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Should you use dietary supplements?

Published: Wednesday, June 11, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a dietary supplement is “a product intended for ingestion that contains a dietary ingredient intended to add further nutritional value to the diet.”  Common supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, protein powders, etc.  

People take dietary supplements for various reasons. Some of us hope these products will ward off disease, improve nutrition, or aid in weight loss, among other things.  Whatever the reason, it is important to use caution before beginning to use a supplement. 

Although many dietary supplements are derived from natural substances, “natural” does not necessarily mean safe. Even products labeled “natural” can contain ingredients that have strong effects in your body. These ingredients can cause drug interactions, and some ingredients, even vitamins, can be toxic if taken in excess. 

We assume that supplements are safe if they appear on the store shelf, but supplements are regulated differently than drugs. They might not have gone through the same rigorous trials required to bring them to market.

Contamination is another important concern. Although the FDA has warned the public about some supplements that contain illegal and potentially harmful ingredients, it seems as soon as the product is taken off the market another takes its place, containing the same ingredients.

Of special interest to me are supplements marketed for weight loss. Sometimes people add these to their diet hoping that they will magically melt fat. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix that takes the place of watching your calories and getting sufficient activity. Many of these products also have side effects. Why harm your health unnecessarily?

And substituting supplements for good nutrition might not be the best answer, either. The nutrients and other substances found in fresh, whole foods all work together. By extracting a specific nutrient and concentrating it into pill form (or capsule, powder, drink mix, etc.), you lose whatever interaction it may have had with other substances in the whole food.    

Taking a daily multivitamin is generally considered safe, although some experts believe it’s unnecessary. Should you use other supplements? You should if your health provider has identified a nutritional deficiency or other reason that you need one.

If you wonder if you might benefit from a supplement not suggested by your provider, check before using to make sure the supplement will not interfere with any condition you have or medication you are using and that you are taking it in safe amounts.  

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