The new dietary guidelines released by the U.S. government January 31 advocate that people obtain the daily nutrients they need from food. That position is nothing new for these guidelines, which are released every five years by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). What was new this time around, however, was the government’s acknowledgement that sometimes it’s not possible for all people to get all of their necessary nutrients from food, thus warranting the need for supplementation.

“A basic premise of the Dietary Guidelines is that nutrient needs should be met primarily through consuming foods,” reads the executive summary of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010. “In certain cases, fortified foods and dietary supplements may be useful in providing one or more nutrients that otherwise might be consumed in less than recommended amounts.”

Duffy MacKay, ND, vice president of scientific & regulatory affairs at the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), called this new nuanced stance on the role of supplementation “refreshing.” “Sometimes you see the ‘food first’ perspective go to the level of the nonsensical,” MacKay said. “From my perspective as a naturopath, getting all of your nutrients from diet is great in theory, but it’s just not practical.”

Supplements designed to fill in nutrient gaps

Specifically, the guidelines recommend that women who are pregnant or capable of becoming pregnant consume 400 micrograms of synthetic folic acid from fortified foods or supplements, in addition to the food forms of folate that come from a balanced diet. Pregnant women also are advised to take iron supplements. People age 50 and over should take B12 supplements or eat food fortified with B12, the guidelines recommend. The guidelines also gave a nod to vitamin D supplementation for all individuals.

These tips, MacKay notes, represent the proper use of dietary supplements and acknowledge that “people don’t use supplements to replace healthy eating but rather to fill in nutrient gaps.”

By recognizing that nearly 15 percent of Americans have been unable to obtain adequate amounts of food to meet their nutritional needs, the new guidelines could also pave the way for adding multivitamins and other dietary supplements to government food programs, MacKay says.

“The dietary guidelines are meant to guide food service and government food subsidy programs,” he says. “This information could justify looking for target populations where supplementation could really improve people’s overall health and wellness.”  

Although the guidelines did not mention fish oil supplements, they did focus on the nutritional importance of eating fish every week. This, MacKay says, could lead to greater uptake of DHA and EPA supplements.

“In practice, people don’t eat as much fish as they need, whether it’s because of accessibility, price or preference,” MacKay says. “Supplementation becomes a logical way for them to obtain the DHA and EPA they need.”

However, another trade organization, GOED, was disappointed that the dietary guidelines failed to recognize the importance of DHA and EPA supplementation—especially given the mounting scientific evidence supporting the disease-fighting benefits of such supplementation. “Recommendations to include the use of supplements and ‘functional foods’ with added EPA and DHA to achieve intake targets associated with EPA and DHA and reduced risk of chronic disease are supported by the evidence as reviewed by the Nutrient Adequacy Subcommittee of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee and should have been recognized by inclusion as guidance in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2010,” GOED wrote in a statement.