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:
- Intended to supplement the diet
- Contains one, or more dietary ingredients
- Intended to be taken by the mouth
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Popular Dietary Supplements
Reputable Dietary Supplement Brands
- Nature’s Made
- NOW Brand
- Genuine Health
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?
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.
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:
- Identity – Proper packaging and labeling of a product
- Purity – No contamination (pesticides, heavy metals, bacteria etc.)
- Strength – Not too much, or too little of certain ingredients
- 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”.