Dietary supplements are products that people use to add nutrients or other compounds to their bodies.
From individual vitamins and minerals to blends of nutrients and herbs, there are numerous supplement products on the market that claim to provide specific health benefits.
However, due to limited regulation, it’s not always clear which supplements are high quality, nor which are a waste of your money or even potentially dangerous.
This guide covers all you need to know about what supplements are and how to choose a safe and high quality product.
Supplements are products that are taken by mouth and contain a “dietary ingredient,” such as vitamins, minerals, herbs and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, probiotics, antioxidants, or other nutrients (1Trusted Source).
Available in numerous forms, including capsules, gummies, tinctures, powders, and liquids, dietary supplements are typically marketed as an easy and efficient way to boost your physical or mental health.
- Vitamins. Vitamins are essential nutrients that your body needs to function properly and stay healthy. Many help regulate vital metabolic functions, including growth, nerve function, and digestion.
- Fat-soluble vitamins. These vitamins dissolve in fat and can be stored in your body. They include vitamins A, D, E, and K.
- Water-soluble vitamins. These vitamins dissolve in water and are not stored by the body. They include vitamin C and B vitamins.
- Minerals. Minerals are inorganic elements that are essential for specific bodily functions, such as growth, bone health, and fluid balance.
- Proprietary blend. A proprietary blend is a unique combination of ingredients that’s created by a supplement manufacturer. Oftentimes, it’s hard to tell from the label how much of each ingredient the blend contains.
For most healthy individuals, it’s possible to consume all the vitamins and minerals you need through diet alone. However, there are certain conditions, medications, and circumstances when supplements may be needed to meet nutritional needs.
Still, a key point to make when talking about dietary supplements is that they’re designed to supplement — not replace — nutrients or other compounds in your diet.
This means that even if you’re taking a supplement, it’s still important to consume a varied and balanced diet if possible.
Supplements are products containing ingredients like vitamins, minerals, and botanicals. They’re taken by mouth to support or improve some aspect of health.
Eating a variety of foods is the best way to ensure that you’re meeting your vitamin and mineral needs.
After all, different foods contain varying amounts and combinations of nutrients. For example, citrus fruits are known for being high in vitamin C, while leafy greens are an excellent source of vitamin K (5Trusted Source, 6Trusted Source).
In addition to vitamins and minerals, foods contain other essential nutrients, including protein, healthy fats, and fiber — all of which are needed for overall health and optimal bodily functioning (2Trusted Source, 7Trusted Source).
Furthermore, plant-based foods, in particular, are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals, two classes of compounds that are linked to benefits reduced inflammation and protection against chronic disease (8Trusted Source, 9Trusted Source, 10Trusted Source).
In contrast, supplements do not offer the same nutritional benefits. As they’re meant to supplement — not replace — a healthy diet, they generally provide only concentrated amounts of specific nutrients (11Trusted Source).
One observational study in 30,899 adults in the United States found that adequate intake of certain nutrients through food sources was associated with a reduced risk of death from heart disease, as well as death from any cause (12Trusted Source).
However, consuming the same nutrients in supplement form did not reduce the risk of death from heart disease or any cause (12Trusted Source).
Individuals with nutrient deficiencies or those at increased risk of inadequate nutrient intake, such as women who are pregnant, can benefit from taking supplements as recommended by a medical professional.
Whole foods contain more than just vitamins and minerals. A varied and balanced diet also provides other essential nutrients and important plant compounds for health. Supplements are meant to help fill gaps in your nutrient needs.
In general, taking vitamin and mineral supplements is not necessary for healthy adults with adequate intakes of these nutrients. While it’s preferred to get these essential nutrients through your diet, some may struggle to do so.
- women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
- exclusively or partially breastfed infants
- adults or children with diagnosed nutritional deficiencies
- individuals with conditions causing nutrient malabsorption
- those who have undergone bariatric surgery, such as gastric bypass
- adults or children with restricted access to foods
- some vegans and vegetarians
Some nutrient deficiencies are also more common, for example, vitamin D (17Trusted Source).
Unlike other vitamins, it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from your diet alone. While your body can make vitamin D from exposure to sunlight, it’s estimated that one billion people worldwide have low levels of this vitamin (18Trusted Source).
Frequently wearing sunscreen, living far north or south of the equator, staying indoors, and having darker skin are all risk factors for being deficient in vitamin D (19Trusted Source).
Furthermore, older adults may not be as effective at synthesizing vitamin D due to biological changes in the skin that naturally occur with age (20Trusted Source).
As a result, vitamin D supplements are commonly recommended.
If you’re concerned about getting adequate vitamins and minerals from food alone, talk with your healthcare provider for personalized recommendations regarding the type of supplement you may need, as well as the appropriate dose.
Additionally, while prenatal vitamins are recommended during pregnancy and sometimes while breastfeeding, these populations should avoid herbal supplements unless a medical provider suggests otherwise (21Trusted Source).
Supplements for kids
Healthy children are generally able to meet their nutritional needs through a varied diet alone (22).
However, there are certain age groups and circumstances in which supplements may be recommended.
For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that partially and exclusively breastfed infants receive approximately 400 IU of vitamin D daily through supplements until the baby starts consuming vitamin-D-fortified milk (15).
Additionally, children or teens who follow a strictly plant-based diet may be at an increased risk of deficiency in several critical nutrients, including vitamin B12, calcium, iron, zinc, and vitamin D (23Trusted Source).
While it’s possible for kids on a plant-based diet to get enough of these nutrients from food alone, it requires careful planning. As a result, depending on the types of foods the child is consuming, supplements may be indicated (23Trusted Source).
As kids and teens have different nutritional needs than adults, it’s important to speak with a pediatrician for recommendations on the types of supplements — and dosages — that are safe.SUMMARY
While supplements are generally not necessary for healthy adults and kids, some populations may benefit from dietary supplements. Always consult a medical professional before taking supplements.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate the effectiveness, safety, or quality of dietary supplements — or the ingredients in them — before they enter the marketplace (1Trusted Source).
This is important to realize, as it means that there is no guarantee the product contains what it claims to. Furthermore, a product may even contain varying amounts of the ingredients from batch to batch.
While the FDA requires supplement manufacturers to adhere to Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP), which are intended to ensure the quality and safety of these products, compliance is not always enforced (24Trusted Source).
The best way to ensure the quality of a product is to look for one that has been certified by a third-party company.
Third-party testing is not required by law.
However, some supplement manufacturers voluntarily choose to undergo testing to show their commitment to producing high quality products.
One objective indicator of product quality is a Certificate of Analysis (COA), which is awarded by an independent third-party company, such as NSF, USP, Banned Substances Control Group (BSCG), or ConsumerLab.
Most products that have been certified by one of these third-party companies have been tested for one or more of the following (25):
- The supplement contains what’s stated on the label and in the amounts listed
- Products are standardized from batch to batch.
- The supplement is free of harmful levels of contaminants or other potential drug contaminants.
- The product doesn’t contain any undeclared ingredients.
Additionally, if you’re an athlete, it can be helpful to look for products that are NSF Certified for Sport. This certification ensures that the product is free of more than 270 substances that are banned or prohibited by most major sports organizations (26).SUMMARY
Vitamin and mineral supplements are subject to fairly limited regulation by the FDA. To ensure the safety and accuracy of a product, look for supplements that have been certified by a third-party testing organization.
While supplements contain ingredients that are found in foods, there are potential safety concerns to consider before taking concentrated amounts of these ingredients in supplement form.
In addition to talking to your healthcare provider about the type of supplement you’re interested in taking, it’s critical to ask about any potential interactions.
The ingredients in supplements, including vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other botanicals, can have unintended negative consequences when combined with some medications, other supplements, foods, and alcohol (27Trusted Source).
For example, vitamin E supplements may increase the risk of bleeding in those on blood-thinning medications, while calcium supplements may limit the effectiveness of antibiotics and reduce the absorption of iron from foods and supplements (28, 29).
Some supplements may also affect the accuracy of lab results.
For example, the FDA issued a warning that supplements containing biotin (vitamin B7) can falsely lower troponin-based lab results, an important biomarker that’s used to help diagnose heart attacks (30Trusted Source).
Supplements containing herbs and botanicals can be particularly concerning, as many have been shown to interact with various medications. Additionally, many herbs have insufficient research in humans to confirm potential interactions and side effects (31Trusted Source, 32Trusted Source).
Ingredients that may become toxic over time or at high doses
One concern with consuming vitamins and minerals through supplements rather than from foods is the increased risk of consuming an amount that’s too high or could become toxic over time.
In addition to recommended amounts, many vitamins and minerals have what’s called a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL). The UL is the highest intake amount of the nutrient that’s unlikely to cause negative side effects in the general population (33Trusted Source).
Fat-soluble vitamins are particularly concerning in regards to toxicity risk, as excessive amounts can accumulate and be stored in your body.
In particular, overconsuming vitamins A, D, and E can be toxic, leading to side effects like irregular heartbeat, organ damage, hemorrhages, hemorrhagic stroke, and in extreme cases, even coma and death (36Trusted Source, 37, 38, 39).
As water-soluble vitamins are not stored in your body, they’re less likely to cause toxicity from an overdose.
That said, consistently taking very large doses of water-soluble vitamins may still cause digestive upset, liver damage, and even potentially irreversible neurological damage (36Trusted Source, 40Trusted Source, 41Trusted Source).
Unless under the supervision of a medical professional, it’s important not to exceed the UL of vitamins or minerals. While some side effects may be mild, others can be more serious.
Additionally, as the UL for kids is often much lower than for adults, kids are particularly at an increased risk of overdose and toxicity (34Trusted Source).
For safety purposes, make sure to always store supplements out of reach of children. This is especially important for gummy vitamins, as their sweet flavor may appeal to kids (42Trusted Source, 43Trusted Source).
May have negative side effects
Dietary supplements may cause negative side effects, even when taken at the recommended doses.
However, some ingredients in supplements, especially herbs, may have more serious side effects, such as allergic reactions, increased blood pressure, and elevated or irregular heartbeat (45Trusted Source, 46Trusted Source).
May not be effective
As dietary supplements are subject to fairly limited regulation, there’s also the risk that the product contains less of an ingredient than it claims to.
In addition to not getting your money’s worth, this can be potentially dangerous in individuals who are relying on the supplement to help meet their essential nutrient needs.
It’s also important to be cautious of claims on the product. Due to FDA regulations, manufacturers cannot claim that their product cures, treats, or reduces the risk of a specific disease or condition unless it has been proven by research to do so (47).
However, they can include structural or functional claims, which describe how the ingredients in the product may affect systems or organs in your body (47).
For example, a supplement can say that it supports energy levels. Yet, this claim does not require that the product was scientifically proven to help improve energy levels. As a result, there’s no guarantee that taking the supplement will result in this desired benefit.SUMMARY
Taking supplements carries some risks. Depending on the type and level of ingredients, there are risks of side effects, toxicity, and interactions with drugs, foods, and alcohol. Additionally, supplements are not guaranteed to be effective.
Unhealthy foods play a primary role in many people gaining weight and developing chronic health conditions, more now than ever before.
Surprisingly, people consider some of these foods healthy.
Here are 15 “health foods” that are really junk foods in disguise.
The “war” on saturated fat could be considered one of the most misguided decisions in the history of nutrition.
When this discussion started, processed food manufacturers jumped on the bandwagon and started removing the fat from foods.
But there’s a huge problem. Food doesn’t taste well when the fat has been removed. That’s why they added a lot of sugar to compensate.
The words “low fat” or “fat free” on packaging usually means that it’s a highly processed product that’s loaded with sugar.
Vegetables are incredibly healthy.
The problem is that they often don’t taste very good on their own.
That’s why many people use dressings to add flavor to their salads, turning these bland meals into delicious treats.
But many salad dressings are actually loaded with unhealthy ingredients like sugar, vegetable oils, and trans fats, along with various artificial chemicals.
Although vegetables are good for you, eating them with a dressing high in harmful ingredients negates any health benefit you get from the salad.
Check the ingredients list before you use a salad dressing or make your own using healthy ingredients.
A lot of people believe fruit juices are healthy.
They must be because they come from fruit, right?
But most fruit juice you find in the grocery store isn’t really fruit juice.
Sometimes they don’t have any actual fruit in them, just chemicals that taste like fruit. What you’re drinking is basically fruit-flavored sugar water.
That being said, even if you’re drinking 100% quality fruit juice, it’s still not the best choice.
Fruit juice actually contains a similar amount of sugar as a sugar-sweetened beverage (4Trusted Source).
Most “whole wheat” products aren’t really made from whole wheat.
The grains have been pulverized into very fine flour, which causes them to raise blood sugar just as fast as their refined counterparts.
In fact, whole wheat bread can have a similar glycemic index as white bread (5).
But even true whole wheat may be a bad idea because modern wheat is unhealthy compared to the wheat our grandparents ate.
Around 1960, scientists modified the genes in wheat to increase the yield. Modern wheat is less nutritious and has some properties that make it much worse for people who have a gluten intolerance (6Trusted Source, 7, 8Trusted Source).
Wheat may have been a relatively healthy grain back in the day, but the stuff most people are eating today should be consumed with caution.
Phytosterols are nutrients that are basically like plant versions of cholesterol.
Some studies have shown that they can lower blood cholesterol in humans (11Trusted Source).
For this reason, they’re often added to processed foods that are then marketed as “cholesterol lowering” and claimed to help prevent heart disease.
However, studies have shown that despite lowering cholesterol levels, phytosterols have negative effects on the cardiovascular system and may even increase the risk of heart disease and death (12Trusted Source, 13Trusted Source, 14Trusted Source).
People with phytosterolaemia (a genetic condition that raises plant sterol level in blood) are more susceptible to the negative effects of phytosterols (14Trusted Source).
Butter was labeled a bad food choice in the past because of its high saturated fat content.
Various health experts started promoting margarine instead.
Back in the day, margarine used to be high in trans fats. These days, it has fewer trans fats than before, but it’s still loaded with refined vegetable oils.
If you want to improve your health, try to eat real butter (preferably grass fed), and avoid margarine with trans fat. Trans-fat-free margarine has become more available in recent years.
Always read nutrition facts carefully and limit products that contain trans fat.
Recommending trans fat-laden margarine instead of natural butter may be considered some of the worst nutrition advice in history.
Sports drinks were designed with athletes in mind.
They contain electrolytes (salts) and sugar, which can be useful for athletes in many cases.
However, most people don’t need additional salt or liquid sugar in their diet.
Although often considered “less bad” than sugary soft drinks, there’s really no fundamental difference in the two, except the sugar content in sports drinks is sometimes slightly lower.
It’s important to stay hydrated, especially when working out, but most people will be better off sticking to plain water.
Low carb diets have been incredibly popular for many decades.
However, food manufacturers have caught up on the trend and brought various low carb “friendly” processed foods to the market.
This includes highly processed foods like the Atkins bars. If you take a look at the ingredients list, you see that there’s no real food in them, just chemicals and highly refined ingredients.
These products can be consumed occasionally without compromising the metabolic adaptation that comes with low carb eating.
However, they don’t really nourish your body. Even though they’re technically low carb, they’re still unhealthy.
Given the known harmful effects of sugar, people have been looking for alternatives.
One of the more popular “natural” sweeteners is agave nectar, which is also called agave syrup.
You’ll find this sweetener in all sorts of “healthy foods,” often with attractive claims on the packaging.
The problem with agave is that it’s no better than regular sugar. In fact, it’s much worse.
Sugar is about 50% fructose and 55% high fructose corn syrup, but agave contains even more — up to 70-90%.
Therefore, gram for gram, agave is even worse than regular sugar.
“Natural” doesn’t always equal healthy. Whether agave should even be considered natural is debatable.
Vegan diets are very popular these days, often due to ethical and environmental reasons.
However, many people promote vegan diets for the purpose of improving health.
There are many processed vegan foods on the market, often sold as convenient replacements for non-vegan foods.
Vegan bacon is one example.
But it’s important to keep in mind that these are usually highly processed, factory made products that are bad for almost anyone, including people who are vegan.
Brown rice syrup, also known as rice malt syrup, is a sweetener that’s mistakenly assumed to be healthy.
It’s made by exposing cooked rice to enzymes that break down the starch into simple sugars.
Brown rice syrup contains no refined fructose, just glucose.
The absence of refined fructose is good, but rice syrup has a glycemic index of 98, which means that the glucose in it will spike blood sugar extremely fast (19).
Rice syrup is also highly refined and contains almost no essential nutrients. In other words, it’s considered “empty” calories.
Some concerns have been raised about arsenic contamination in this syrup, which is another reason to be extra careful with this sweetener (20Trusted Source).
There are other sweeteners out there, including low calorie sweeteners like:
In general, try to use all sweeteners wisely and follow recommended serving sizes.
Unfortunately, the word “organic” has become a typical marketing buzzword in many instances.
Food manufacturers have found all sorts of ways to make the same products, except with ingredients that happen to be organic.
This includes ingredients like organic raw cane sugar, which is basically 100% identical to regular sugar. It’s still just glucose and fructose with little to no nutrients.
In many cases, the difference between an ingredient and its organic counterpart is next to none.
Processed foods that happen to be labeled organic aren’t necessarily healthy. Always check the label to see what’s inside.
This recommendation is based on the fact that these oils have been shown to lower blood cholesterol levels, at least in the short term (21Trusted Source).
However, it’s important to keep in mind that blood cholesterol is a risk factor. It’s not a disease in itself.
Even though vegetable oils can help improve a risk factor, there’s no guarantee that they’ll help prevent actual health outcomes like heart attacks or death, which is what really counts.
In fact, several controlled trials have shown that despite lowering cholesterol, these oils can increase the risk of developing heart disease and memory impairment (22Trusted Source, 23Trusted Source, 24Trusted Source).
Also, follow the recommended serving size, but limit processed vegetable oils as if your health depended on it, which it does.
According to a 2013 survey, about a third of people in the United States are actively trying to limit or avoid gluten.
Not surprisingly, the food manufacturers have brought all sorts of gluten-free foods to the market.
The problem with these foods is that they usually have the same negative effects on your body as their gluten-containing counterparts, if not worse.
These are highly processed foods containing few nutrients and often made with refined starches that can lead to very rapid spikes in blood sugar.
Try to choose foods that are naturally gluten free, like plants and animals, not gluten-free processed foods.
Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
The way some breakfast cereals are marketed can be deceiving.
Many of them, including those that are marketed toward children, have various health claims listed on the box.
This includes claims like “whole grain” or “low fat” that may be misleading.
This is especially true when you look at the ingredients list and see that these products mostly contain:
- refined grains
- artificial chemicals
It’s important to always review product packaging to confirm what you’re actually putting in your body and whether it’s healthy for you.
Truly healthy foods are whole, single-ingredient foods. Their health benefits speak for them.
Real food doesn’t even need an ingredients list, because real food is the ingredient.
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- Ancient remedies play a complementary role to Western drugs in fighting the potentially deadly infection, officials, doctors say
- But others say TCM works only as a placebo and that people who say they have benefited would have recovered anyway
While acknowledging that the ancient practice has no specific treatments for Covid-19 – the pneumonia-like disease caused by the virus, which has sickened over 82,000 people and killed more than 2,800 since the outbreak began in central China in December – some experts said they had witnessed a higher recovery rate among those using both TCM and Western drugs, than solely mainstream treatments.
Xu Nanping, a vice-minister of science and technology, said last week that about 85 per cent of patients in China had been given the combined treatment.
China’s National Health Commission prescribes the use of TCM alongside Western drugs in its guidelines for the treatment of people infected with the coronavirus.
Song Juexian, a doctor with the integrated TCM and Western medicine unit at Xuanwu Hospital in Beijing, said traditional Chinese medicine had the benefit of enhancing the patients’ “internal balance”.
“Chinese medicine has been practised for at least 3,000 years. It is the wisdom of our ancestors and it is [still] progressing,” she said. “I believe the effects of combined use of TCM and Western medicine will become better and better.”
Gao Xiaojun, a spokesman for the Beijing Health Commission, was equally keen to promote the use of the ancient technique, saying TCM had made a significant contribution to patients’ recovery.
“Traditional Chinese medicine has played an active role in improving the recovery rate and lowering the mortality rate among patients,” he told a press conference on Monday.
Wang Xianbo, director of the integrative medicine department at Beijing Ditan Hospital, said 90 per cent of the confirmed coronavirus cases at his hospital were receiving traditional Chinese medicine as part of their treatment.
However, a doctor in Guangzhou, the capital of south China’s Guangdong province, said people should not overstate the effectiveness of traditional Chinese remedies.
“Those patients would have recovered even if they hadn’t taken the Chinese medicine,” he said. “After all, 80 per cent of them had relatively mild symptoms.”
The doctor, who declined to give his name due to the sensitivity of the issue, also questioned why so many patients were being treated with TCM.
“At least in my hospital, I would not want so many patients to take TCM, because if they do we can’t observe the effectiveness of the Western medicines,” he said.
A surgeon from the city of Shenzhen in Guangdong, who also declined to give his name, said that regardless of the treatments they used, doctors must always be scientific in their approach.
“Science is the foundation of medicine and science needs to be verifiable,” he said.
“No matter what kind of medicine, it’s irresponsible to use them on patients before verifying their effectiveness and safety.”
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The university’s discovery throws a light on the body’s extracellular matrix, which provides structural and biochemical support to cells in the form of connective tissue such as bone, skin, tendon and cartilage.
The researchers have discovered the body has two types of fibrils – rope-like structures of collagen that are woven by the cells to form tissues.
Thicker fibrils are permanent and stay with us throughout our lives, unchanged from the age of 17. But thinner fibrils break as the body is subjected to the rigours of the day and replenishing when we get a good rest at night.
“It’s intuitive to think our matrix should be worn down by wear and tear, but it isn’t and now we know why. Our body clock makes an element which can be replenished,” Professor Kadler said.
Researchers at the same university found last year that blue light might not be as disruptive to sleep patterns as previously thought and using cooler lighting in the evening and bright warmer lights in the day may be more beneficial.
“Collagen provides the body with structure and is our most abundant protein, ensuring the integrity, elasticity and strength of the body’s connective tissue,” Professor Kadler said.
“It’s intuitive to think our matrix should be worn down by wear and tear, but it isn’t and now we know why. Our body clock makes an element which can be replenished.”
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