – Chief Health and Nutrition Officer

Kent L. BradleyM.D., MBA, MPH – Chief Health and Nutrition Officer

Dr. Bradley is a retired Army Colonel, graduate of the United States Military Academy and has a Master in Public Health from the University of Minnesota, an executive MBA from the University of Denver, and a medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, Bethesda, Maryland. He is board certified in Public Health and Preventive Medicine and holds a certificate in Corporate Governance from INSEAD.