A lot of people have asked me about taking supplements – vitamins, minerals, herbs or other compounds – to support their diet and/or athletic performance. I personally take calcium, magnesium, zinc and iron supplements, having been advised by my physician that I’m at risk for low levels of each (and/or I’ve tested low via blood tests). I also take fish oil, as it’s been shown to help reduce inflammation and may be important in preventing off chronic disease. But, there are a LOT of supplements that do absolutely nothing!
There are literally millions of different supplements on the market — crying out to you from the drugstore or natural foods shelf, hypnotizing you with their pretty colors, cool names and fabulous claims. There are supplements that claim to offer immune health, make your bones stronger, balance your moods, improve your memory, increase your chances of getting pregnant, help you lose weight, boost your athletic performance, and all things in between. And, SOME of these claims are even (somewhat) true. However, most are NOT.
Let’s look at how supplements are regulated, as this is a really important issue in terms of what you see and hear in the market. The 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) was passed to govern supplements and allows manufacturers to make claims regarding their products’ effects on the body without any guarantee on safety and effectiveness. These are called “structure/function claims, ” and include things like, “promotes hormone production to increase strength” or “promotes detoxification, cleansing and rebuilding.” However, (a) supplement manufacturers are NOT allowed to say that a specific product/supplement will prevent, reduce or cure a disease or specific health condition (yet many do!) and (b) there is NO guarantee of what you’re getting in the product either, as amounts of ingredients do not have to be listed on the label.
All supplements are regulated by the FDA, but they are not regulated as drugs – they are instead regulated as “foods.” This means that while pharmaceutical-grade drugs, medications and devices must undergo years of rigorous safety trials, massive pre- and post-market testing, and very careful marketing review, supplements do NOT have these same requirements. While a pharma drug must be proven safe before it can be sold, a supplement does not. Instead, a supplement has to be proven harmful before it can be removed from the market. And, some supplements may contain banned or even illegal substances. Especially those you can buy over the internet.
Thus, it pays to be very cautious when it comes to taking supplements. The bar for safety is very low, and regulation is quite limited. So, when you read that a supplement “controls blood sugar, reduces your risk of diabetes, increases stimulation and function of pancreas, increases HDL cholesterol, lowers LDL cholesterol, decreases triglycerides and helps control and balance sugar intake” (a real product, BTW, from Super Supplements’ website), you want to be EXTREMELY wary. First of all, with all these claims, frankly, it’s just too good to be true. Second, this company is making illegal claims about its product (e.g. reduces risk of a disease: diabetes), so how can you trust that: (a) what they say is in it really is, and (b) that this product comes even 1/10 as close to delivering what it says it delivers? Don’t waste your money. And don’t risk your health!
Finally, it is true that some supplements may indeed do what they claim to, but it also may depend on your gender, physical condition, genetics, etc. – you can expect a very individual response. One size just doesn’t fit all. So, if you decided to take certain products, please keep that in mind. And, please, please tell your doctor what you are taking: some supplements may interfere with medications or interact with meds with adverse results. Checking out clinical research on specific supplements is a great way to stay on top of this stuff, so consider reviewing the abstracts at PubMed, Up-to-Date or USP for details on which supplements were tested in clinical trials (and the results!).
And, for a bit of fun, check out this 3 minute You Tube video about a couple of guys who decide to open a supplement company. It’s funny, disturbing and not so far-fetched.
And, when all else fails, as Michael Pollan says, “Eat Real Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants.” You may not need to waste your money on supplements!