Dietary Supplements: Necessary? Safe? Effective?
I’ve received questions on supplements many times before, and in a previous article, I provided some very broad information on supplementation and joint pain. Here, we go a little deeper into the topic.
First, it’s important to note that unless you have a metabolic conditions or specialized dietary needs, most nutritional requirements can easily be met through good food choices alone. Yet, the use of dietary supplements is very common among adults. Since 1984, the percentage of Americans using supplements has increased every year. Between 2003 and 2006, over half of Americans surveyed were using a dietary supplement – the most common being a multivitamin.
The biggest questions and concerns with supplement use are their safety and purity. There is no overarching regulating authority that ensures supplements are safe prior to them being purchased by consumers. Supplement producers must comply with the FDA’s Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMPs), but the producers themselves are responsible for ensuring the safety of supplements prior to consumer purchase. The obvious concern here is that the very people who determine whether their products are safe are those who profit from sales.
One independent testing service recently found that out of 15 common calcium supplements, 4 products failed to pass basic quality standards, and another product was found to contain unsafe levels of lead. Another common safety concern is the risk of toxicity (taking too much of a certain vitamin or mineral). A quick glance at the nutrition label may show that your supplements contain well over 100% of the recommended daily values of ingredients set forth by the FDA. More isn’t always better, and vitamin toxicity can cause damage to your liver and other organs within the body.
Consumers should also be on the lookout for hidden ingredients, particularly in herbal supplements. Caffeine and other stimulants are the most common undeclared additives. A recent worldwide review of supplement practices found that many herbal products commonly contained prescription drugs such as steroids or anti-inflammatory medication.
In the end, a balanced diet is the best way to ensure your body gets the right variety and dose of vitamins and minerals. However, we cannot ignore the fact that most Americans are lacking in some important dietary areas. The typical American diet lacks sufficient Omega-3 fat intake, vitamin D, and iron. Supplementing these items can prevent deficiency, and multivitamins can be safe if they are taken properly. Just remember that a pill will not provide the same health benefits (fiber, satiety, etc.) that you’d get from whole food sources.
If you’re considering taking dietary supplements or if you’ve been taking them regularly already, it’s never a bad idea to ask your health care provider about their safety and your health. Some supplements can cause negative reactions with prescription medications or over-the-counter drugs. You can never be overly cautious when it comes to the things you put in your body.