Nutritional supplements uncovered

Originally published September 10, 2010

It is no secret that we Americans are obsessed with the idea of convenience. Heck, isn’t it our right to be?

Yet when it comes to our well-being, the convenient solution may not always be the best one.

This is often the case regarding nutritional supplements, a commonly misunderstood health product.

Nutritional supplements are frequently viewed by consumers as a silver-bullet: small pills loaded with vitamins and minerals that supposedly have the ability to prevent and/or cure countless ailments. While advertisers would love for you to believe this wonderfully simple notion about their products, the truth about nutritional supplements is much more complex.

In 2009, there were more than 54,000 nutritional supplements on the market, and Americans spent $26.7 billion on them, According to the Nutrition Business Journal.

With such high sales, it is easy to give into the faulty assumption that all nutritional supplements are inherently safe.

Most consumers would be shocked to know that governmental regulations controlling nutritional supplements are minimal at best.

The Food and Drug Administration is the government agency through which the vast majority of food and drug manufacturers must get their products approved for safety and/or efficacy. Yet for reasons largely unknown, these laws don’t seem to apply to nutritional supplements.

Gaps in federal law, lack of a clinical-trial system and ineffective supervision by the FDA have put both the health and money of consumers in danger.

Misleading advertising, potentially toxic doses of minerals and vitamins, ineffective ingredients (like sawdust!) and untested interactions with other drugs are just a few reasons to be leery of nutritional supplements.

Thankfully for consumers, there is a safer and easier way to meet all your required vitamin and mineral intakes.

If you haven’t already guessed what it is, here’s the answer …food!

Nutritional supplements will simply never be able to replace a healthy and balanced diet for numerous reasons.

For one, whole foods are more easily digested by the body and offer protective substances that are not typically found in supplements.

These protective substances include phytochemicals and antioxidants – chemical compounds that can help prevent such chronic ailments as cancer and heart disease.

Furthermore, fruits and vegetables are great sources of fiber, another substance that is not usually found in supplements.

Fiber not only keeps you regular, but it can also lower cholesterol and contribute to a healthy gastrointestinal tract.

Lastly, research has shown that the forms of magnesium, zinc and copper normally used in supplements are not as efficiently absorbed by the human body as the natural forms found in foods.

Although any credible health professional would recommend eating a healthy and balanced diet as the best way to meet all your nutritional needs, there are a few exceptions to the rule that should be noted.

Vegans and vegetarians, people on highly-restricted medical diets, and those who are either pregnant trying to get pregnant or breastfeeding are all considered to be at-risk for nutritional deficiencies.

If you happen to belong to one of these at-risk groups, a physician or registered dietitian may advise you to take part in nutritional supplementation that is both medically-supervised and specific to your condition.

If you absolutely insist on taking nutritional supplements, there are steps you can take to help you stay safe.

First, consult a physician or a registered dietitian before taking a supplement to find out which, if any, you should take.

Furthermore, read all of a supplement’s packaging with a keen eye.

Be suspicious of any claims that seem too good to be true, check expiration dates and only buy nationally recognized brands. Also, be sure to thoroughly read the nutritional information and ingredient list.

Each vitamin and mineral has a recommended dietary allowance that you should meet each day. If a supplement has more than 100 percent of the RDA for a specific vitamin or mineral (commonly called a “megadose”) it could potentially be toxic to your body.

Lastly, search the product for a United States Pharmacopeia seal which signifies that the product has undergone voluntary testing to meet government standards of strength, quality and chemical purity, among others.

One final piece of advice to follow before buying a nutritional supplement is to always browse the produce aisles of a grocery store first.

If you happen to stumble across any fruit or vegetable you enjoy, put the supplement back on the shelf and forget about it.

After all, why settle for the “convenient” and boring supplement when you could chow-down on a delicious (and more nutritious) fruit or vegetable instead?