The packages claim they do it all: increase energy, speed up metabolism, decrease hunger pangs and improve sex drive. The variety of nutritional supplements for sale can be overwhelming. However, their usefulness can often be underwhelming.
More than 150 million Americans take dietary supplements each day and annual sales are in the billions of dollars. But questions remain about safety and whether supplements provide promised results.
“It is best to keep in mind that the FDA does not evaluate supplements for effectiveness,” says Cherie Roussos, a registered dietitian with Sharp Rees-Stealy. “And they only evaluate them for safety if they contain new ingredients or if consumers have reported adverse reactions.”
According to a study published by the New England Journal of Medicine, injuries caused by dietary supplements lead to more than 20,000 emergency room visits every year. Experts say that the lack of regulation of supplements in the U.S. will likely continue to result in allergic reactions, nausea, vomiting, cardiovascular problems and other medical emergencies.
The prime suspects in many cases are supplements that claim to aid in weight loss and energy improvement. At least 25 percent of the hospital visits involve young people between the ages of 20 and 34 experiencing chest pain and heart palpitations after taking these types of supplements.
While the FDA regulates prescription medicines for weight loss, like phentermine, and includes mandatory warnings about possible cardiac side effects on all packaging, supplements are not required to do the same.
“There are a variety of dangers in using supplements,” says Roussos. “There could be side effects when going beyond recommended doses and many supplements contain active ingredients that can interact adversely with prescribed medicines.”
When supplements make up for dietary shortfalls
However, not all supplements need to be avoided. When taken under the guidance of your doctor, some can provide the vitamins and minerals lacking in your diet. Pregnant women, nursing mothers, people over 50 and those with chronic illness may especially benefit from the vitamins and minerals found in supplements.
While Roussos advises that good nutrition should be your first priority over supplements, she does recognize the benefits of some:
- If you don’t enjoy eating fish on a regular basis, you may want to take an omega-3 fatty acid supplement.
- Vegans may consider taking vitamin B-12 because only animal foods naturally contain B-12.
- If your diet is low in dairy or calcium-rich foods, then you may want to take a calcium and vitamin D supplement to protect the health of your bones and teeth.
- A diet low in colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains may be assisted by a daily multivitamin.
- If you have anemia, you may benefit from taking an iron supplement.
Most importantly, always speak with your doctor before taking supplements of any kind. Carefully read labels, be wary of outrageous claims made in advertisements or on packaging, and never exceed the recommended daily dose.