Dietary supplements are more accessible now than ever before and there seems to be a supplement for every health concern. Amidst the confusion, how do you know what supplements you should take, if any?November 17, 2022 5:11 pm May 24, 2022 3:47 pm
The rise of dietary supplements
Dietary supplements have boomed in recent years to become an extremely lucrative business. The supplement industry targets several different age groups and demographics, however older adults in particular make up a big part of supplement sales. In fact, a survey of adults aged over 60 years found that 70% take a daily supplement, over half take one or two supplements and just under one third take at least four supplements.(1)
The question is, are supplements necessary? Or are they just a waste of money? Why do people take them and if they are helpful, which supplements should you take? One thing is for sure, supplements should never be a substitute for a healthy and balanced diet.
Much like you cannot “out-exercise a bad diet”, you also shouldn’t aim to “out-supplement a bad diet”! In fact, focusing on attaining health through supplements can take the attention away from healthy lifestyle habits which can be much more beneficial for your health.
The term supplement is a generic name that encompasses a myriad of different products from vitamins and minerals to botanicals, hormones and biosimilars. In general however, supplement refers to a single vitamin or mineral pill or a multivitamin which by definition contains at least 10 vitamins and/or minerals.
Despite their popularity, supplements are not “miracle pills” and do not always live up to their claims. Indeed, a group of researchers investigated the effects of supplemental vitamins and minerals on cardiovascular disease prevention. They found that the top four most commonly used supplements: multivitamins, calcium, vitamin D and vitamin C did not offer significant protection against the risk of cardiovascular disease.(2)
Conversely, there is some evidence that certain supplements may confer some benefits. For example, Harvard researchers looked at the effects of a daily multivitamin in men over an 11 year period. They found that those who took the multivitamin had an 8% decreased risk of cancer and a 9% lower risk of developing cataracts compared to a placebo group.(3)
The conflicting evidence makes it challenging to make absolute claims regarding supplements. However, there are other factors at play, from marketing tactics to psychological beliefs which continue to steer people towards supplements.
“Are supplements necessary? One thing is for sure, supplements should never be a substitute for a healthy and balanced diet.”
A highly unregulated industry
Interestingly, despite the lack of solid evidence to support significant benefits of many supplements, many people continue to take them. Why is it that if the health benefits are not guaranteed for an average healthy person, so many people take certain supplements?
Part of the reason may be a placebo effect. In fact, people feel “healthier” if they believe they are actively doing something that they think is beneficial for their health. Moreover, many people believe that taking supplements is somewhat of an “insurance policy”. In other words, by taking a supplement they think they can cover any nutritional gaps in their diet that food alone is not fulfilling.
Moreover, a major concern with supplements is that, unlike medical drugs, an overarching governing body does not strictly regulate them. In fact, almost anyone can launch a supplement brand without any legitimate science or safety and efficacy controls to support it.
What’s more, given the limited amount of regulation, it can be challenging for consumers to know exactly what ingredients are contained in the supplement and if there are any contaminants. Transparency is not guaranteed in many cases and manufacturers do not give away all of the information about their product.
Young people are some of the most vulnerable when it comes to marketing tactics utilised by supplement manufacturers. This is especially true for supplements aimed at weight loss. In fact, Professor Austin from the Department of Social and Behavioural Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health says that this is a matter of concern. He states that young people grow up believing that their physical appearance is their defining characteristic. This in turn “sets them up for escalating weight control methods, and for any kind of pill or potion they can find that will keep them from gaining weight”.
Austin is also the director of STRIPED, Strategic Training Initiative for the Prevention of Eating Disorders. Austin and his team led a study which found that the use of diet pills amongst women and girls increases the risk of developing eating disorders. Healthcare professionals do not recommend diet pills or laxatives to manage weight in a healthy way. In fact, using such products can lead to negative health outcomes such as high blood pressure, liver and kidney damage.(4)
Beware of misleading marketing
It’s important to note that there is a lot of marketing jargon involved when it comes to the supplement industry. This makes it confusing for people to understand which supplement they should take.
Christine Rosenbloom is a professor of nutrition and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. She advises to use caution when reading supplement labels. In fact, supplements that claim to have all “natural” ingredients are likely to contain some synthetic ingredients. However, “synthetic” does not equal inferior. Indeed, if a pill contained exclusively “natural” ingredients, its size would be much larger than a pill.(5)
What’s more, in order for our bodies to absorb the contents of a pill, it needs to dissolve and disintegrate in our stomach. It’s important to check that the supplement brand conducts independent testing to ensure that your body will absorb the supplements.
Moreover, many supplements boast over 100% of daily values for nutrients, with some providing up to 300% of the daily recommended