Healthdirect Free Australian health advice you can count on.

Medical problem? Call 1800 022 222. If you need urgent medical help, call triple zero immediately

healthdirect Australia is a free service where you can talk to a nurse or doctor who can help you know what to do.

beginning of content

Food supplements

3-minute read

Food supplements are very popular with Australians. But while supplements have some benefits, most people don’t need them. If you’re thinking about taking food supplements, talk to your doctor first – some can cause more harm than good.

What are food supplements?

Food supplements (also called dietary supplements, or nutritional supplements) are products designed to give you nutrients that might be missing from your diet. They are usually taken as tablets, capsules or powders, or as a liquid.

Some common examples of supplements include vitamins and minerals (such as vitamin C, iron and calcium), oil supplements (such as fish oil capsules) and herbal supplements.

Why use food supplements?

If your diet lacks a particular nutrient, you might need a food supplement to fill that gap.

Often, you will only need to take a supplement temporarily. For example, if you are pregnant, you might need to take supplements until your baby is born, or until you finish breastfeeding.

In some other cases, you might need to take a supplement for a longer period, including if you have a chronic health condition.

Who needs food supplements?

Studies show that many people who take supplements are actually getting enough nutrients from their diet already. In fact, most people who take supplements don’t need them. There are, however, some people who find it hard to get the nutrients they need through diet alone.

You might need to take a supplement if:

  • you are pregnant or breastfeeding 
  • you are elderly, and aren’t getting enough nutrition from the food you eat (malnutrition)
  • you have a health condition that means your body cannot absorb the nutrients it needs (for example, if you have chronic kidney disease and are on dialysis)
  • you have a strong need for a particular nutrient (for example, if you are at risk of osteoporosis and need more calcium)
  • you have a restricted diet (for example, if you don’t eat meat and aren’t getting enough iron)
  • you have a nutritional deficiency (for example, a blood test shows you have a vitamin D deficiency)

What are the risks of using food supplements?

While our bodies require a certain amount of each nutrient, higher amounts are not necessarily better. In fact, getting more than you need can sometimes cause harm. 

For example, large doses of vitamin B6 can damage your nervous system, and taking vitamin A, C, or E supplements while you are pregnant can cause serious harm to your baby. Some supplements can also interact with other medicines you are taking.

The best way to make sure any supplements you plan to take are safe is to check with your doctor.

You can get a fact sheet on each of a wide range of dietary supplements here.

What’s the alternative to supplements?

The best way to get all the nutrients you need is to eat a balanced diet. You can get advice about the right amount and kinds of foods to eat from the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

If you are worried that you’re not getting all the nutrients you need, talk to your doctor or consult a dietitian.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: March 2019


Back To Top

Need more information?

These trusted information partners have more on this topic.

Top results

Vitamin and mineral supplements: when are they needed? - myDr.com.au

Vitamin and mineral supplements won't convert poor food choices into a healthy diet, but relevant quantities can address deficiencies at certain life stages.

Read more on myDr website

Vitamin and mineral supplements - Better Health Channel

Taking vitamin supplements is no substitute for a healthy diet.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Vitamins and minerals: which supplements should you be taking? | Queensland Health

There are hundreds of vitamin and mineral supplements on the market. Should you be taking them?

Read more on Queensland Health website

Children and vitamins

Very few kids actually need to take vitamin and mineral supplements, they can get everything they need from a balanced diet.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

The Five Food Groups | Eat For Health

Guideline 2 recommends we enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five groups every day The key to eating well is to enjoy a variety of nutr

Read more on NHMRC – National Health and Medical Research Council website

Vitamins & supplements | Jean Hailes

For many people, at many times throughout their lives, eating a well-balanced diet - one that provides you with all the vitamins and minerals that you…

Read more on Jean Hailes for Women's Health website

Vitamins and nutritional supplements - myDr.com.au

Vitamins and nutritional supplements are intended to provide essential nutrients which are missing or sufficient in a person’s diet.

Read more on myDr website

Vitamins and supplements during pregnancy

Supplements such as folic acid and iodine are recommended during pregnancy. But check with your doctor before taking any other types.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Vitamin and mineral (micronutrient) supplements

Here is what you need to know about the benefits for fertility and pregnancy health of folic acid, iodine, vitamin D, zinc, and selenium supplements.

Read more on Your Fertility website

Vegetarian and vegan eating - Better Health Channel

A well-planned vegetarian or vegan diet can meet nutritional needs during all stages of life.

Read more on Better Health Channel website

Healthdirect 24hr 7 days a week hotline

24 hour health advice you can count on

1800 022 222

Government Accredited with over 140 information partners

We are a government-funded service, providing quality, approved health information and advice

Australian Government, health department logo ACT Government logo New South Wales government, health department logo Northen Territory Government logo Government of South Australia, health department logo Tasmanian government logo Government of Western Australia, health department logo