Supplemyths® provides dietary and nutritional counseling to clients from around the United States and abroad. Through virtual one-on-one coaching, Supplemyths® promotes an integrative and functional medicine approach towards optimizing health.
As a registered dietitian, I get questions about supplements all the time. Though I am a believer in using whole foods first to replete nutrient deficiencies, there are instances where supplements are necessary. Unfortunately, the world of supplements is mired with confusion and deception, making it difficult to know which products and brands to trust. The average consumer assumes that all supplements appearing on store shelves have passed rigorous pre-market testing. With few exceptions, that couldn't be further from the truth!
Below are common misconceptions about supplements, what I call Supplemyths®.
The FDA aggressively regulates supplements.
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) classifies supplements as foods and not drugs. Though it just seems like semantics, it's actually a very big deal. Supplements, like food, are NOT tested before going onto the market and the manufacturer does not have to prove the ingredients are either safe or effective. The FDA does NOT analyze supplements before they are sold. Their primary responsibility is to investigate claims after injury and/or illness occur. They must prove risk and/or adulteration to have them removed from the marketplace. Unfortunately, they have the burden of proof that the supplement is unsafe, a very large undertaking, considering the agency is understaffed.
However, there are supplement brands that are held to a higher standard; these are called drug-registered supplements. They are treated like a prescription drug in the sense that they are tested before going onto the market. In addition, they...
- Guarantee consistency from pill to pill
- Assure that their product will assimilate into your gut
- Test for stability
- Prevent cross-contamination
- Assay for impurities
- Test all raw materials and finished products
- Use higher quality ingredients
- Typically use easy to absorb forms of nutrients
These are the only brands that I recommend.
For more information on how the FDA "regulates" supplements, click here. Pay particular attention to the responses for the following questions:
"What is FDA's role in regulating dietary supplements versus the manufacturer's responsibility for marketing them?"
"Where can I get information about a specific dietary supplement?"
"Who has the responsibility for ensuring that a dietary supplement is safe?"
"Do manufacturers or distributors of dietary supplements have to tell FDA or consumers what evidence they have about their products safety or what evidence they have to back up the claims they are making for them?"
"Does FDA routinely analyze the content of dietary supplements?"
Manufacturers and distributors need FDA approval before selling their dietary supplements.
This is false. Manufacturers and distributors do not need approval before selling their products.
Supplements contain nutrients that are easy to absorb.
This is also false. The vast majority of products use non-chelated and non-methylated forms of nutrients, which makes them harder for the body to absorb. The companies that do this do so to keep costs down, but ultimately, you may not be getting the nutrition you think you're getting.
One multivitamin a day is enough for optimal health.
I can't tell you how many people think this is true, but unfortunately it is another myth. Multivitamins should be taken in multiple doses throughout the day to increase absorption; the body can only absorb so much at one time. Also, multivitamins are not meant to meet 100% of your needs and it's not uncommon for people taking supplements to still be low in key nutrients. I see this frequently on the micronutrient panel I run. To learn how micronutrient deficiencies occur (even with a fantastic diet), click here.
Supplements can only be sold if they are shown to be effective.
Untrue. Supplements do not have to show they're effective to be sold and unless they're found to cause harm, the FDA likely won’t pull them from shelves.
The only thing supplements are good for is giving you expensive urine.
True AND false. If you buy a product with hard to absorb nutrients and you don't take it in multiple doses, then this statement is true. However, if you're using a drug-registered product with bioavailable nutrients and you take it in divided doses, then this statement is false since your body will use what it needs.
How common are tainted supplements?
It's hard to say, since only a fraction of what's on the market is caught, but it's important to note that millions of Americans safely take supplements every day. Here's an article that discusses this very issue. Other articles include:
Spike in Harm to Liver is Tied to Dietary Aids (NY Times)
Beware of Illegally Sold Diabetes Treatments (FDA)
Oregon AG Accuses Retailer GNC of Selling Drug-Spiked Dietary Supplements (USA Today)
Liver Damage from Supplements Is On the Rise (Consumer Reports)
New York Attorney General Targets Supplements at Major Retailers (NY Times)
There are hundreds more I can post, but sitting down all day isn't good for you.
Is supplementing really necessary? Don't foods provide all the nutrients we need?
Yes and no. Supplementing may be necessary depending on various factors including your genetic makeup, diet, stress levels, nutrient status, how well and how long you sleep and many others. If any of these factors are out of balance, nutrient deficiencies can occur. Though whole foods are rich in nutrients, they may not provide you with everything you need. For instance, vitamin D is found in only a handful of foods. Unless you eat all of these foods every day, chances are you'll need to supplement (especially in the winter months if you live 37º north or south of the equator). Genetic mutations, like an MTHFR mutation (which effects about 50% of Americans), require higher levels of nutrients than those without the mutation and supplementing is typically advised. The freshness of food is another factor- fruits and vegetables contain the most nutrients when just picked and lose half their nutritional value within two days. Even if you eat food the day you buy it, you have no way of knowing when it was picked or how long it sat in the grocery store. For these reasons, supplementing may be necessary.
To learn more about how nutrient deficiencies occur, download my guide: 10 Reasons You Have Nutrient Deficiencies No Matter How Great Your Diet Is