Simple Truths About Supplements
By: Alice Burron
Supplements – they’re everywhere, and they promise everything, from more energy, more muscle, better libido, weight loss, beautiful hair, and life to 100. And I’m betting you know of someone (or are someone) that sells them, or have been tempted to buy supplements from a friend. Should you consider taking them? Do you need supplements? Are they really doing you any good?
If you’re taking supplements, you’re not alone, but you could be wasting your money. It is estimated that nutritional supplement sales will continue to increase 6% per year through 2018, hitting sales of $16.4 billion that year (1). And now they’re easier to purchase than ever; supplement stores are as common as grocery stores in most neighborhoods, found in malls, and there are now stand-alone stores that sell general supplements, vitamins, herbal supplements and performance enhancing supplements. Check in your local grocery store – there’s even a whole isle dedicated to supplements. And you, your neighbors, friends and family can choose to sell them for profit – how convenient for everyone.
More and more people are spending money on supplements. Most people start taking multi-vitamins or supplements because they’re not feeling as well as they should, or they have a desire for a quick fix change. Maybe it’s because they’re overweight, tired, struggling with an ailment, or have a specific symptoms, like sore joints or high cholesterol. Hardly anyone can claim they feel perfect, all of the time, so most of us consider a supplement at some point in our life.
Pick a problem or ailment and there’s a supplement for it: multivitamins for breast health, immune health, for men, for women, for eyes, and for menopausal women. Supplement makers are professionals at targeting people with a potential problem, state of health, stage of life, or fear.
The Science Behind Supplements
Constantly under study – there is little proof that they do much to help you, and most often studies are based on observation, not solid, scientific, well-controlled studies. One study on multivitamins, The Physician’s Health Study II (2), followed roughly 14,600 male physicians aged 50 or older, who either took a basic multivitamin with minerals for people 50 and older, or a placebo, every day for 11 years.
What happened? The vitamin takers had an 8 percent lower risk of cancer than those who took the placebo, with the older men who had a less healthy diet benefiting the most. The risk of death, heart attack and stroke was unchanged between the two groups. The good news is that it didn’t increase the risk, either.
Supplements Not a Substitute For Healthy Diet
Vitamin supplements, in particular, attempt to replace the recommend dietary nutrients (called micronutrients) that we’re expected to get in foods – essential and nonessential vitamins and minerals. But many users justify a poor diet with vitamins, hoping to replace a poor diet, not just fill in the gaps. It’s important to recognize that vitamins and mineral needs can be best met by eating a nutritious diet – nutrient supplements are not a substitute for a healthful diet.
Receiving our nutrients from foods, not supplements, is ideal, absent a specific health condition or lifestyle that indicates otherwise or you’re directed by health professional.
Healthful meals include foods from all food groups, contain a variety of foods (just like we teach our kids to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables), and are in the appropriate quantities. Eating this way, the nutritional components of foods are most bioavailable (the degree to which nutrients are available for absorption and utilization by the body), and they work synergistically in ways not reproducible by taking supplements (3).
Risk of Too Many Vitamins
A bigger concern around vitamins is overconsumption – in particular fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K (4). Over time, with consistent overconsumption, these can accumulate in the body’s tissues and potentially cause vitamin toxicity. For example, taking very high doses of beta-carotene may interfere with the absorption of other nutrients, and some antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamin E, can behave like a pro-oxidant at high levels.
Vitamins are regulated by the FDA and have limited safety concerns. However, other types of supplements aren’t subjected to strict requirements for safety and effectiveness like vitamins as they’re not supplementing any proven nutrient need. Their claims are based on studies typically funded by the supplement company, and are almost always skewed in favor of the supplement. If you’re considering a supplement, verify that claims and promises are based on an independent third-party and are scientifically valid.
Herbal supplements (also called botanicals) are rising in popularity. In the US, an estimated one in five adults has used at least one natural product in the past year. Examples include ginseng, Echinacea, milk thistle, evening primrose and St. John’s Wort. Herbal supplements are exempt from regulations of the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act and are often not regulated at all. If you’re considering using an herbal supplement, check with your pharmacist if you are taking any other prescription or nonprescription medications to ensure there are no conflicts. Many herbal supplements act similarly to prescription medications, and interact with them. “Natural” doesn’t assure you it’s safe and free from negative effects. Do your homework first. Visit the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), at nccih.nih.gov to determine through scientific measures if the supplement is safe and useful.
Check The Source
Also consider the quality of supplements – don’t buy any unless you have done some research to make sure they’re coming from a quality source. Use USP (U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention) dietary supplements and vitamins which require stringent testing and auditing criteria for quality assurance. Also look for the cGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practice) symbol, which tells you the supplement met criteria established by the FDA. Another symbol on your supplements to look for is the NSF, an independent certification organization that tests for safety and quality ensuring that they meet set standards, including those set by the FDA.
Supplements Are Not Magic
Supplements are exactly that – meant to supplement, or compliment a healthful diet. Supplements are not meant to be a magic antidote for an ailment, or a stand-alone answer to a better physique or higher performance, and that’s where many of us fall prey.
Step 1 – A Healthy Lifestyle
Are we willing to establish a healthy-lifestyle foundation to allow supplements to do their job? Exercise (strength training, flexibility, balance and aerobic), managing stress, continuing to learn, having close relationships, practicing spirituality and other healthy behaviors (like not using tobacco or over-eating), and wholesome eating (including drinking lots of water) – all of these are the footing for good health. Perhaps the first step we all should take before purchasing a supplement is to ask ourselves if we have done all we can do to mitigate our concern through healthy behaviors , without supplements. If the answer is yes, then it’s worth considering which supplement might be the best to reach the desired outcome.
Get Expert Advice
It’s not an all or nothing proposition; supplements can be a simultaneous part of a health-centered approach to being, or becoming, well. If you’re feeling the need to purchase a supplement or take a multivitamin, consider what it is you expect from it before you begin. If you’re serious about your health, talk to your health care providers about your desire to use supplements. You may even want to make an appointment with a registered dietician who can verify any nutritional need, and offer quality recommendations. If you want a supplement that improves your physical appearance, consider instead meeting with a personal trainer or qualified weight loss coach (who preferably doesn’t sell supplements so as not to confuse the issue even further) to set you on a realistic path towards your goals.
The desire for a quick fix that supplements promise might not harm, but will, more often than not, leave behind an empty wallet with very little to show for it. Eating nutritiously, exercising daily and following a generally healthy lifestyle is the best course of action toward good overall health.
1. Nutritional Supplements in the U.S., 6th Edition 2. Physician’s Health Study II, phs.bwh.harvard.edu 3. J. Nutr. April 1, 2001, vol 131 no. 4, pgs. 13515-13545 4. Dietary Reference Intakes: The Essential Guide to Nutrient Requirements (2006)