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Supplements have become ubiquitous in the US, showing up on shelves in big box stores, practitioner offices, and even in membership clubs and multi-level marketing companies. Everywhere you look, someone seems to have a supplement to recommend. More than half of all Americans take supplements of some kind. But the question is do you need them to be healthy, or are they riskier than they are safe?
Supplements come in many different forms. Multivitamins are mislabeled since they often contain vitamins and minerals together, but other than those, you can also have:
- Single vitamins or minerals
- Combinations of vitamins and minerals
- Herbal supplements
- Amino acids
- Protein powders
- Fish oil
- And many other specific nutrients and ingredient combinations
While many take supplements, it’s important to remember that they are intended to supplement a diet, not stand in for one or compensate for unhealthy eating.
That being said, supplements can be helpful or harmful, depending on the type, the brand and product quality, and the person’s individual factors. Many people automatically assume that supplements are always safe because they are “natural,” but that is far from true. Let’s explore some important things about supplementation.
The Most Important Things to Know About Supplements
Supplements can be a beneficial part of a wellness plan, but only when taken safely and with proper consideration.
- The FDA doesn’t regulate supplements or test them for safety. Many people assume that supplements can only be sold if they’re proven to be safe, but there are no safety tests or trials required or done before companies can start selling them. Supplement companies may not make health claims regarding supplements, and they don’t even have to transparently disclose everything that is in the product, especially if they use a “proprietary blend.” ConsumerLab.com and other certification programs exist to provide independent testing of dietary supplement products.
- Supplements can contain fillers. When choosing a supplement, you should read the ingredients label to consider dosage, but look at the inactive ingredients, too. Many brands use fillers in their products which can either be allergenic (corn, wheat, and soy are common) or problematic for other reasons (artificial sweeteners or colors). Don’t assume that just because it is a supplement that it is healthy.
- More expensive brands don’t necessarily mean better quality. The common thought among consumers is that the more expensive the supplement is, the better quality the product. This is not always true, and again, you should look for supplements that have been independently tested and verified to contain what they say they do. Get recommendations from trusted practitioners and other professionals who can vouch for brands. (But be mindful if the person recommending your supplements will also profit from them—it’s important to consider the motivation behind the recommendation.)
- %DV, RDA, UL, and AI. Understanding how nutrient needs are established is important. Most supplements contain %DV, or percent daily value, of nutrients. This is applicable to people ages 4 and older, with separate %DV that apply to infants, children under age 4, and pregnant women. The %DV is different from RDA (recommended dietary allowance—how much the average person should get in a day), UL (tolerable upper limit—how much you can safely ingest without experiencing toxicity), and AI (adequate intake—the level assumed to be adequate when RDA cannot be established). The %DV are based on how much 97% of the population needs to achieve a generally sufficient amount. However, consider that not all supplements are in active or absorbable forms, and the amount you take is not necessarily the amount you will absorb. When determining the dosage for a nutrient you’re taking, it is always best to work with a practitioner who can make an informed recommendation. You can become toxic or experience severe side effects from taking too much of certain types of supplements, particularly minerals, fat-soluble vitamins, and fish oil.
- Supplement recommendations should be personalized. You should not take a supplement just because you know someone else who does. Genetically, you are unique and what works for someone else may be harmful for you, and vice versa. Supplements should also be periodically reviewed and evaluated. You may not need to take a supplement forever, and it is important to ensure that if you are taking them, they are relevant to your current needs.
- Supplements can interact with other supplements and with medications. Finally and importantly, supplements can interact with other supplements or with pharmaceutical medications. Just because they are “natural” does not mean they can’t cause significant harm when improperly used. Always make sure that your supplement protocol is evaluated by a professional and if you take medications, make sure that your doctor is aware of any supplements or herbs that you may be using.
Do You Need to Take Supplements?
Whether or not you could benefit from supplements depends on many factors, including:
- Your sex
- Your age
- Your physical health
- Your genetics
- Your diet
- Other factors that could relate to nutrient needs, such as taking certain medications
Ultimately, many people can benefit from supplements, but this does not mean that they are required in order to be healthy. The most important part of a healthy lifestyle is eating a diet rich in nutrients and unprocessed ingredients. Then, you can fill any gaps in your diet with supplements if needed.
Today’s Simple Step
Have you been taking the same supplements for years? Did you previously take some that you failed to replace when they ran out? Whether you take supplements or not, take stock of what you are doing in your health routine and consider whether it is working for you. If you feel you take too many supplements or aren’t sure why you’re taking them, ask a nutrition professional. If you don’t take any but feel you could benefit, again, work with a nutritionist who can assess your diet and make evidence-based and personalized recommendations.
Unrelated to supplements but delicious all the same, this Curried Vegetable Omelet is a good source of nutrients like folate, B12, and selenium.