According to a survey commissioned by the Council for Responsible Nutrition (CRN), the majority of U.S. adults — 68% — routinely take dietary supplements. In addition, 84% of those surveyed said they were confident in the “safety, quality, and effectiveness” of dietary supplements.
Are you among the majority of Americans who take supplements and trust their safety, quality, and effectiveness? Though supplements can be beneficial and necessary in some cases, they can also create problems in others. Turns out, there are plenty of reasons to question whether the supplements you’re taking are actually helping or hurting you.
But before discussing potentially negative aspects of dietary supplements, let’s consider the very real need for them.
The Need for Supplements
There were no dietary supplements 100 years ago, nor was there a need for them. People’s diets consisted of “whole foods,” much of it picked from their own gardens. Their meats either came from their own livestock or from the local butcher. My, how times have changed.
Today, the foods we see on our store shelves are often trucked in from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Few people grow their own gardens, much less depend on it for their food. In addition, more than 80% of foods on grocery store shelves is processed. Today’s foods do not have much nutrition, and there are a few reasons for this.
The Industrial Age Made Things Easier – But Not Health
There were a few changes in the late 1800s, early 1900s that made things easier for society but ended up making our foods less healthy.
Industrial agriculture that relies on monoculture, was developed. Monoculture is the practice of growing a single crop on a massive scale. Monoculture farming uses huge quantities of synthetic fertilizer because growing the same crop in the same field depletes the nutrients from the soil. Without those nutrients, that particular crop can’t grow, so fertilizer is necessary to replace these nutrients. Monoculture farming also uses a lot of pesticides because certain weeds and insects are attracted to monoculture crops. Industrial agriculture depletes the nutrients from the soil, and the fertilizer and pesticides contaminate the soil. Industrial farming was seen as a good thing in the beginning, as a way to feed the growing population of the U.S. on a massive scale, but it has contributed to nutrient deficiencies as well as environmental damage.
Processed Food Industry
What nutrients industrialized agriculture didn’t destroy, the processed food industry did. The first heavily processed foods started appearing around 1910, and since then, manufacturers have come up with quicker and “better” ways to give us food-like products. Food processing destroys most nutrients in foods, so all we’re left with are food additives, preservatives, and other harmful chemicals. There are few nutrients left to moderate the negative effects of these food-like products.
The Rise of Fast Foods
The number of fast food restaurants has doubled since the 1970s. It seems as if there is a fast food restaurant on every corner, and Americans take advantage of the convenience of them whenever possible. Fast food restaurants not only offer a variety of processed foods in which most of the nutrients have already been destroyed, but they also overcook or deep fry many of their foods, further destroying these nutrients. To be fair, many fast food restaurants do offer healthier fare, such as salads, but they are not the main items on the menu.
The Result of the Industrial Age? Obesity and other Diseases
It took a while for the processed food industry to become really big — or perhaps it just took that long to affect the public’s health — but the rates of many diseases started growing. From about the mid-‘70s until today, some of these diseases have reached epidemic proportions in the U.S. Some of these diseases include:
- Type 2 diabetes
- Heart disease
In Search of a Healthy Alternative
The higher rates of these and other disease sent people searching for natural remedies and preventative treatments. In the mid-’70s, alternative medicine became a popular pursuit, as did dietary supplement usage.
Dietary supplements are a $30 billion industry, and their profits will only increase. After all, 66% of supplement users in a 2015 survey expect their supplement use to increase within the next five years.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Supplements do offer many health benefits.
The Good Thing About Supplements
The purpose of supplements is to supplement your diet, meaning you should use them to support the nutrients in your diet, not replace them. And this is, indeed, the primary benefit of supplements. They can supply nutrients you’re not getting from your diet.
Supplements can also supply nutrients that in some cases may be difficult or impossible for you to get from your diet in great enough quantities. For instance, research shows that many people have folate deficiencies. Folate is a type of B vitamin essential for cell growth, metabolism, and fetal development, among other important functions. Our bodies do not absorb folate very well, and modern food processing destroys much of the folate content in our foods. Purchasing regular folate supplements at the store will not do you any good because your body will not absorb it very well. However, a new healthy nutraceutical called Vitaae contains a patented form of folate called quatrefolic, clinically proven to be up to 7 times more bioavailable than the folate supplements found on store shelves. In this case, it’s better for you to purchase Vitaae than try to obtain folate through your diet.
Supplements, given in therapeutic doses, can also treat or cure many health conditions. Therapeutic doses of supplements are best prescribed by a holistic health practitioner or medical doctor.
The Bad Thing About Supplements
Despite all their benefits, there are a few drawbacks (bad things) to taking dietary supplements. Here are a few of them.
They are Unregulated
Dietary supplements are unregulated. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 removed the Food and Drug Administration’s regulation of any substance labeled a dietary supplement. Because supplements are unregulated, there is no way for you to really know what you are getting. Many manufacturers try to cut corners and make money at your expense. Here is what a lack of regulation allows supplement manufacturers to do:
- They may sell supplements without testing them for toxins.
- They may produce them in a factory with poor manufacturing standards, leading to inconsistent quality.
- They may list a dosage on the label that does not match the actual dosage of the supplement.
- They may fill their supplements with harmful additives, gluten, and other fillers that they have not listed on the label. The label may even state the produce is “all natural” and does not contain additives and/or gluten that it DOES contain.
- They may, and often do provide a form of the nutrient that the body does not absorb well. For instance, magnesium oxide is a cheaper form of oxide used by many supplement manufacturers, even though it is not easily absorbable by the body.
Supplements Can be Dangerous or Deadly
People tend to think anything natural is okay and that more is better. That’s just not true. It is possible to overdose on dietary supplements, and supplements can also have dangerous interactions with prescription drugs.
Here are some dangers of supplements.
St. John’s Wort: This herb is known for effectively treating depression and anxiety. One of its less publicized functions, however, is that it induces liver enzymes. This means St. John’s Wort can reduce blood levels of such medications as Lanoxin, Viagra, and the cholesterol-lowering drug Mevacor.
Ginseng: This herb has been shown to provide a host of health benefits. Unfortunately, it can have severe interactions with prescription and non-prescription drugs. For instance, ginseng increases the bleeding properties of aspirin and ibuprofen. But it can interfere with the blood-thinning effects of Coumadin.
Vitamin E: Though this vitamin is an important part of a healthy diet, taking it in supplement form can be dangerous in certain situations. For instance, because vitamin E thins the blood, taking vitamin E with blood thinning medications increases the effect of those medications. This may increase the risk of bleeding.
Vitamin K: This vitamin has many health benefits, one of which is that it causes blood to clot. This is not such a great benefit, however, if you’re taking blood thinners.
Fish Oil: This is one of the most popular supplements. Fish oil contains high amounts of omega-3 fatty oils, which provide many health benefits. However, they also thin the blood, so you should not take this supplement with blood thinners or before surgery.
Ginkgo Biloba: This herb has been used to treat many health conditions. However, it is not so good for people taking anticonvulsant medicines to control seizures. Taking high doses of ginkgo biloba could reduce the strength of some anticonvulsant medications.
How to Safely Take Supplements
Talk to Your Doctor
Though it is true that most medical doctors do not attend many classes in nutrition during medical school, many of them do know enough to help you make the right decision. If you think a supplement might help your condition, talk to your doctor before you do anything else. If the doctor doesn’t know the answer, he or she will find out what you need to know.
Even if you don’t want or need your doctor to help you make a decision, though, it is always wise to tell your doctor what supplements you are taking. That way, your doctor can tell you whether a certain supplement might negatively affect your health condition, or whether it will interact with any of your medications.
Do Your Research
Before taking supplements, read about their health benefits and risks. Check for possible side effects and interactions with other supplements and drugs. Check how they may interact in your diet. After all, some supplements are better absorbed with food, others without. While you’re doing research, check online to see if there have been any complaints about the manufacturer.
Check for Seals of Approval
One good way to know if the product has the correct ingredients is to see if it has a seal of approval from NSF International, ConsumerLab.Com, or U.S. Pharmacopeia. These independent organizations test to see if the labeled ingredients are actually in the product.
Eat a Healthy Diet First, Take Supplements Only When Needed
An even better way to manage your supplement usage is to get most of your nutrients through a healthy diet. After all, supplements cannot duplicate all the nutrients and benefits of eating whole foods. Eat healthy foods first, and then take supplements only when needed.
By switching to a healthy diet, you will be able to get most of the nutrients you need. You see, a healthy diet emphasizes whole foods, which have high levels of nutrients still intact. The basic rule of thumb is to avoid heavily processed foods as much as possible. You can do this by shopping the perimeter of the grocery store, where you’ll find the meats and produce. (The center aisles are where you’ll find all those processed, “food-like products.” Avoid it like the plague!)
To ensure you’re getting even more nutrients, increase your consumption of organic foods and organic, grass-fed meats, wild-caught seafood, or free-range eggs and poultry. Then enjoy wonderful, nutritious healthy meals.
Here are the 4 healthy food groups:
10+ servings per day. Fill half your plate with non-starchy vegetables at each meal. Such a large number of servings are recommended because the fiber fills you up fast and keeps you full longer, and it ensures you receive all the nutrition your body needs. Vegetables contain large quantities of antioxidants and loads of vitamins and minerals.
3-5 servings per day, 30-50 mg per meal. Consuming this much protein per meal triggers muscle protein synthesis, allowing you to build more lean muscle mass faster. Protein also contains B-vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, magnesium, and much more.
Whole-Food Fats. 3-6 servings per day. Whole-food fats are also very filling, and they provide protein and a variety of healing vitamins and minerals.
Low-fructose fruits. 0-3 servings per day. Sometimes it’s nice to enjoy a sweet snack, and low-fructose fruits are a healthy and delicious way to do that.