Food supplements: harmful or healthy?

You now encounter dietary supplements in trade and advertising almost every day. The associated marketing promises help on the one hand with a wide variety of health problems and complaints, on the other hand with the regulation of ordinary bodily functions. At the same time, there are repeated warnings of uselessness or even damage caused by overdosing of many preparations. This and the variety of offers confuses many people.

Are supplements part of a healthy diet? Or just not? If you’ve already asked yourself these questions, you’ll find answers here.

Per Supplement

Food supplements are a quick and effective way to remedy a nutrient deficiency or to cover an existing additional requirement. Some supplements also show positive effects on certain conditions.

Who needs them?

Reasons for taking dietary supplements:

  • Pregnancy
  • Vegetarian or vegan diet
  • Strengthening the immune system
  • Special diet
  • Health-related higher demand
  • Illness-related deficiency
  • Treatment of health complaints
  • People with vitamin deficiencies

In the case of dietary supplements, it depends on whether they are intended to remedy a deficiency or aim to alleviate a disease. In the case of deficiencies, these should always be diagnosed by a doctor using laboratory chemistry – with a blood test – as symptoms of deficiency symptoms are often difficult to distinguish from other diseases.

When there is a real nutrient deficiency

If there is indeed a deficiency of important nutrients, a deficiency of vitamins or minerals, the use of dietary supplements may be useful to remedy the deficiency. However, it is important to find out its cause and, depending on the result, to treat an underlying disease or to make a change in diet. It can be helpful to set up a nutrition plan with foods that counteract a future deficiency.

A nutrient deficiency can be triggered, for example, by diets or lifestyles such as veganism, in the latter case vitamin B, often iron and calcium are needed. An additional need arises, for example, during pregnancy, in which you need folic acid in particular.

A wide range of dietary supplements advertises a benefit in various diseases from mild problems such as brittle nails, unsightly acne to cancer. Again and again, herbal preparations show helpful effects that contribute to the alleviation of complaints.

Contra Dietary Supplements

Various reasons speak – mostly – against the use of dietary supplements: One of them is the possibility of overdose. While it is difficult to overdose on vitamins, minerals or secondary substances through the diet alone, the danger is significantly greater with highly concentrated preparations.

What are the limits of dietary supplements?

If you take a dietary supplement because you have a deficiency that cannot be remedied otherwise – for example, severe iron deficiency due to blood loss or B12 deficiency due to a vegan diet – this should always be discussed with a doctor. While disease-related undersupply, as well as those caused by special diets, often has to be treated for a lifetime, this does not apply to other causes. Many preparations may only be consumed for a short period of time until the deficiency is remedied. After that, a healthy diet should lead to the fact that it does not occur again – nutritional advice can be useful here.

Oral consumption of nutrients is not expedient in all cases. In some cases, in certain diseases and in very old age, the absorption in the intestine or metabolism may be impeded, so that there is no improvement. Also in this case, an individual solution must be found with the attending physician.

Wholesome nutrition instead of dietary supplements

Last but not least, the intake of specific substances via supplements is almost always inferior to the intake from the diet. This is mainly due to the fact that fruits and vegetables have a large number of so-called secondary substances that support the effect of vitamins and minerals and cannot be replaced by a simple preparation.

Therefore, the intake of dietary supplements can never replace a wholesome and varied diet – also due to other important substances such as fiber. Among the countless substances that are advertised as remedies or help with diseases, by far the most are ineffective, in a few cases even harmful. Other substances should normally only complement, not replace, another treatment.

3 criteria for proper dietary supplementation

When selecting suitable dietary supplements, three criteria are crucial:

  1. Make sure that there are independent and high-quality scientific studies on the preparation that confirm its benefits.
  2. Get medical advice or a nutritionist. Only a blood test in the laboratory can confirm a nutrient deficiency or excess.
  3. Also make sure that a sufficiently high proportion of the active ingredient is contained and the dosage is correct. Too high doses of some vitamins can damage organs.

In particular, preparations developed on the basis of health myths contain only tiny or no active ingredients and therefore show at best a placebo effect. This is often the case with homeopathic remedies and tablets and tinctures freely available in the supermarket. It remains important: Your best disease prevention is a healthy and balanced diet in everyday nutrition.


For most people, a healthy and varied diet does not create a need for supplements. In some cases, these can even cause damage from overdoses. An exception is for vegan diets or special circumstances such as pregnancy.

In the case of health problems, only a fraction of the substances advertised for this purpose help. It is therefore important that you carefully acquire information about both doctors and qualified studies. In general, as with medication, use as long as necessary, but for as short a time as possible. If there is a deficiency, then a therapy of the cause, for example by changing the diet and habits, is preferable to a permanent administration of dietary supplements.

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