A wellness guide to dietary supplements

By Jenni Wolf

As a registered dietitian, one of the most common wellness topics I get asked about is supplements.

And with tens of thousands of different products on the market and more than 1,000 new ones getting introduced every year, I am not the least bit surprised by getting questions!

It can be really confusing. Do I need a supplement? What should I take? What are the risks and benefits? Here is what you need to know to better understand supplements and to help you decide if and how they fit into your wellness routine:

Dietary supplements refer to a wide variety of products. But they typically include vitamins, minerals, botanicals such as herbs, amino acids or enzymes.

The Food and Drug Administration is responsible for regulating supplements. However, regulation is less strict than that of prescription or over-the-counter drugs.

The main source of regulation is governed by the FDA’s Good Manufacturing Practices that all supplement companies must follow to help ensure the safety of these products.

The FDA can randomly inspect manufacturers and their supplements once they have come to market to ensure they are meeting GMPs. However, the FDA does not have authorization to inspect a product before it is marketed for sale. That means that a supplement may in fact be unsafe and sold to consumers before it is discovered by the FDA.

There are third-party organizations that offer certifications and product seals. These groups claim things like quality assurance, effectiveness or being “natural.” However, this does not guarantee that a product is safe or effective at its claims, and again, does not mean that it has been approved by the FDA.

Supplements are added to our food supply. Vitamins and minerals, two very common types of supplements, are often added to packaged or processed foods we eat. We refer to these as enriched foods. Think breads, cereals, snack foods, etc.

Another example is calcium added to orange juice. This is a reminder that you may be getting more of a nutrient than you think.

Consuming enriched foods, in addition to taking an isolated form in a supplement, may lead you to spend extra money on something you don’t actually need and could put you at risk for negative health outcomes associated with overconsumption.

It is possible for most Americans to get adequate nutrition through food if: one is eating regular meals and snacks; enjoys a wide variety of food; doesn’t have any allergies, dietary restrictions or medical conditions; has time to shop for and prepare food; and can afford a variety of foods. For these folks, eating a wide variety of foods at three meals and several snacks throughout the day is likely to provide what one needs.

Now, what about the rest of the population? That includes those of us who are vegan or lactose intolerant, have picky eaters at home, have limited money to spend on groceries, have chronically low iron when we go to donate blood (I can speak from experience) or don’t have time to cook and are often eating out?

A supplement can often come in handy to help fill in the gaps we might find that are caused by some of those limitations that might reduce our intake and variety of food or offer relief from symptoms we might be experiencing.

Remember, we only know what we know. We have varying amounts of scientific research and evidence that supports the effectiveness of supplements.

Bottom line: Some supplements we know a lot about and have strong data to back up claims that they promote health or reduce the risk of negative health outcomes. But many other supplements we know very little about and therefore very little about their effectiveness and side effects. Doing your research is important before deciding on a supplement.

Please check with your healthcare provider for individualized recommendations and to learn more about your own personal health and wellness needs.

Sources: National Institute of Health: National Center for Complimentary and Integrative Health & Office of Dietary Supplements 

Jenni Wolf, a registered dietitian, writes about food and nutrition for the Bugle.

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