Most healthcare professionals agree that the best way for people to meet their bodies’ nutritional needs is through a healthy diet, meaning, actually eating nutritious food as outlined in the USDA’s Dietary Guidelines. While eating enough healthy foods and a well-rounded diet is of course optimum, the reality is that some people do choose to lean on nutritional supplements to get all of their needs met. Others have medical issues that require them to supplement their daily diet with vitamins, minerals or other substances their bodies may need help producing. Here is a primer on what nutritional supplements should do and not do for you, how they are regulated, and most of all, just what they are.
What are Nutritional Supplements?
Nutritional supplements take many forms, including: vitamins, minerals, amino acids, enzymes, herbs or other botanicals, or other nutritional components like probiotics. They can be ingested in pill form, as well as tablets, powders, liquids, gummies and just about any other edible material. Some of the most commonly taken supplements include vitamin C, D, and B complex, which contains a number of B vitamins.
Daily multivitamins function as a catch-all supplement and usually include those just listed above, in addition to important minerals like calcium iron, magnesium, and zinc. Some supplements are targeted for specific periods of a person’s life, like during pregnancy or menopause, when surging or receding hormones cause the body to not produce enough of something. The fitness and diet industries have created a supplement market aimed at increasing muscle and decreasing stored fat by promoting weight loss tonics, protein powders that boost muscle growth, and fat metabolism.
How are Nutritional Supplements Regulated?
Tested and regulated are two different processes. Supplements in the United States are not lab tested by the USDA, meaning, they are not studied and approved for their claimed effectiveness by the companies that manufacture and distribute them. However, the USDA randomly spot checks after they are on shelves or investigates when complaints are filed. However, they are regulated to a degree in that they must be have a label with “Supplement Facts” that includes ingredients, serving size, number of servings per container, and some version of the term “dietary supplement” must be present.
Can Nutritional Supplements be Dangerous?
Many supplements, especially herbal supplements or botanicals, can have significant impacts on organs like the liver and kidneys. These “natural” supplements can also lower the effectiveness of prescription medicines. So, just because something is marketed as “natural” does not mean it is safe, or even better than manufactured health aids. Don’t forget: plants have natural defenses against predators just like animals do (claws, sharp teeth, ability to run fast) that take the form of substances found in their leaves, bark, stems and roots. These same substances may or may not be harmful to humans.
Rule of Thumb: Talk to Your Doctor
Just because a supplement doesn’t require a prescription does not mean it is safe for you to take. This is one reason why doctors ask patients to fill out paperwork that lists all forms of ingested medicines, including off-the-shelf supplements. All of this is to say that supplements can be healthy additions to a person’s diet, but it is best not to make any assumptions. Do your research, talk to your doctor, and stick with the labeling instructions.