Half of all Americans take vitamins or other dietary supplements regularly, the sales of which contribute to a multibillion dollar industry. However, scientific evidence reveals no clear benefit for the general population as most supplements do not prevent chronic disease. The best approach for improved overall health? Consuming a diet full of nutrient-rich foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fatty fish.

Most American diets are low in fruits, vegetables and whole grains while high in salt, calories, and sugar. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, American diets are particularly low in potassium, calcium, dietary fiber, and vitamin D.

What foods contains these nutrients?

  • Potassium – found in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Try adding banana, tomato, avocado, dried beans and peas, spinach, or kale to your diet.
  • Calcium – found in low-fat dairy products, tofu (made with calcium), salmon with bones, dark leafy greens (collards and kale), almonds, and soybeans.
  • Dietary fiber – found in whole grains, dried beans and peas, fruits, vegetables and nuts. Try adding a handful of nuts as an afternoon snack or changing your morning cereal from corn flakes to bran flakes.
  • Vitamin D – the easiest way to get vitamin D is to go outside in the sun. Vitamin D is made in the skin when exposed to sunlight. You can also try adding foods such as vitamin D-fortified breakfast cereal, vitamin D-fortified milk, and vitamin D-fortified grains into your diet.

Some Exceptions to the Rule

Always work with your health care provider to determine what, if any, supplements are best for you.

Vitamin D

Some experts advise taking 1000 International Units (IU) of vitamin D daily especially if you take certain medications, use sunscreen regularly, or have limited sun exposure. A blood test called 25(OH) vitamin D can be checked to determine your vitamin D level.


Women who are capable of becoming pregnant, including adolescent girls, should be consuming the recommended daily value of both iron and folic acid. If there is a chance you could become pregnant it is essential you get at least 400 micrograms (mcg) daily of folic acid to prevent certain birth defects.

Pregnant Women

Women who are pregnant need larger amounts of certain vitamins and minerals and are commonly prescribed “prenatal vitamins” by their health care provider. It is important to get prenatal care as soon as possible as the earliest weeks of pregnancy are vital to your baby’s development.

Older Adults

Americans ages 50 years and older may have reduced ability to absorb naturally occurring vitamin B12. Older adults are also at risk for low vitamin D levels because they have a decreased ability to make vitamin D in the skin.

Buyer Beware

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements in the same way they regulate drugs. Therefore, dietary supplements (including herbal supplements) are not certified for safety, quality or effectiveness. Supplement manufacturers are allowed to make health claims such as “promotes heart health” without any proof. Look for “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA” on the label to verify whether the claim is backed by science.

Manufacturers that pay to have their products independently tested for quality, proper manufacturing, and contaminant levels may display a seal of approval. Look for the ConsumerLab (CL), U.S. Pharmacopeia (USP) or NSF International seal.

The Final Word – Use Food First

To improve your overall health, focus on a diet full of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, legumes, and fatty fish, not supplements. Always work with your health care provider to determine what, if any, dietary supplements are right for you.