Dietary Supplements

September 24, 2013 Edited by  
Filed under Consumer awareness, Supplements

I hope that you enjoyed Jamie’s post about protein supplementation last week. As a follow up, I thought it would be helpful to share some information about dietary supplements in general. Do some dietary supplements work? Yes. Are some dietary supplements dangerous? Yes. How should you proceed? Well, it depends. Here’s some food for thought.

Dietary supplements vs. drugs

Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, herbs, animal extracts, and probiotics. Similar to drugs, they come in the form of pills, gel capsules, liquids, and powders. But unlike drugs, dietary supplements are NOT regulated for safety or effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before they go to market. Thanks to the Dietary Supplement Health and Safety Education Act (DSHEA) passed in 1994, the FDA is only responsible for taking action against unsafe dietary supplements after they reach the market.1

Remember Fen-Phen? Ever heard of Metablolife 356, Lipokinetix, or Hydroxycut?  These are all dietary supplements that were banned by the FDA because they contained dangerous ingredients. Banned, yes, but only after confirmed cases of liver failure, seizures, cardiovascular problems, and deaths.

How can I find a safe dietary supplement?

The first step is to look for the United States Pharmacopoeial Convention (USP) seal of approval. The USP is a non-government organization that tests dietary supplements for authenticity, strength, dissolvability, weight, and packaging. USP verification is a voluntary process for supplement manufactures, but may provide peace of mind for concerned consumers.

Consumer Labs is another organization to consider. They test dietary supplements similar to the USP, then post their results to a subscription-based website:

Figure 1. USP and Consumer Labs labels.

USP and CL jpeg

The second step regarding safe dietary supplement usage is to limit your expectations. If a supplement claim sounds too good to be true, it likely is. Don’t expect a magic pill to make you faster, stronger, bigger, smaller, longer, thinner, smarter, etc.  A daily multivitamin/mineral supplement can never replace the benefits of a healthy diet and lifestyle.

The third step is to dismiss the well-known adage “If one pill is good, then two are better, and three must great”. Look for vitamin and mineral supplements that provide no more than 100-200% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA). It’s an indisputable fact that chronic nutrient deficiencies negatively affect health, but 5000% of the RDA of a given nutrient will not make you 5000% healthier.  Besides, if you eat any amount of real food you are bound to consume some percentage of the RDA.  Combine this with a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement containing 100% of the RDA and you are assured of getting your needs met. Another idea to take a multivitamin/mineral supplement only every other day.

Take home message

First, ask yourself if you truly need a dietary supplement. What does it depend on for you (diet, lifestyle, finances, etc.)? If you do decide that a supplement is in your best interest, then the take home message  is “buyer beware”. Or at least be aware. Look for the USP seal of approval and avoid supplements containing more than 200% of the RDA. Also, if you are pregnant, lactating, or taking prescription medications, please consult with your physician before consuming any type of dietary supplement.


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