Types & Uses of Dietary Supplements

by John Staughton (BASc, BFA) last updated -

Although many people try to maintain a healthy diet, dietary supplements are often necessary in addition to your health regimen to ensure that you get all the nutrients your body requires. There are hundreds of dietary supplements on the market, with new products being released all the time. The industry is valued at more than $120 billion, making it a critical part of the economy in the United States alone, let alone its impact around the world. More than 2/3 of adults take some form of dietary supplement, so fully understanding what they are and what they can do is important to a huge percentage of the population.

What are Dietary Supplements?

By definition, dietary supplements are minerals, vitamins, herbs, concentrates, prebiotics, fiber, amino acids, and other nutrients in concentrated forms that can be consumed throughout the day as a supplement to your normal food intake. These supplements can come in the form of capsules, pills, lozenges, powders, gelcaps, liquids, chewable, syrups, and nutrient bars, among others.

While some dietary supplements are intended to complete your healthy intake of nutrients for the day, others are meant to provide added protection against certain diseases. For example, people may take extra calcium supplements to lower their risk of osteoporosis, even if they get an ample amount of calcium in their daily diet. At the most basic level, a dietary supplement must be consumed orally to be considered in this category. [1]

Fruits, nuts, a bottle of pills and weights placed on a wooden surface.

Dietary supplements come in several forms such as tablets and powders. Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Types of Dietary Supplements

Dietary supplements come in different types, including natural, synthetic, and semi-synthetic. Some people also choose to divide dietary supplements based on their substance, such as botanicals, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, etc. [2]

Natural Dietary Supplements

These supplements are derived completely from natural sources, such as plant and animal tissues, as well as inorganic materials, such as rocks or seaweed.

Semi-Synthetic Supplements

These supplements are typically sourced from natural or organic sources but then altered chemically to be more effective or more palatable. The changes are usually minimal, and the majority of the basic nutrients remain natural and unaltered.

Synthetic Supplements

These supplements are artificially created in every way, as certain nutrients and essential nutrients can be synthetically produced. Some people dislike synthetic supplements, as there can be certain chemicals or compounds that have not been fully vetted by regulatory authorities. Remember, dietary supplements do not need to undergo the same rigorous testing as traditional dietary items sold in grocery stores, etc.

Dietary Supplements FAQs

There is a great deal of debate on dietary supplements, particularly due to the lighter regulation by authorities, but for the most part, dietary supplements are safe and reliable. Below are some of the main concerns and the truth behind many of the remarkable claims made by producers of dietary supplements.

Can I trust Dietary Supplements?

With thousands of supplements from hundreds of companies, every dietary supplement you choose to take should be considered individually. In the United States, for example, the FDA no longer regulates the details of every dietary supplement. However, it does require that they are produced in high-quality conditions, do not contain any impurities or toxins, and are labeled accurately in terms of constituents. As for efficacy, this is often subjective based on each individual. In other words, while dietary supplements are generally considered safe, there is no guarantee that they will achieve what those specific nutrients are intended to accomplish. [3]

Do I need Dietary Supplements?

Everyone can benefit from certain dietary supplements, but some people won’t feel any measurable benefit from specific supplements. For example, if you already consume high levels of vitamin C in your diet, taking an extra supplement won’t supercharge your immune system, as there is a limit to how much of a given nutrient your body can metabolize and store. The groups who typically require dietary supplements are pregnant women, the elderly, those with poor dietary habits, people with food allergies, vegetarians, nursing mothers, and those recovering from extended illness, injury, or surgery.

Can these Supplements Cure Diseases?

It is important to remember that dietary supplements are not drugs or pharmaceuticals, so they are not intended to cure diseases. They can certainly help to prevent certain diseases, but few supplements have active ingredients or chemicals that specifically target a diagnosed condition. Dietary supplements are generally categorized as “food”, but if they do fall within the qualifications of a drug, then they will be treated as a drug by regulatory organizations.

Is taking Dietary Supplements Dangerous?

The main risks of a dietary supplement arise when people take supplements without speaking to a doctor, particularly if they are currently taking medication for another condition. If people replace prescribed drugs with dietary supplements, this can also be dangerous. For people who are already eating a well-balanced diet, consuming high concentrations of certain minerals and nutrients can be dangerous. For example, an excess of iron, potassium, vitamin C, or vitamin A, among others, can cause unwanted and unpleasant side effects. [4]

Can Dietary Supplements Interfere with Medications?

Certain supplements may interfere with the efficacy of certain medications, or may even exacerbate symptoms. Always speak with your doctor if you are going to add a new dietary supplement to your daily health regimen. Some of the primary examples are St. John’s Wort, which can increase the metabolism speed of anti-depressant medications, making them less effective. Similarly, vitamin K can counter the effects of blood-thinning medications. And both of these are potentially deadly complications. There are many other examples and should be discussed with your physician. [5]

What are Dietary Supplements used for?

Dietary supplements are used for hundreds of specific purposes, including improving bone strength, increasing metabolism, supporting digestion, and completing nutrient requirements, among others.

Improve Bone Strength

Many people take mineral supplements to boost their normal dietary intake to strengthen bones. This is primarily for people aged 40 and above, as this is when bone mineral density begins to diminish. Dietary supplements like zinc, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus are popular for preventing bone weakness and osteoporosis. [6]

Boost Metabolism

B vitamins are intricately tied to our metabolic processes, which range from hormone production and energy levels to proper digestion, fat storage, and proper growth and development. This makes B vitamins extremely important for people of all ages, as metabolic disorders and deficiencies are very serious conditions. For example, pregnant women often take folic acid supplements, as this nutrient is needed to prevent neural tube defects from appearing in the fetus. [7]

Nutrient Requirements

The most common reason for taking dietary supplements is because you are lacking specific nutrients from your regular diet. For vegetarians, it can be difficult to access certain minerals and fats that are available in meat and poultry. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements are therefore popular with those on such a restricted diet, among others. Several simple tests can also determine what nutrients you may be deficient in, leading to recommendations from your doctor for dietary supplements. This could be due to a metabolism problem in the body, or a dietary issue that can be more easily remedied. [8]


For those who suffer from food allergies, it can be difficult to acquire the right amount of nutrients, particularly if the allergy is to staple food, such as eggs, gluten, or fish. In this case, your doctor will likely know what nutrient deficiencies a food allergy will lead to, and can recommend dietary supplements as a preventative measure. [9]

Boost Immune System

Many different nutrients, minerals, organic acids, and chemical compounds affect the functioning of the immune system, so supplements that can protect your body’s defense system are quite common. From multivitamins to selenium and vitamin E supplements, some of these products can add an extra layer of protection to your system. [10]

Prevent Diseases

Again, dietary supplements should not be thought of as drugs or “treatments” for diseases, but they can mitigate the risk of chronic disease. Some minerals and vitamins have antioxidants effects, for example, which will lower oxidative stress in the body. Furthermore, a deficiency in some nutrients will leave you more vulnerable to disease, so if your doctor recognizes a high level of risk for a specific condition, they might suggest a supplement to prevent the outcome. [11]

Promote Digestion

Fiber supplements are some of the most common and widely used dietary supplements, as most people don’t get enough fiber in their diet. In addition to fiber, however, certain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and fatty acids are also critical for normal digestion. [12]

Improve Fitness

Getting in shape can require major changes in your dietary and exercise routine, which can throw your nutrient intake out of whack. You may be burning more calories or using more of your body’s resources, but not accounting for whether you are still getting all the resources you need is a threat to your fitness regime. Dietary supplements can make sure you have the nutrients to bulk up, in addition to the normal levels of vitamins, minerals, and raw materials the body needs. [13]

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About the Author

John Staughton is a traveling writer, editor, publisher and photographer with English and Integrative Biology degrees from the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana (USA). He co-founded the literary journal, Sheriff Nottingham, and now serves as the Content Director for Stain’d Arts, a non-profit based in Denver, Colorado. On a perpetual journey towards the idea of home, he uses words to educate, inspire, uplift and evolve.

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