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Nutrient Overload: How to count your food and supplement intake and prevent danger

pile of fruits and vegetables
May 25, 2018 (Updated: August 16, 2018)
Lily Moran

Today let’s do inventory, checking how much of which nutrients you’re getting, from both your diet and any supplements you may be taking. This is not just an interesting diversion. It’s a way to ensure you don’t suffer nutrient overload, which can be dangerous.

Notice I say overload, and not overdose.  Good supplements are by and large food or food-based. You can’t overdose on food—but too much of some vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other supplement ingredients can cause symptoms ranging from annoying and uncomfortable— nausea and diarrhea, for example—to serious liver damage, low blood pressure, coma, and more dangerous outcomes.

Taking more of a nutrient than you need can also be an expense you don’t need.

What we’re aiming for is sufficiency—amounts that are, as Goldilocks says, just right.

Who says how much is just right?

We’ve all heard of the RDA—the Recommended Dietary Allowance of this or that vitamin, mineral, or herbal product. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) provides it, and it changes from time to time in response to the most recent, reliable data.  Its original intent was to ensure against deficiencies by establishing the minimum nutrient amounts needed for general good health.

In 1994, the RDA was retired in favor of the Daily Value (DV). It’s essentially the same as the RDA, with a few new minerals added. It’s been the governmental standard since 1994, and I show it for all the ingredients in my supplements. (You’ll still see the RDA on many product labels, but don’t be confused. As I mentioned, the DV and RDA are nearly identical.)

But there’s another factor in play here: the difference between ensuring against nutrient deficiency and using nutrition to prevent disease.

The optimal daily intake (ODI) is a more recent metric that shows us the many instances when consuming higher levels of vitamins, minerals, or herbs than indicated in the DV is extremely beneficial for both overall, long-term health and for targeting specific conditions.

Take vitamin C, for example, with a DV of 60 milligrams. This amount ensures sufficiency—we won’t get scurvy.

But research has found that taking 300 milligrams of vitamin C a day—5 times the DV—can decrease the risk of death from cardiovascular diseases by 42 percent in men and 25 percent in women.

Another example; taking up to 1,000 micrograms of chromium daily, instead of the DV and ODI of 120 micrograms, has been shown to help diabetics control blood sugar levels. I base my practice recommendations on the ODI.

Measuring nutrients in your dietary intake

This is a tough one, I have to admit. Because let’s face it—no two eggplants, oranges, steaks, eggs, you name it— are identical. No two prepared dishes are identical. And the natural nutrients that go into the oven, the steamer, the slow cooker, or the skillet aren’t the same as those we get in the final, prepared dish. There’s also the matter of fortified foods, those with extra vitamins, minerals, and other modifications.

And don’t get me started on the Standard American Diet, with the appropriate acronym SAD, and all of its unnatural, sugar-soaked, salt-saturated, preservative-packed ingredients that permeate, toxify, and pollute what Big Food calls food.

If you’re languishing in the SAD diet, it’s pretty sure you’ll have a harder time keeping or regaining your health than if you move to a healthy, more Mediterranean-style diet.

How to take your nutrient inventory

There are countless reputable sources for nutrient content of just about every food on the planet. I’ve linked two of them below, and suggest you refer to them when you begin your inventory.

A good place to start is with a food diary. Just write down what you eat and drink, and approximately how much, every day for a week.  Then go to one of the links I’ve provided below to see the nutrient content of the various items.

You should end up with a list of nutrients, showing an average serving size and an average nutrient content. Bear in mind that these are averages—broad strokes.

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So what you need to do is:

  1. Find the daily nutrient contents of your foods and drinks
  2. Read your supplement labels to find the daily nutrient amounts they provide
  3. Add your dietary nutrient intake total to your supplement totals.

Don’t forget to include “fortified” foods, like vitamin D-fortified milk or products with added calcium or vitamins. I’m not one to advocate modifying a natural food in any way other than cooking it.  But while Big Food way overdoes that, with the SAD as the outcome, I make an exception when it comes to fortified food and drink products. Many of them can be legitimately good for us. So be sure to include those fortifying nutrients in your inventory.

Nutrients you shouldn’t overload

Let’s first be clear on what “overload” means.

In most cases, it means regularly taking a lot more than the ODI levels over time. People who do this often think that a double dose of something good means twice as much good.

Not so. Overloading on nutrients can lead to minor symptoms, such as trouble sleeping or concentrating, nerve problems such as numbness or tingling, or feeling unusually irritable.

And it can lead to worse:

  • A study many years ago, for example, found that a super-high daily dose of vitamin A actually increased the risk of cancer.
  • Too much calcium has been shown to cause abdominal pain, weak bones, constipation, irregular heartbeat, and depression, among other symptoms.

So here are some nutrients that you don’t want to overload, showing my absolute upper limit on daily amounts of nutrients that will not have the negative effects of overload

These are just a handful of examples among many.

Nutrient No More Than Effect of Overloading
Vitamin C 4,000 mg/day, depending on targeted outcome ·        Nausea

·        Diarrhea

·        Stomach cramps

Vitamin A ODI 10,000 Iu as beta-carotene Over time, can damage eyes
Folic acid (folate) 800 mcg/day Can hide signs of serious vitamin B12 deficiency in older adults
Zinc 30 mg/day Eye damage over time

I want to be sure you understand the health issues at stake. It’s very simple.

Take Vitamin A, an essential protector of eye health. If you rely on the DV metric, and limit your total intake to 5,000 IU/day, you limit the amount of protection you may need.

That amount may be all you need. Your target is not always the highest amount of this or that nutrient. It means you can take up to that limit—if you and your doctor agree that’s what you need.  But less than the top amount might be just right for you.

To test is best

Doing your own inventory is a tremendously helpful aid in managing your nutrient levels for optimal health and well-being. But do keep in mind that knowing how well you’re hitting your nutrient target is best done by testing for your baseline levels of all nutrients, then modifying your intake, then watching for changes over time.

I recommend all of my patients test for all nutrients every 6 months.  There are plenty of simple tests your doctor can offer.

For your food diary:


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