Dietary supplements have increasingly become a prominent part of our lives. Once found exclusively at the pharmacist’s or at a specialist health food store, they can now be easily bought at a nearby supermarket. Such has been the rise in their popularity and acceptance level among people across the globe.
But even as hundreds of brands flood the dietary supplements market today, consumers find themselves increasingly prone to new complications when it comes to gathering reliable information about the popular dietary supplements.
All of these products come in a variety of doses, under various labels and contain a number of different individual formulations. In such a scenario, it is very hard for a common consumer to determine what is worth buying and what is not.
In this article, we have tried to gauge all of the critical information regarding popular dietary supplements and the issues that are worth discussing about the dietary supplement industry. By learning these essential bits about nutritional supplements, we are sure you will be able to make a better choice when purchasing one for yourself.
What Are Dietary Supplements?
Dietary supplements are products that supplement our daily diet and help to provide for any nutrients that might be missing from it or are not present in the necessary proportions.
These include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, herbs, animal extracts, fiber and fatty acids, among other ingredients. With advances in the dietary supplement industry, these supplements are now available in variety of forms such as tablets, capsules, powders, nutritional bars and as drinks.
Some of the popular dietary supplements available today include Vitamin D & E; Calcium and Iron supplements, and specialty products such as probiotics, cod liver oil etc.
Types of Dietary Supplements
There are different types of dietary supplements existing today, each of which serve a specific purpose and comprise specific ingredients. They are – Vitamin & Mineral supplements, Herbal supplements, Weight-loss supplements, Anti-ageing supplements, Fish Oil supplements, and Body Building supplements.
List of Dietary Supplements (Category Wise)
1) Vitamin Supplements – Also simply called multivitamins, they help the body function properly and maintain good overall health. The body requires 13 kinds of vitamins to maintain a healthy state, most of which (except Niacin and Vitamin D) it cannot produce on its own. A deficiency of vitamins can adversely affect the body’s immunity and repair mechanism as well as lead to mental health complications.
Therefore, to compensate for the micronutrients that might be missing from your diet, vitamin supplements can come handy. However, they won’t make up for an unhealthy diet. To stay healthy, a healthy diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, etc. is the only option.
2) Herbal Supplements – They are different from other supplements in that they each also possess some medicinal value in addition to essential nutrients. Also known as botanicals, herbal supplements are one of the oldest and most widely used products worldwide.
Consumers who choose to use the botanicals should be cautious with the dosage and the formulations as even though these supplements are termed “completely natural”, they can cause harmful side-effects, especially when taken in combination with other OTC drugs or modern medicines.
3) Weight Loss Supplements – With burgeoning numbers of people falling in the “obese” category all over the world, the slimming supplements have quickly become one of the most widely used weight loss products around. Most of these pills claim to contain herbs or natural ingredients that typically work by upping the metabolism rate, avoiding the absorption of dietary fat or by curbing the sensation of hunger in the body.
Looking beyond the celebrity endorsements and big claims that come associated with them though, most of these weight loss pills don’t come with any solid guarantee or medical evidence to back them. Worse, in some cases, these dietary supplements end up causing more harm than good, even the ones that are termed “100% natural” by their makers.
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4) Anti-Ageing Supplements – Majority of people who purchase supplements belong to the age group of 50+ years. The global anti-ageing products market itself is projected to touch almost $200 billion by 2019 . Therefore, it is not a surprise that supplements that aid in preserving youth or at least abating old age are one of the most popular products around.
There are three major anti-ageing supplements available today – Gingko (helps fight dementia and cognitive decline), Ginseng (helps improve cognition, behavioral patterns and overall quality of life) and Glucosamine (helps fight osteoarthritis).
5) Fish Oils – These are rich in Omega-3 fatty acids that help prevent heart diseases, cancer, dementia, asthma, joint problems and psychosis. It is a popular belief that people who have had a heart attack should eat 2-4 portions of oily fishes (such as tuna, mackerel, herring) in a week. Fish oil pills are generally not recommended for people with certain medical conditions (high blood pressure, pregnancy) and should be taken in low doses.
6) Body Building Supplements – These are mostly protein supplements that help to promote muscle growth, metabolism rate, physical performance and boost energy levels in the body. These are widely used by athletes, gym goers, physical trainers and individuals alike.
They are readily available in the form of protein bars, drinks, shakes, gels and capsules. Possible risks of using body building supplements include liver damage, stroke, kidney failure and pulmonary embolism. However, these are usually the results of taking an over-dosage of these pills in order to achieve faster results.
Dietary Supplements Examples
1) Vitamins – Some of the popular supplements are water-soluble vitamins such as Vitamins B and C, and fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins D, E, A and K.
2) Botanicals – Ginger and garlic root extracts, St. John’s wort, Echinacea etc.
3) Weight Loss Supplements – Bitter orange, Guar Gum, Chromium, Chitosan etc.
4) Anti-ageing Supplements – Ginseng, Gingko Biloba, and Glucosamine.
5) Fish Oil – Cod liver oil, Omega-3 Fatty Acids
6) Body Building Supplements – Creatine, Amino acids & BCAAs, Glutamine, Casein protein.
Benefits of Dietary Supplements
Some of the dietary supplements available in the market will help you to get the adequate amount of nutrition required to remain healthy. E.g.
– Vitamin supplements such as those rich in Vitamin D, when taken with Calcium supplement, will help to maintain the bones strong and healthy as well as avoid any bone loss as you get old.
– Omega-3 fatty acids which is found in fish oil supplements, might help to prevent heart diseases in some people.
– Folic Acid tablets can help to reduce any risks of birth defects in pregnant women.
Admittedly, it has been observed that some groups of people benefit more than the others because of their special condition or nutritional needs. For instance, dietary supplements may be worth taking in the cases of –
– Pregnant women
– Women who are breastfeeding
– Children and teenagers with unhealthy and irregular diets
– Elderly people
– People suffering from deficiency diseases or other medical conditions such as absorption problems in the body
However, doctors and scientists have stressed time and again that supplements cannot take the place of traditional food and a healthy diet. This brings us to the question if the supplements are then necessary at all?
Are Dietary Supplements Necessary?
Dietary supplements are just what their name suggests them to be, “supplements”. They are best to be taken “in addition” to a normal healthy diet in order to prove effective. They are not going to work if you are taking an unhealthy diet on a regular basis, or if you are hoping to cure a medical condition by blindly believing the dietary supplements health claims you saw on TV.
For all the exciting claims made by the makers of the dietary supplements, most have proven to be quite ineffective and some have even turned out to be dangerous. Therefore, before you begin to take any dietary supplement, you should find out with your GP if –
– You actually do need any supplement
– A particular supplement is safe to consume
– A supplement can reach with any other medication that you are taking simultaneously
– There is enough medical research and evidence available about the dietary supplement to prove its effectiveness.
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Are Dietary Supplements Safe?
Dietary supplements, even those termed as 100% natural, are not always safe or free of any wanted side-effects. The reason being that these products are not always backed with any solid evidence of being safe (or effective, for that matter) and sometimes are found to contain certain ingredients that can prove to be harmful under certain circumstances.
Some dietary supplements can interact with other supplements or medications that can lead to potentially harmful results. E.g.
– Calcium is known to react with certain heart medicines, diuretics and antacids that contain aluminium or magnesium
– Vitamin K supplement can reduce the ability of Coumadin that helps to prevent blood clotting in the body
– Antioxidant supplements such as Vitamins C and E can hamper the treatment of people undergoing chemotherapy for curing cancer
– Gingko Biloba can react with aspirin or warfarin (an anticoagulant) to increase the risk for internal bleeding
Even the traditional remedies that have been in use for centuries are not considered to be 100% safe. E.g. Yohimbe, a sexual stimulant, has been found to cause heart and respiratory issues in humans.
The supplements that are generally labeled only as “weight-loss supplements” or “energy boosters”, have been found to contain unsafe ingredients that can cause liver damage on regular or over usage. Moreover, most of these labeled pills often don’t list the complete list of ingredients that goes into making them and might contain hidden elements that are risky or worse, banned from use. This is possible because dietary supplement labels and ingredients are not tested or evaluated by FDA before they are sold. A more complete information about this fact is provided in the next segment.
Are Dietary Supplements Regulated by FDA?
No, the FDA does not regulate dietary supplements in the way it regulates medicines. It treats these products as food rather than medicines which means that the dietary supplement makers don’t have to provide any medical/scientific evidence of their products being safe or effective before they can begin to sell them to customers.
How Are Dietary Supplements Regulated?
As of Aug 24, 2007, FDA requires following good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to be engaged by the makers of dietary supplements:
– the supplements produced should be of good quality
– the supplements should be free of all forms of contaminants and impurities
– the supplements should be accurately labeled
– the supplements should not exceed or fall short of the FDA approved amount of ingredients in the formulation
If the FDA finds any dietary supplement product to be unsafe or not following the GMPs, it may compel the manufacturers to remove the product from the market or work with them to voluntarily recall the product.
Furthermore, the federal government is entitled to take legal action against manufacturers and websites that make false advertisement and claims about their products or if they promote them as cure for any known diseases.
Customers can also lodge a complaint with the FDA if they have a bad experience with any dietary supplement that they might have used recently. They can contact FDA at 800-FDA-1088 to file a preliminary complaint report or by filling up a form on the FDA website (www.fda.gov).
Bottom-line – Are Dietary Supplements Good or Bad?
In this article, we tried to take a fairly unbiased review towards the dietary supplements available in the market today, focusing on their claims, benefits and associated risks. Overall, while it is evident that there are some benefits of taking supplements along with a healthy and balanced diet, it is also clear that there is no solid proof available (yet) of these supplements being entirely effective or harmless.
Before considering using a supplement, it is always good to bear a certain level of skepticism in mind and ask in-depth questions regarding their usefulness and success rates. Ultimately, before you decide to make a final call, you must contact your physician or GP and find out if you really need be having a supplement along with your diet.
As a doctor, they are the best suited and positioned to inform you about a particular supplement and whether you need to take it or not. They will also be able to advise an alternate treatment method for you, if they find the use of nutritional supplements to be unnecessary or potentially harmful.
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