A 2018 consumer survey found that 75 percent of Americans take dietary supplements, and 87 percent of them are generally confident in the safety, quality, and effectiveness of the pills, powders, and protein shakes they’re consuming.
At the same time, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) begins their consumer guide to dietary supplements with these sobering words: “dietary Supplements can be beneficial to your health — but taking supplements can also involve health risks.”
If you’re interested in improving your health and overall wellness, you’ve probably at least considered taking supplements. So, how safe are they, really? We’ll separate the facts from the fiction in this article.
What are dietary supplements?
Before going any further, let’s set the stage by defining what we’re talking about when we say “supplements.”
The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act defines a dietary ingredient as a vitamin, mineral, herb (or other botanical), amino acid, or dietary substance used to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake. A concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination of the preceding substances also qualifies. Dietary supplements are marketed in forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gummies, powders, and liquids.
More practically speaking, when you walk into a GNC store or browse those aisles right in front of the Wal-Mart pharmacy pick-up lane, you’re looking at dietary supplements: whey protein, fish oil pills, St. John’s wort, ginkgo biloba… everything from Vitamin A to Zinc is available in myriad colors and flavors.
Why take dietary supplements?
As the name suggests, the intended purpose of these products is to supplement your diet. In other words, to fill in the gaps between what your body needs and what you’re getting from your food. There are three general reasons these gaps exist:
The average American diet lacks many important nutrients while providing an overabundance of others, so those who aren’t overeating are likely malnourished, at least in some areas.
For example, according to the Department of Agriculture, typical American diets exceed the recommended intake levels in calories from solid fats and added sugars, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat. This is largely due to the amount of processed food Americans consume, and this same processed food is often sorely lacking in important nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
Likewise, Scientific American reported that up to 75 percent of Americans are severely deficient in Vitamin D, which the body normally produces when exposed to sunlight. This is likely because they spend far more time indoors than they do outside.
So, taking supplements to get those nutrients seems to make sense.
Some chronic health conditions cause vitamin and other deficiencies because the body can’t efficiently draw nutrients from the food during digestion, or because eating itself becomes difficult.
A common example is Crohn’s disease, which can severely restrict both what kinds of food the sufferer can consume and the quantity. As a result, Crohn’s patients are often prescribed supplements to head off nutritional deficiencies.
Personal nutrition goals
In other cases, people may be working toward a particular goal like improved strength, endurance, or sexual performance. Studies have linked countless ingredients with potential physiological effects that seem to point toward success in these areas.
For example, if you’re starting a strength training program, your muscles will be needing more protein so they can recover and grow efficiently. However, you may not want to eat an extra three pounds of chicken breast each week to support that higher protein goal. Adding a scoop of whey protein powder to your morning bowl of oatmeal can boost your protein intake without exploding your calorie count.
In a perfect world, the sum total of what you consume in food and supplements would be a perfect 100 percent of every macro- and micronutrient your body needs to perform optimally throughout the day.
Of course, reality isn’t nearly so cut and dry.
Where dietary supplements get dangerous
When you go to the grocery store and buy meat, eggs, bread, or yogurt, you can be reasonably confident that what you’re getting is as clean and healthy as possible. That’s because government agencies like the FDA and the USDA have strict regulations in place to ensure the food we consume is grown, processed, packaged, shipped, and stored in ways that reduce the possibility of spoilage or contamination.
Likewise, when you take medication. Drugs are strictly regulated for safety and must be approved by the FDA before they can be sold in the United States.
Dietary supplements, however, are not regulated in nearly the same way. Under current law, supplement manufacturers do not need to notify the FDA that they’re bringing a new product to market (unless it contains an ingredient never before used in the United States). The company making the supplement is solely responsible for ensuring their product is safe for human consumption, that each pill or capsule actually contains the level of ingredients described on the packaging, and that the supplement actually does whatever they’re saying it’s going to do.
Only after a supplement is on the market and has, for some reason, come to the FDA’s attention can they pursue having it removed from store shelves because they find it to be adulterated or that the manufacturer has made false claims.
This loose regulatory environment has unfortunately paved the way for countless shady manufacturers willing to flood the market with one disreputable supplement after another, always staying two steps ahead of the FDA, and laughing all the way to the bank. While these “fake” supplements aren’t always dangerous to take, they are a complete waste of money and lead to tremendous disappointment.
However, sometimes a real danger exists. Here are some of the reasons, as outlined by the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
- Supplements you buy from stores or online may differ in important ways from products tested in studies.
- Dietary supplements may interact with your medications or pose risks if you have certain medical problems or are going to have surgery.
- Many dietary supplements haven’t been tested in pregnant women, nursing mothers, or children.
- Some products marketed as dietary supplements—promoted mainly for weight loss, sexual enhancement, and bodybuilding—may contain prescription drugs not allowed in dietary supplements or other ingredients not listed on the label. Some of these ingredients may be unsafe.
- Dietary supplements result in an estimated 23,000 emergency room visits every year in the United States, according to a 2015 study. Many of the patients are young adults having heart problems from weight-loss or energy products and older adults having swallowing problems from taking large vitamin pills.
- Some dietary supplements may harm you if you have a particular medical condition or risk factor or are taking certain prescription or over-the-counter medications. For example, the herbal supplement St. John’s wort makes many medications less effective.
As it turns out, even those supplements manufactured by reputable companies, and that function perfectly, aren’t nearly as great as most people think they are. Most clinical studies on popular dietary supplements have found that our perception of significant health and wellness benefits from taking these products are either greatly exaggerated or completely unfounded.
The NIH explains the mighty daily multivitamin this way:
“Taking a multivitamin is unlikely to pose any health risks. Most research shows that taking multivitamins doesn’t result in living longer, slowing cognitive decline, or lowering the chance of getting cancer, heart disease, or diabetes.”
So, finally, how safe are supplements?
In the end, your attitude toward dietary supplements should be guided by the following principles:
- Start with your diet. No supplement can ever take the place of a healthy diet. If it’s possible to accomplish your nutrition goals by improving your diet, that’s the best way to go, hands down.
- Talk to your doctor. They will have good advice that’s personalized to your medical needs, nutritional goals, and the prescriptions you take. And, they may have some professional recommendations as to brands or dosages that have been clinically studied.
- Buyer beware! Recognize that supplements are not food or drugs. They are, above all else, a marketing ploy. Maintaining that view will make you appropriately skeptical of exaggerated claims and more thorough in your research before deciding on something to take.
With those principles in mind, a reasonable selection of dietary supplements can be part of your overall health and wellness regimen. And, if you choose to go that route, you can click below to get a significant discount off the cost of supplements and other wellness products through the Wellness Complete discount plan.