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Vitamin supplements are intended to add nutritional value to your diet. Learn about groups of people who may benefit from taking vitamin supplements and the possible risks involved when dietary supplements are added to your diet in this lesson.

We all want more energy, protection from disease and an aid to help us reach our healthy living goals. We get these benefits from consuming vitamins in various foods, but can we get the same benefits from a vitamin supplement or are we putting our health at risk by using them? These are the questions we will explore in this lesson.

Vitamin supplements are products intended to add nutritional value to your diet. While they can help you meet certain vitamin needs, they do not provide all the benefits that come from consuming foods. For example, taking a vitamin pill does not provide calories, so it will not be a source of energy. Trying to live on supplements alone will lead to starvation before it leads to health.

If you're in general good health and eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods from all of the food groups, then you should not need vitamin supplements to meet your nutritional needs. However, some groups of people gain substantial benefits from supplements. For example, vegans completely avoid animal products. These individuals would need to supplement their diet with vitamin B12, because B12 is only found in animal-based foods, such as meats, poultry, fish, eggs and dairy products.

Older adults can also benefit from dietary supplements that contain vitamin B12. One reason is the high occurrence of atrophic gastritis, which is a condition characterized by an inflammation of the stomach lining. The inflammation interferes with stomach secretions, which are needed to free up B12 so it's available for absorption. Dietary supplements of B12 are easier to absorb than B12 obtained through foods, helping a person with this condition obtain what they need.

Another group that can gain a substantial benefit from taking a dietary supplement is pregnant women. In the early stages of pregnancy, the nervous system of the embryo starts to develop. In order for the nervous system to develop properly, the mother-to-be is encouraged to take folic acid, which is an easily absorbed form of folate. Folate is a B vitamin that protects against birth defects. Other groups that may need to turn to dietary supplements to benefit their health are people taking medications as certain medications can interfere with the body's ability to digest, absorb or use vitamins.

Cigarette smokers might need to supplement their diet with vitamin C because this vitamin helps break down the harmful compounds found in cigarette smoke. And alcoholics, might need to increase their intake of the B-complex vitamins and vitamin C. Because these vitamins are water-soluble, they flush out of your system in urine. Abusing a diuretic, such as alcohol, makes an alcoholic go to the bathroom more frequently, which could lead to a vitamin deficiency.

We see that dietary supplements can help certain groups of people meet their health needs. However, taking supplements should not be considered risk free. There are standards set for labeling dietary supplements, but most of the responsibility for safety of the products falls on the shoulders of the supplement manufacturers. The FDA does not approve most dietary supplements before they hit the market. With few exceptions, the manufacturers themselves are responsible for ensuring that the supplements are safe and effective. So we could say that one of the risks associated with supplements is a lack of regulation.

Another risk of taking a dietary supplement is toxicity, which means you take in more of a certain vitamin than your body needs. This is not as common with the water-soluble vitamins, B-complex and vitamin C, because these vitamins are not stored in your body and readily flush out in urine. However, the fat-soluble vitamins, which include vitamins A, D, E and K, are stored in the body and, therefore, can lead to toxicity symptoms.

For example, if a pregnant woman takes in too much vitamin A, it could result in birth defects in her child. Even using acne products that contain derivatives of vitamin A should be monitored closely. Vitamin D is known as a vitamin that helps with the absorption of calcium. However, if you take in too much vitamin D, it can actually cause a calcium imbalance.