Supplement or Superfluous?

Whether you’re watching TV, listening to the radio or surfing the internet, it’s almost impossible to escape multiple ads for dietary supplements that claim to make you feel healthier, be stronger and have more energy.

 

90s kids are sure to remember this vitamins jingle

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But how do you know if they work? And what exactly is a supplement anyway?

According to the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, a supplement is “a product intended to supplement the diet that contains one of the following ingredients: vitamins, minerals, herb or botanical, and/or amino acid.”  However, dietary supplements are not intended to “treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent or cure disease.” The FTC has ruled that advertising for supplements that claim health benefits must be “truthful, not misleading and substantiated.”

 

Why does it matter?

Recent data estimates that Americans spend over $21 billion a year on supplements, with an estimated 1 in 5 Americans taking some sort of supplement. The makers of supplements must abide by the FDA’s good manufacturing guidelines and accurately identify what their products contain – but that doesn’t always happen. Manufacturers are supposed to report serious adverse effects, and the FDA can pull products found to be unsafe.

 

What’s the evidence?

Daily Multivitamins – If you have a healthy, well balanced diet, there is little evidence that a multivitamin can prevent chronic disease, cancer or heart disease. It is, of course, possible to have deficiencies of certain vitamins, and a doctor can do a blood test and prescribe a targeted vitamin as needed, such as Vitamin D.

 

Fish Oil (Omega-3) – Although omega-3 fatty acids are important for preventing inflammation and maintaining brain function, a study from 2013 found that omega-3 supplements did not significantly decrease the risk of heart attack, and another study found that omega-3 supplements were linked to an increased risk of aggressive prostate cancer.

 

Calcium – Some studies have found that calcium supplements can slow the rate of bone loss, but others have not been able to determine a strong significance in reduction of fractures. Further studies have found an increased risk of heart attack or stroke, kidney stones and gastrointestinal issues among those who take calcium supplements.

 

What’s the consensus?

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The general consensus among experts and physicians seems to be that the best way to supplement your body and brain is with a healthy, well-balanced diet that includes lots of leafy green vegetables and, for certain vitamins, regular portions of animal proteins and fish. It is possible to overdose on vitamins, and many can interact with prescription medications. Because we don’t understand 100% how molecules interact in the body, simply taking the pared down form of an herb or mineral in a supplement pill may not give the desired health benefit.

 

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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.