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Here's the scoop on supplements


Kathy Kolasa


Kathy Kolasa

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Q All my friends take supplements. Should I be taking something? — P.K., Greenville.

A I am sorry, but you haven’t given me enough information about your age, gender, eating habits, medical conditions, physical activity or health goals to be able to give you an answer. But Gabriella Hansen, a public health student at Liberty University who volunteered at Family Medicine Center this summer, was eager to give you some things to think about as you decide if you should take a supplement. Here is what she wants you to know.

In our society today, one can go to almost any grocery or drug store and find one or more aisles filled with supplements. Supplements can range anywhere from protein bars, shakes, vitamins and even herbs. They can come in many forms such as capsules, powders, soft gels or gel caps. The word “supplement” itself means “something that completes or makes an addition.” As of 2007, the supplement industry was a $981 million industry with a growth rate of 25 percent to 30 percent annually.

Companies market these supplements in such a way to entice the consumer to purchase their products. They do this by promising outcomes such as weight loss, weight gain, an increase in energy, muscle improvement, disease prevention and overall better health. But not all claims are backed up by science. I like to think about supplements in two categories — those that provide vitamins, minerals, protein and other known nutrients, and then all the rest of the supplements.

In our experience, most patients are not aware that the majority of their daily intake of vitamins and minerals could come from the foods they eat if they followed healthy eating guidelines. When it comes to nutrients, you shouldn’t take the approach that taking a supplement might or might not help, but it can’t hurt. It can hurt. We know that consuming supplements in excess can increase the risk of experiencing toxicity. Toxicity is defined as “the quality, state or relative degree of being toxic or poisonous.”

It’s easy to exceed the daily tolerable limit for some nutrients without realizing you are putting your health at risk. A simple example of this would be if an individual had a cold and took Vitamin C tablets as well as ate three well-balanced meals with fruits and vegetables high in Vitamin C. She could easily go over the “upper tolerable limit” for Vitamin C, which is 2 grams a day for adults 18 and older. A few side effects that may occur when going over one’s upper tolerable limit for Vitamin C are diarrhea, heartburn and headaches. Depending upon the supplement, the side effects could be a lot worse.

There are health-related circumstances where taking a nutrient supplement is needed. Those who are vegan or vegetarian have to plan carefully to get enough Vitamin B12 in their diet. Vitamin B12 is found naturally in animal products such as meats, dairy, eggs and fish. Vegans and vegetarians may need to take a B12 supplement to make sure they are receiving their daily intake to avoid the problems such as fatigue, disorientation, numbness and tingling, sleeping difficulties and depression that could be caused by a B12 deficiency.

From time to time, we hear reports that supplements can pose some risks if they contain ingredients that possess the same chemical components as a prescription medicine. Unlike drugs, supplements are not FDA tested before hitting the shelves. This allows manufacturers who are less than honest to make suggestive health claims related to the supplement. According to an article in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing, some manufacturers have released their products as a supplement instead of a drug to avoid the testing required to become an over-the-counter medicine.

Next time you find yourself wandering down the supplements aisle, I would encourage you to first focus on getting your daily needs through the foods you eat. If that is not realistic, I would suggest talking with your family doctor or registered dietitian nutritionist about what you may need to improve your health. If you go it alone, first analyze your diet at https://www.nal.usda.gov/fnic/interactiveDRI/ to see what nutrients you might need. To learn about supplements, use a credible website such as https://www.consumerlab.com or the new website on supplement safety from the Department of Defense at https://www.opss.org/dietary-supplement-ingredients.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an Affiliate Professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.