Dietary Supplements 101: Definition, Benefits, Risks, & Regulation

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After almost 2 years since launching BuiltLean.com and over 120 articles, this is my first article on supplements.

Why would I wait so long?

In short, I’m not a huge fan of supplements. If you are eating a well balanced diet of nutrient dense foods and exercise regularly, most supplements will be completely useless and some will even be dangerous. In combination with VERY loose regulations, the thought of taking a supplement without considerable research makes me cringe.

With that said, I’m a realist and I understand few people eat a “well balanced diet comprised of nutrient dense foods and exercise regularly”. In fact, a study of 3 million people revealed less than 1% get enough of the essential vitamins and minerals from diet alone. 1

So what are supplements? Which supplements should you consider taking? What should you look out for when buying supplements? I’ll answer all these questions and more for you in this introductory article on dietary supplements.

What are Dietary Supplements?

Dietary supplements are defined by the Institute of Health as a product other than tobacco that is:

1) Intended to supplement the diet
2) Contains one, or more dietary ingredients
3) Intended to be taken by the mouth
4) Labeled on the front panel as a dietary supplement

Supplements can be separated into 3 major categories (1) health, (2) performance, and (3) weight loss and come in a variety of forms including traditional tablets, capsules, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars.

I must emphasize supplements “supplement” a diet, or training regimen. The noun “supplement” is defined as, ” something added to complete a thing, supply a deficiency, or reinforce or extend a whole”. Supplements can never, and should never replace proper diet and exercise.

Supplements Industry Overview

As of 2009, the U.S. supplement industry was $19.6 Billion with over 29,000+ supplements. Here’s a chart which shows the percentage breakdown of total U.S. supplement revenues by product category:


Source = National Business Journal 2009

Should You Take Dietary Supplements?

In my opinion, there are 3 reasons to consider taking a dietary supplement:

1) Deficiency – It’s no secret that most people don’t get the recommended amount of vitamins and minerals through their diets, which is why taking supplements to address any deficiency may be a good idea.

2) Performance – If you are a competitive, or professional athlete, supplements can make the 1-5% difference in performance, which can mean success, or failure. If you are older 50’s+, supplements can help keep your bones and joints strong.

3) Convenience – It’s not easy to eat organic fruits and veggies all day long, which is why a greens supplement can help for example. The same idea applies to eating enough protein, which is why a protein supplement can make sense at times.

Some argue that everyone should take supplements because (1) modern farming depletes soils, which means insufficient mineral content to produce nutrient dense vegetables and fruits, (2) long transit times for some foods, which decreases nutrient quality, and (3) foods that are cooked, or cooked to much can lose vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and enzymes. I don’t agree with this line of reasoning, but it is something to consider.

Which Dietary Supplements Should You Take?

While most supplements are a useless waste of money and some are even dangerous, there are a handful of supplements that deserve your consideration. Which supplements you choose to take if any should depend on a conversation with your doctor and thorough research of the specific supplement.

Note: This list may change over time based on new research and is not all inclusive. In the coming months, we will add more detail on each supplement.

Dietary Supplements to Consider

  • Multivitamin
  • Greens Powder (fruit/vegetables)
  • Fish Oil (the only supplement I take)
  • Calcium
  • Vitamin D
  • Probiotics
  • Protein Supplements

    Reputable Dietary Supplement Brands

  • Solgar
  • Nature’s Made
  • NOW Brand
  • Genuine Health
  • Greens+

    Dietary Supplement Safety Tips

  • Do not take supplements instead of prescribed medicines
  • Taking many supplements in combination may cause problems
  • Supplements can interact with prescription drugs in negative ways
  • Getting too much of a given mineral, or vitamin can be harmful
  • “Natural” doesn’t mean safe (i.e. ephedra)
  • Talk with your health care provider before taking any supplements
  • Only take supplements from reputable brands with top quality standards (see “Supplement Quality Standards” below)

    For a research-based chart on the efficacy of supplements , check out this Supplement Infographic

    How Are Dietary Supplements Regulated?

    Dietary Supplement Regulatory Oversight

    The Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act (1994) is the landmark legislation that governs the regulatory oversight of supplements.

    Supplements are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), which has no systematic evaluation of the safety of dietary supplements. Unlike drug products, the FDA is not required to “approve” the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements before they reach the consumer. After a dietary supplement has been marketed, the FDA must prove that a given product is not safe in order to restrict its use, or remove the product from the market.

    Dietary Supplement Quality Standards

    Another important piece of supplement legislation is the Good Manufacturing Practices (2007) that outlines how supplements should be manufactured, prepared, and stored to ensure quality. There are 4 key components of this legislation that should also be noted when buying supplements:

    1) Identity – Proper packaging and labeling of a product
    2) Purity – No contamination (pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria etc.)
    3) Strength – Not too much, or too little of certain ingredients
    4) Composition – Inclusion of the right ingredients

    Independent Quality Testing Organizations: (1) U.S. Pharmacopeia, (2) ConsumerLab.com, (3) NSF International

    Dietary Supplement Marketing Claims

    The FDA sets limitations on use of statements and claims, which are categorized as (1) health, (2) nutrient, and (3) structure & function claims. If you’ve ever walked into GNC, or surfed around the internet, you know the FDA is not doing such a good job at regulating supplement marketing claims.

    All supplements are required to include the following disclaimer when marketing their products:

    “This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

    No wonder supplement marketing claims are so outlandish.

    Dietary Supplement Links & Resources

  • Office of Dietary Supplements – government mandated organization that evaluates and promotes scientific research on supplements.
  • Dietary Supplement Fact Sheets – helpful resource to learn about the risks and benefits of a given supplement
  • Food & Drug Administration – issues rules and regulations and provides oversight of dietary supplement labeling , marketing, and safety.
  • Dietary Reference Intakes – a system of nutrition recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) pertaining to vitamins and minerals (pdf)
  • Pub Med Dietary Supplement Subset – look up research on any supplement
  • ConsumerLab – leading provider of independent test results and information to help consumers and healthcare professionals identify the best quality health and nutrition products.
  • QuackWatch – a guide to “quackery, health fraud, and intelligent decisions”. This website has a huge amount of information, so you can start with “Tips for Navigating Our Web Sites”.
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  • 7 Comments on “Dietary Supplements 101: Definition, Benefits, Risks, & Regulation

    1. Alexander
      November 11, 2011 #

      Hi, Marc

      I’ve been reading the newest articles you published, they are really good. Thanks a lot for all that great information you are sharing. Since last august, when I began reading your articles, I have dropped 12 pounds, and I am just 2 pounds away from my ideal weight, LBM, and fat%. Thank you so much! You have really mean a BIG difference in the way I look health and fitness.

      Reading your latest article about supplements, I would like to ask you something about the CARBS needed immediately after a workout. I read some articles saying that it makes a big difference to take carbs and protein in a ratio 2:1, that means around 50g of high Glycemix Index carbs. What I usually do is drink a whey protein shake and eat a banana, but some say bananas are not sucha a good option. I was wondering if Karos’ Light Corn Syrup (0g High Fructose Corn Syrup, for sure!) would be a better option. Buying dextrose or maltodextrin is not an option for me. Of course, I track my overall carbs intake during the day.

      To tell you the truth, the name “corn syrup” makes me tremble, I really want to run away of high glycemix index foods. I am really SCARED of developing type 2 diabetes. Please, tell me bananas are ok!

      1. Marc Perry
        November 11, 2011 #

        Alexander – That’s great to hear. Congrats on your success! I will write an article on post-workout nutrition for sure, but I have heard of the 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein and think it makes sense. With that said, I’m still a fan of taking it easy on the carbs when possible in a fat loss program. So if your primary goal is losing fat, I don’t think the 2:1 recover needs to apply, even 1:1 could be fine.

        With that said, if you are going to eat a banana, probably the best time is after a workout when your muscles are hungry for sugar/glucose. The sugar in the banana will get sucked up by your muscles to help with recovery while the protein will also get shuttled into the muscle because of the insulin response from the banana (insulin is anabolic and can be a good thing post workout). Karos light corn syrup does not sound like a smart option to me. In my opinion, eating real food as much as possible is the way to go. Before you eat something, think “how many ingredients does this have?” The less ingredients, the better. For example, a banana has one ingredient (i.e. it’s a banana!).

        Keep up the good work!

    2. Alexander
      November 11, 2011 #

      Thanks, Mark, for your fast reply! Yes, real food is the way I will go.

      Right now, I am remembering an article you wrote on “empty calories”, and corn syrup would be a good example of that. On the other hand, a banana is so rich in potassium and other vitamins.

      Thanks also for remembering me my primary goal, which is to lose weight. I just forgot that for an instance, the 1:1 ratio sounds excelent.

      There I go, back on track again, thanks to you!

    3. Heath
      November 16, 2011 #

      What are you thoughts on pre/post workout supplements/drinks (recovery drinks)?

      What about whey protein?

      I usually find myself using these for convenience rather than a firm conviction that they make a huge difference. Whey protein shakes have been an easy way for me to get a big serving a lean protein.

      Great article, thanks Marc!

      1. Marc Perry
        November 17, 2011 #

        @Heath – Research has shown that whey protein can be absorbed very quickly by the muscles post workout (which is substantiated by a lot of research). The side effects are minimal as long as the why protein has been manufactured properly. I still think that whole foods is ideal, but from a convenience and safety perspective, I’m not aware of any compelling reasons why occasionally supplementing with whey protein is not a viable method to help increase protein intake.

    4. Emilia
      February 8, 2012 #

      Hi Marc! First of all, I want to say that you’re by far, the sweetest guy I’ve found who’s into fitness. I really enjoy your very well written posts, thanks for all of them!

      I want to ask your opinion on antioxidants. I’ve heard many times that people who practice high intensity sports are prone to suffer some kind of unbalance between free radicals and antioxidants, is this true?

      I personally do crossfit 5 times per week and use my bike to get everywhere (so, I ride around 15 miles a day) I’ve heard that astaxanthin is a good antioxidant that could even help to improve one’s performance. Do you think it’d be worth it to try it?

      Thanks again for your site!

      1. February 16, 2012 #

        @Emilia – Thanks for your kind comment! The short answer is that yes, exercise stress can create more oxidative stress, which requires a higher level of antioxidant intake. I tend not to take specific vitamins, or minerals unless you are specifically deficient in just that one. I think the better option is having “nutritional insurance” of either a bioavailable multi-vitamin, or a greens supplement like Athletic Greens, or Greens Plus

        For a little more info on this topic, I found an interesting article: Athletes and Oxidative Stress

    Comments are closed.