Supplement Navigation 101

Pittsburgh Dietitian Blog Posts
May 7, 2017

By Laine Greenawalt MS ACSM-CPT, RDEDietary Supplements – How to navigate the advertising chaos and be an informed consumer. Have you ever considered taking a dietary supplement? If so, you’re not alone. More than two-thirds of Americans take dietary supplements each year and the supplement industry was booming in 2016, generating 121.6 billion dollars. As a health professional, it’s exciting to know that the public has taken such an interest in their health. But with this booming industry also comes a plethora of information. Add this to the constant barrage of advertisements selling everything from weight loss to increased muscle size and you have dietary supplement wilderness that is often confusing to consumers. So how do you navigate the hype and determine if a supplement really is for you? Here are a couple things to consider before starting a new dietary supplement.Supplements ≠ Food. Dietary supplements are intended to supplement a healthy diet, not replace it. They should be used to fill any holes in our diet and lifestyle. Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, amino acids, and enzymes (or any combination of these) and can come in many forms including tablets, capsules, powders, energy drinks and bars.Are they safe? The regulations for dietary supplements are less strict than those for prescription or over-the-counter drugs and the FDA does not regulate whether dietary supplements are effective before they hit the market. To determine a supplements efficacy, look for scientific research from sources such as The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) or the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS). Both sources have free publications and information on their website.Additionally, several independent organizations offer quality testing for dietary supplements. These organizations offer seals of approval for products that pass their third-party testing. These seals can be found on the supplement label and provide assurance that the product was properly manufactured, contains the ingredients listed on the label, and does not contain harmful contaminants. However, these seals do not guarantee that a product is safe or effective. Organizations that offer this quality testing include:

  • S. Pharmacopeia
  • com
  • NSF International

Below are some tips that will help you be a savvy supplement user.

  1. Ask: Does it sound too good to be true?

If the claims for a product seem exaggerated or unrealistic, they probably are. Being a savvy supplement user means learning to distinguish the hype from evidence-based science; sound health advice is generally based on a body of research, not a single study. Be skeptical of anecdotal information or personal testimonials about the incredible benefits of a product from people with no formal training in nutrition (e.g. your cousin Greg who ‘lost 15 pounds of fat in 2 days’). Watch out for false statements like “works better than [a prescription drug],” “totally safe,” or has “no side effects.”

  1. “Natural” does not necessarily mean “safe”.

The term “all natural” can be misleading. Unlike the term “organic”, “all natural’ is not an official term regulated by the federal government and does not guarantee a product’s safety. Additionally, the term “standardized” (or “verified” or “certified”) does not necessarily guarantee product quality or consistency. “Pharmaceutical strength” is another one to watch out for, there is no such thing as pharmaceutical strength for over-the-counter supplements. Be an informed consumer.

  1. Always talk with your health care provider before taking a dietary supplement.

Interactions are possible. Some dietary supplements, such as St. John’s wort, may interact with medications or other dietary supplements. Telling your health care provider about any supplements you are using will help ensure you receive coordinated, safe care.

  1. Consider the source of the information.

When searching for supplements, opt for noncommercial sources run by the government, a university, or other reputable health-related association (e.g. NIH, FDA, American Medical Association). Also, consider if the information has been reviewed by qualified health professionals. Be aware of practitioners or organizations whose main interest is in marketing products. Most nonprofit and government sites contain no advertising; and access to the site and materials offered are usually free. Finally, make sure the information has been updated recently so that all new research is reflected.Meeting with a Dietitian can be a great way to sort through your options and choose a path that works for you. For more information on certain supplements, as well as links to the supplements commonly recommended by Case Specific Dietitian's, click Case Specific Nutrition!Resources

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