Supplement Savvy--Questions and Answers

Do supplements do any good?

This question can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”  It very much depends on which supplements you choose to take and also on what benefits you are looking for.  There are some supplements that contain very low levels and/or a lower quality of nutrients, and others that are just the opposite.  They will impact the body differently.  In terms of benefits, if you treat any supplement as if it is a “magic pill” that will protect you from heart disease, cancer, etc., I believe that is the wrong approach.

Can't I get all the nutrients I need from my food?

That really depends on how you define "need."  If you are asking if you can function normally in everyday life without ever swallowing a vitamin tablet, the answer is clearly “yes” (at least for most Americans, most of the time).  But if you are talking about getting all the nutrition your body needs to function optimally at a cellular level, and if you are talking about being proactive about preventing degenerative diseases, it has become more difficult to accomplish those goals with food alone.  How often do we feel well only be told by our doctor that we have high blood pressure or diabetes or cancer?  We are shocked, and respond with, “I feel fine!”  But something else has been going on at the cellular level.  It is at this deeper level of wellness that quality supplements can often provide additional support.  And it is often the case that what has been going on at the cellular level for years becomes more apparent as we age.

Where do you see supplements fitting into a healthy lifestyle?

I see supplements as one piece to consider in your own personal “healthy lifestyle pie.”  There are so many things that influence our health, and they tend to work together.  Supplements are not a magic bullet, but I do believe they can be an important component when combined with the other important pieces of the pie.

Are supplements regulated by the FDA?

This is not an easy, “yes” or “no” either.  They are in some ways, but by and large, they are not.  A company doesn’t have to get permission from the FDA to begin to manufacture a supplement product unless that supplement includes a brand new ingredient that has never been put into a supplement before.  (As you can imagine, that’s not the case most of the time.)  The law states that supplements must be safe, but it’s the responsibility of supplement manufacturers to make sure that’s the case. The FDA doesn’t have the money to go around randomly plucking vitamin bottles off shelves and testing them to see if they are safe or if the labeling is correct.  Where the FDA does step in is when someone reports a problem with a particular supplement—an adverse effect, for example.  The FDA has the authority to remove a supplement from the market once they build a legal case against it.  Here is the section of the FDA website that summarizes their role.  So what we basically have in the U.S. is an “honor” system for supplement manufacturers.  They are responsible to produce safe products and label their ingredients accurately.  And just like in any industry, some manufacturers take that very seriously and others don’t.

How can you tell a quality supplement from a poor or mediocre one?

You have to look “under the hood.” Think about this in terms of buying a car.  You can approach a car dealer and buy a car that looks good on the outside without knowing anything about the manufacturer, the safety record, the Carfax or the warranties.  But you probably wouldn’t.  In the same way, it’s wise to learn all you can about a supplement company before you buy.  You can start with basic who, what, where and why questions:

  • Who: Who designs the products?  Does the company employ scientists for this purpose?  Ask for names and bios.  If they don’t have a research and development team for their products, who decides what goes into each supplement?
  • What:  What have they chosen to put in the products?  Which antioxidants and minerals are included in their multivitamin and in what amounts?  What forms of each nutrient are chosen?  (Vitamin A or beta carotene, magnesium citrate or magnesium oxide, etc.)   Have the designers chosen forms that are well-absorbed by the body?  Has any thought been given to nutrients that work in synergy in the design of the products?  Are the nutrients of high quality?
  • Where and How:  Where are the products manufactured?  Does the company you purchase from oversee the manufacturing, or is that done by someone else?  How are they manufactured—to what standards?  What tests are performed on the products throughout the manufacturing process to ensure identity, purity, potency and dissolvability?  (You can design the greatest supplement in the world, but if it doesn’t break apart in time to be absorbed, you've lost the benefits.)  It is very important for a manufacturer to test each batch of raw ingredients to ensure that it is truly what it claims to be before it's put into a supplement.  Here's an example of why.  Bilberry is a relatively expensive component of vision supplements, so there is incentive to substitute cheaper berries or other plant products for it.  Imagine buying a supplement thinking you were getting real bilberry to help protect your vision but unbeknownst to you soybean hull has been substituted for the bilberry.  This kind of thing happens, and you can read about this example here.                
  • Why:  Why was this supplement created?  What is its purpose?  This goes back to our first question of do supplements do any good.  You really need to ask what the purpose of any given supplement is and what your purpose for taking it is.  Are you looking for something that provides the RDA’s of each nutrient?  Or are you looking to be more proactive about your health?

Why do prices for supplements vary so much?

I hope that what we’ve covered in the questions above makes this question easier to answer for you.  You can imagine the vast differences in cost that exist between companies that employ scientists to do research to develop products, that choose quality ingredients, that go to the trouble of setting up their own facility to oversee their manufacturing and that purchase the necessary technology to test their products throughout the manufacturing process and companies that import a product from China and put their label on it.  In the world of supplements, cost is very often an indicator of quality.

What about those scary vitamin studies we hear about?

This question really deserves an entire blog of its own.  (And I'd like to write it someday. :)  But for now, let me briefly mention three points in regard to negative vitamin stories in the news.  First, the devil is often in the details of those studies.  Sometimes the studies are flawed and sometimes vitamin "results" are later teased out of studies that were designed to produce those results.  Each study must be looked at individually to see if the results that are being claimed are valid.  Second, ask yourself who stands to benefit from studies that put supplements in a negative light.  Pharmaceutical companies.  If you think that there are no drug companies that would like to see supplements discredited, I encourage you to think again.  And third, media in all forms is always hungry for headlines that will grab people's attention.  If a study claims to have shown that vitamins cause cancer, do you think journalists are going to take the time and trouble to look into how that study was conducted before they publish that headline?  Here's one article with some commentary on vitamin studies.  And since you won't find this in the media, here is a 50 page list of studies over the years that show some of the benefits of nutritional supplements.  If you run across headlines or articles on supplements that trouble you, I invite you to send me the link for them. I'll be happy to give you some feedback, and I have access to scientists that can comment as well. There is a form on my "Work with Me" page that you can use for that.

What are some supplements that make sense for most Americans?

Again, I think you begin by taking a look at what foods you eat on a regular basis and where you feel most challenged in the area of healthy eating.  For most Americans, I think it makes sense to consider a multivitamin, Vitamin D (because most multi's don't contain enough) and fish oil.  My reasons?  A good multivitamin fills gaps in nutrition and helps to ensure that the range of nutrients are on hand to complete the synergistic chemical processes that go in the body. Proactive levels of vitamin D are difficult to obtain from the sun alone in the U.S. (due to our latitude), and fish oil because the majority of Americans don't eat enough omega 3 fatty acids.  Fish oil is also anti-inflammatory, and most of us are dealing with inflammation at some level.  (Here are several links for studies involving multivitamins for men and heart disease death and breast cancer for women.)

Feel free to post your additional questions below, and I'll do my best to answer them.  Also, know that my February 2016 newsletter addresses the area of supplements. So if you aren't on my mailing list, sign up at the very bottom of this page, and I'll make sure you get that issue.  You can also check my Facebook page (icon below) during the weeks of February 2nd and 9th, 2016, for more information about supplements.