Many people have had a desire to get healthier, which leads them to the vitamin aisle at the grocery store or the local health food store. There, the sheer magnitude of the selection promptly overwhelms and intimidates the shopper. So what should the average consumer know about the need for dietary supplements?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration defines a dietary supplement as “a product taken by mouth that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement the diet.”
“’Dietary supplements’ is the umbrella phrase that includes vitamins, minerals, botanicals and amino acids,” says Rene’ Norman, RD/LD, registered and licensed dietitian at Bailey Bariatrics in Owasso.
But when are these supplements necessary? According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, it is best to have a discussion with a doctor to determine what nutrients may be lacking from the average diet.
The best way to get necessary vitamins and minerals is through the food we eat, but the FDA recommends creating a “vitamin strategy” – a plan for how to meet the recommended intake for vital vitamins and minerals.
“As a dietitian, I prefer that people get their nutrients through food first and supplement if needed,” says Norman.
She also points out that many nutrients have been added to the food supply to help prevent deficiencies. For example, “many breads, pastas, rice and cereals are fortified with iron, thiamin (B1), niacin (B2), riboflavin (B3) and folic acid,” she says.
But there are times when diet supplementation becomes necessary, and the first step in determining this is to talk with a doctor.
“People should ask their doctors if certain supplements are right for them. The best way to do this is to keep a diary of what you are eating so that your doctor can help you assess if there are any nutrients you are missing out on,” recommends Dr. Ashley Hildebrand, In His Image Family Medicine Residency, Family Medical Care at St. John Clinic.
A doctor might recommend diet supplementation for certain groups of people. These can include pregnant and nursing women, adults over the age of 50, people with certain health problems and people who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet.
Once the decision has been made to supplement the diet, it is important to be aware of dosage requirements and upper limits, potential interactions with other medications and possible side effects.
Always follow the dosage instructions with any product, as it is possible to get too much of a good thing in some cases.
“If you eat a well-balanced diet but continue to take vitamins and are not watchful about the recommended daily allowance taken in, you could end up over-supplemented and in unsafe territory,” cautions Hildebrand.
It is also important to know that supplements can interact negatively with some prescription and over-the-counter medications. This is another good reason to check with your doctor before starting any new supplemental nutrition.
“When it comes to supplements and drug interactions, it comes down to making sure your physician and pharmacist know everything that you are taking in,” says Hildebrand.
Not all brands of dietary supplements are created equal. Because of the way supplements are regulated, the ingredients don’t have to be verified in the amounts stated on the labels. It is important for the consumer to do research on the specific brand of supplement he or she is considering.
“Because vitamins, minerals and supplements are not regulated by the federal government, there may be inconsistencies in what is advertised and what is actually in the product,” says Hildebrand.
Fortunately, third-party organizations make this research easier. Independent testing organizations like the U.S. Pharmacopeial (USP) Convention and NSF International put distinctive marks on products they have reviewed.
For a fee, consumers can gain access to ConsumerLabs.com and the results of the tests this organization performs on products to determine if the product actually contains what is listed on the label, suggests Norman. The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements also offers more information, she adds.
Though these products are not regulated by the FDA, there are rules governing how they are labeled and marketed and the promises made on packaging.
“Under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA), companies that make and distribute dietary supplements cannot market these products if the products are adulterated and misbranded. If there is a question about a product, the FDA is responsible for taking action against the product,” says Norman.
Many people are getting all the vitamins and nutrients they need through the food that they eat. But when that isn’t the case, the use of dietary supplements can help meet those requirements. It is important to work with a doctor to determine the need for these supplements, as well as to ensure they are improving overall health and producing desired results.