Making Smart Dietary Supplement Choices

dietary-supplements280_420Should you take a multivitamin? What about fish oil or vitamin D?  Well – if you’re confused, you’re not alone. Conflicting news stories about their benefits vs. harm, combined with the MILLIONS of dietary supplement choices available in the market place, it’s no wonder making sense  out of supplements can be an exercise in frustration. To help you make an informed decision about whether or not supplementation is right for you here’s a few answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about the safety and effectiveness of dietary supplements.

What are dietary supplements?

A product intended to supplement the diet and contains one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins, minerals, herbs, other botanicals, amino acids etc.). Dietary supplements come in many shapes and sizes (tablets, capsules, powders, liquids, bars, tinctures, gummies and more) and must be labeled as a dietary supplement.

Are they regulated?

Yes, they are regulated – just not in the same way prescription drugs are. In the United States, the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates supplements based on the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. As such, manufacturers of dietary supplements are responsible for ensuring their supplements are safe, that claims made on labels are truthful and not misleading, and reporting adverse events linked to use of their products to the FDA. The FTC (the Federal Trade Commission) also regulates dietary supplements by monitoring advertising claims made in a variety of media channels including: newspapers, magazines, internet, TV, radio and direct mail to consumers).

How do I know if I need supplements?

If you’re like most Americans you probably don’t consume the amount and types of foods necessary to meet all your nutrient requirements. In fact, a large national nutrition survey found that most adults fall short in meeting their needs for calcium, potassium, magnesium, fiber and vitamins E, A and C. Other nutrients may also be of particular concern for certain population groups. For example: folic acid supplements are recommended for women of child bearing age and during pregnancy to reduce the risk of neural tube birth defects; older adults may need supplemental B12 because age is associated with conditions that reduce a person’s ability to digest and absorb B12 from food sources; and suboptimal vitamin D intakes may be a big concern for older adults, people with dark skin, strict vegans, and obese individuals. The best way to know if you need supplemental vitamin D is to ask your doctor to check the level of vitamin D in your blood.

Does natural always mean safe?

Although many dietary supplement ingredients come from natural sources, natural doesn’t always mean safe. For example, St John’s Wort, an herbal supplement used to ease signs of mild depression can interact with many different prescription medications potentially interfering with their effectiveness. Comfrey, a botanical known for its anti-inflammatory healing properties can cause liver damage if taken by mouth. If you have a chronic medication condition, or being treated for an acute illness, certain supplements may interact with traditional treatments. So remember “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean “safe” and making wise supplement choices means learning as much as you can about the safety of all supplements you plan to take, before deciding to take them.

Where can I learn more about the safety and effectiveness of supplements?

There are several reliable sources of information available on the internet. The Office of Dietary Supplements, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine ), the Linus Pauling Institute  and Consumer Health Digest Quackwatch  are all good places to start. To look for safety alerts about dietary supplements or to report an adverse event go to FDA’s MedWatch.

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