More than half of the adults in the United States take a dietary supplement regularly, spending $24 billion each year. Most supplements are taken in case nutrient needs are not met with food alone. Others take them to protect against certain diseases or to promote health.
For the most part, people self-prescribe supplements, taking them on the advice of family, friends, advertisements, websites or books. Are these the best sources for advice on taking supplements? How much does the consumer know about dietary, vitamin, mineral and herbal supplements? Who regulates this industry? Are supplements absorbed the same as when eaten in the form of food?
The best advice will come from your primary care provider, who follows a valid physical and nutritional assessment. Most importantly, a registered dietician is able to help with decisions about supplements and can be of even more value in finding the right supplement needed. Most primary care providers will, when asked, support their patient in finding integrative medicine to promote healing and wellness of the whole person. Ask your
primary care provider about integrative medicine at your
What do you know about supplements and who regulates this industry? The Food and Drug Administration does not evaluate dietary supplements for safety or effectiveness, and it does not monitor their contents or purity. Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, the supplement and herb manufactures do not have to prove the safety of their products; the FDA has the burden of proving that a product is not safe. There are no standards for potency, dosage, effectiveness or listing potential side effects.
If a problem arises with a supplement or herb, the burden falls to the FDA to prove that the supplement poses a “significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury.” Only then would it be removed from the market.
The other parts of supplements are in labeling of the product and in making nutrient claims that are far from true. Some claim that their organic or natural products are purified rather than synthesized in a laboratory, thus more beneficial. There are no studies to prove these claims. Other claims made are that they treat, cure or relieve common complaints such as pain, memory loss and various complications of aging. Products making statements such as “high potency,” “structure-function” or “excellent source of ...” are marketing techniques that grab consumers’ attention, thus encouraging them to make a purchase. Discuss all supplements with your physician or care provider before buying.
Does the body absorb these supplements the same as food? The body best absorbs nutrients from foods in which the nutrients are diluted and dispersed among other substances that facilitate their absorption.
There are some supplements that when taken in concentrated form are likely to interfere with other absorption of nutrients and supplements. For example, zinc hinders copper and calcium absorption, iron hinders zinc absorption, calcium hinders magnesium and iron absorption. So when taken in a concentrated form, these minerals will hinder each other, thus making the supplement non-beneficial for the body. Some supplements can interfere with medicine prescribed by your primary care provider, and it is an extremely important point to discuss when choosing supplements or herbs.
So if all the nutrients our bodies need come from food, why not eat food? Eating offers pleasure, satiety and opportunities for socializing. If your primary care provider does suggest a supplement, discuss at length what is needed, the amount needed and how to take it.