We Americans love us some supplements. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, 52% of Americans self-reported using supplements of some kind between 1999 to 2012. This has turned the supplement market into a multi-billion dollar a year industry, despite the fact that the evidence surrounding supplements shows they’re useless at best and harmful at worst.
Now, I’m not against natural treatments or medicine if they work. I am, however, against spending a lot of money on something without knowing what is in it and/or if you even need it. The biggest problem I have with supplements is that the majority of people who take them do so because they think that it will counteract their not-so-great eating/exercising habits or prevent health problems from arising in the first place. They also take them without knowing if they actually need them or not. This can lead to some real problems.
Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA like prescription medications. This is because of a loophole that allows products that are not made to treat or prevent illness to bypass inspection. Generally these products have what is called the “Quack Miranda Warning“, which states that the product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness (even though they’re obviously marketing the product as if it does one or all of those things). You will often find this statement on homeopathic products, too.
Of course, not everything regulated by the FDA is safe, and science is changing opinions all the time, but when a product is regulated it has to go through a lot of testing to ensure that what’s on the label is actually in the bottle.
Because they don’t have to go through the strenuous process of regulation, the makers of supplements can get their products onto the market very quickly. And because there are no independent laboratories testing their products, you’ll never really know what you’re getting. This has been known to cause real problems for people.
Frontline did a really great documentary on supplements and I think it’s worth watching for anyone who is thinking about taking them. They look at both sides and showcase real stories of people who’ve been harmed by the unregulated market.
This is not to say that you can’t trust any supplement maker or that they can’t be helpful in some cases, but you have to go into it understanding that you may not be getting what you paid for. In some cases this just means you’ve wasted your money, but other times it could mean that you’re putting yourself in harm’s way by taking something you think is making you healthier.
Do You Need Them?
I would argue that the majority of people have no need for dietary or weight loss supplements. By changing your diet and exercise regimen, you’ll get the benefits of what those supplements promise but rarely deliver.
However, there are cases in which people need vitamin supplements and this is where things get a bit tricky. Now, for the most part you can get most of your vitamins, nutrients and minerals from the food you eat and other natural sources (like the sun for vitamin D, for example), but if you do not have access to such means and/or are severely deficient, you may find yourself needing to supplement your body’s production.
I’ll use myself as an example here. I found out recently that I am severely deficient in vitamin D. This was not surprising to me because I avoid the sun at all costs. Really, I avoid the outdoors at all costs, but that’s neither here nor there. It also made sense when I think about the symptoms I’ve been having.
Because of how low my levels are, I need to take a supplement of some sort. I will incorporate foods into this, as well, but I need to get it back up to a normal level first and I’m a bit skittish about taking them.
As I stated above, what’s in the bottle doesn’t always correspond with what’s on the label when it comes to supplements, and vitamin D is no exception. There is such a thing as too much of a vitamin or mineral and it can cause more problems than a deficiency.
Many years ago when I was struggling pretty badly, I was drinking two to three 5 Hour Energy’s a day. This quickly led to a vitamin B overdose and I found myself very symptomatic.
When it comes down to it, more often than not that supplement or multi-vitamin in your cabinet is a waste of money and even if the label is correct, you probably don’t need it. I’m not saying that you will never need a supplement or that you should never take them, but I am saying to be cautious and not to take anything unless you know you’re deficient.
Without confirmation of a deficiency, like a blood test, you could be overloading yourself with the vitamin or mineral in question and causing yourself even more problems. It’s one thing to be deficient and take a vitamin that actually has a lot more in one capsule than the label states, but if you’ve already got enough of the vitamin naturally and you’re taking one, you’re going to skyrocket the level in your system.
So, the takeaway is as follows:
- Don’t take a supplement unless you know for sure you need it;
- Be cautious with which supplements you take, understanding that they may not be what they should;
- Always try to get the vitamins and minerals you need through diet first, and
- Don’t rely on a dietary supplement to prevent illness – eat right and exercise and your body will do it for you.