Supplements: a Curative or Preventive Measure?


Many consumers will take vitamin, mineral, or any of the myriad other available supplements to either battle or prevent disease. According to recent surveys, more than half of Americans consider themselves regular supplement users, ballooning the burgeoning industry’s profits to over $30 billion/year.

With supplement sales not showing any signs of slowing down, it may be helpful to clarify what their role in your diet and life should be. After all, having an understanding of why you should buy supplements should be an essential part of the purchasing process; often times, however, buying decisions are determined in larger part by hope rather than fact. In an effort to help consumers understand why they empty their wallets on supplements, we hope to set the record straight on what role supplements should play in your daily diet.

Why Supplementation?

While supplements are often considered an inexpensive insurance policy (i.e. a preventive measure), consumers may still take them during disease, hoping that the supplement would work hand in hand with prescription medication to combat the ailment. Consumer hopes fall into two general categories:

  1. Eating a healthy diet helps build a strong body, which would then be best armed to ward off disease. Supplementation helps to fill in the nutritional gaps left by irresponsible dieting.
  2. The supplement can work in conjunction with existing prescribed medications to battle disease.


Before falling prey to the romanticized effects of dietary supplements, it may be helpful to take that proverbial step back, objectively assess what role supplements were meant to play in the average diet, and then check the facts regarding their efficacy (with high quality publications). Here are a few considerations to think about before making your next purchase.

  • First and foremost, supplements are called so because they are meant to be supplementary to, not a replacement for, a normal diet.
  • The next logical conclusion is that they are not meant to be solely responsible for maintaining adequate health. That is, they are meant to be a preventive measure, not a curative one. Prescription medication exists for that sole purpose.
  • There is also, however unfortunately, a dichotomy between their intended purpose and their actual effects. The majority of supplementation does not greatly improve health and may, in some susceptible populations, actually increase the risk of disease. See The Health Effects of Multivitamin Supplements for more information.
  • Furthermore, supplements can interact with existing medications; these interactions often involve disturbing normal absorption/metabolism of the medicine. This may lead to reduced function and a worse health outcome.
  • To continue that idea, nutrients in single supplements (or several taken throughout the day) may interact with each-other in a negative manner. To remedy any negative nutrient-nutrient interaction, take different supplements at different times of the day. For more information, please see Nutrient-Nutrient Interactions in Multivitamin Supplements and A Guide to Timing Supplement Intake.

Final Words

This is not to say that you shouldn’t consume dietary supplements. They’ve been shown to improve nutrient status, primarily in those who suffer from severe dietary deficiencies. A few nutrients, such as vitamin D and zinc, are known to be, on average, deficient from the average American diet. In these cases (or if you happen to determine that you are deficient, through blood tests), single nutrient supplements are often recommended over multinutrient formulas to improve these deficiencies. The point remains, however, that you should not expect supplements to cure any ailments. A pointed, direct supplementing regimen intended to correct any deficiencies, however, may help restore proper nutrient balance and increase chances of warding off disease.

  • Header Image: SuperFantastic (Flickr)