This article was written by Brett Delaney under the direction and review of Megan Olesen.
We frequently hear about new supplements that have been developed and advertised as miracle drugs that can provide such claims as rapid weight loss or quick muscle growth. The Federal Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate dietary supplements, which means that manufacturers do not have to demonstrate any proof of safety or effectiveness of their product before selling them to the public. With so many varieties and no regulations, how do you sort through all this information or know if they are really necessary?
The best advice is to choose food first, supplements second. Think of supplements as an insurance policy, not the foundation that holds your diet together. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), most healthy individuals do not need supplements.1 By eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods like fruit and vegetables, you can consume the nutrients needed to be healthy and help lower the chances of developing chronic disease. Along with regular exercise, these are the most cost effective ways towards good health. There are, however, individuals that may need supplements to meet their nutritional needs. These would include individuals who are on a restrictive diet (<1600 calories/day), an older adult (+50), vegetarian, pregnant woman, breastfed infants, or a person who has a medical condition that limits their food selection. For those who are physically active and want to learn more about nutritional supplements, visit the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics article on Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for Athletes. For a better understanding of how to choose foods that provide the daily requirements for nutrients see the USDA websites: Choose My Plate or the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
How to Choose
If you still decide that vitamin and mineral supplements should be a part of your diet, you should limit the potency to <100% of your Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) according to life stage, age, and gender. Consuming more than 100% of the Daily Value (DV) is deemed unsafe and can lead to toxicity of certain nutrients. Here are some tips that should steer you in the right direction:
- Look for the “USP-verified” symbol. This is the gold standard for supplements and helps the consumer know if the product has quality ingredients, accurate potency, and has no contaminants.
- Know what you really need and take only enough to supplement your diet.
- When looking at the claims, be a realist. If a supplement sounds too good to be true, it likely is.
- Being “natural” does not mean the same as safe or effective.
- Watch for buzzwords and phrases. Be wary if a product states it has been used for a million of years, belittles the scientific community, has a secret formula or boasts that it is quick and easy.
Research has shown many of these claims from supplement companies to be false and misleading. Remember, whole food contains nutrition that a pill cannot provide us. Review your individual situation with your doctor or a Registered Dietitian (RDN) before considering supplements. Here are additional resources to help answer some of your questions:
- National Institutes of Health, Office of Dietary Supplements
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Dietary Supplements
- Federal Trade Commission, Consumer Information
- 1American Dietetic Association: Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrient Supplementation. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009.
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
- National Institute of Health. Office of Dietary Supplement