Normally when dietary supplements are brought up, people of the general population think of popping pills, tablets and special powders. In fact, the FDA defines a supplement as intended to be taken as a pill, capsule, tablet, etc. that is self-identified as a supplement.
However, unknown to most of the general public in the US, everybody in the nation is taking some form of vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplement on a daily basis not in the form the FDA has specified.
How? Because the majority of processed foods that make up a great percentage of the diet of Americans today are fortified with vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. Two of the most highly supplemented foods on the market today are breakfast cereals and milks. Some examples of supplemented vitamins are Vitamin A, B-vitamins, Vitamin C and Vitamin D; examples of some minerals are calcium and iron.
What does this mean? Are supplements and fortified foods necessary in order to live a nutritious and healthy life? I’ll get back to this question later.
One question to ask in regard to supplements is whether or not supplements can be trusted. Well, unfortunately, the supplement industry is not as heavily regulated as regular drugs. The FDA manages the supplement industry more like food than it does drugs, even though many dietary supplements claim to improve health, reduce risk of illness or alleviate symptoms of certain illnesses.
The bad about supplements
Supplements can interact with prescription drugs and cause changes in their effects. Supplements don’t actually need to prove effectiveness of their claims; they simply have to be safe to use.
Supplements’ integrity as a whole industry isn’t very good. Some don’t contain the specified ingredients or doses that are indicated on the label. Others can be prone to contaminants. It’s a consumer-beware industry. Being able to tell the difference between health claims regulated and non-regulated by the FDA is an important skill for those looking at buying supplements.
Structure function claims need a disclaimer that their statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. Be more wary of these claims than of statements that show scientifically backed correlations between a vitamin or mineral and a disease or illness, such as between calcium and osteoporosis.
Not only can the product quality of supplements be questionable, but their effectiveness can be variable as well. Vitamins and minerals in multivitamins can bind together and reduce the bioavailability of some of the nutrients included. In other cases, the bioavailability of some nutrients may not be as high in a supplement because they’re not ingested with other certain nutrients.
Scientists don’t yet fully understand all the ways that vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants and phytonutrients all interact together. Some nutrients work together and others work against each other. For example, iron and calcium work together; iodine and fluoride compete against one another. US studies have even shown increased risk of disease or cancer in some individual supplements like beta carotene, folic acid and antioxidants.
The good about supplements
On the other hand, there can be real benefits to taking supplements. There are some ways to ensure that supplements, if you decide to take them, are quality and contain the ingredients specified. The USP, NF and CL evaluate supplements on a voluntary basis. That is to say, companies voluntarily send their supplements to credible laboratories to be tested and verified in order to get their seal.
By looking for these seals of approval, you’re more likely to be buying and consuming a reputable product. In addition, while the supplements don’t necessarily need to do what they say they do, many illnesses and diseases can be alleviated through the use of supplements by electing certain vitamins and minerals that are correlated with certain illnesses. Vitamin A is associated with less risk of eyesight problems and blindness, citrus fruits containing Vitamin C cured scurvy in sailors and sufficient levels of iron and Vitamin B12 are associated with a lower cases of anemia.
Are supplements helpful? Can supplements be helpful?
Yes. The reason that more Americans aren’t ridden with even more diseases or illnesses today is because the processed foods they consume are enriched with the nutrients I mentioned above and more. Even some individuals on a healthy WFPB diet need supplements.
Taking supplements along with food is the best method of ingesting them.
I take two supplements everyday. Contrary to popular belief, both non-vegetarians and vegetarians can have trouble ingesting enough B12 without supplementation. I take iodine to ensure my hypothyroidism doesn’t return (most people obtain their iodine from salt, which I don’t add to my food).
Taking supplements along with food is the best method of ingesting them because it somewhat tricks the body into thinking the supplement is from a whole food and not a pill. The body prefers whole foods. One possible reason individual supplements (i.e. beta carotene, folic acid and antioxidants) lead to increased risk of cancer could be because they’re not consumed with whole foods in scientific studies.
Whole plant foods also have other nutrients that work in conjunction with each other for beneficial results, which are lost when particular nutrients are isolated into pill form. Furthermore, you can’t overdose on fruits and vegetables, but you can take too much of a supplement.
Which are supplements: Good or Bad?
Taking supplements can be beneficial for the majority of the population. While I strongly advocate taking as few supplements as possible, nutrients like Vitamin B12 and iodine are difficult to obtain on a low-sodium WFPB diet unless you’re eating dirt and food grown near the ocean.
The best way to consume nutrients is through whole foods.
Scientists don’t yet fully understand the complex interactions between vitamins, minerals and other nutrients. The best way to consume nutrients is through whole foods. Many nutrients need to be ingested in a whole food in order to receive the full benefit.
Some vitamins are chemically altered from their natural form into a more stable form when packaged into supplements. This, too, can affect the effectiveness of the nutrient in question.
If consumed in a whole plant food, no vitamin or mineral will likely cause illness or disease. Dietary supplements are supposed to supplement, not substitute, a healthy diet. Whenever possible, get your vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, fiber and other nutrients from whole foods and not from a factory-made pill.
Update (Febuary 2015): While I used to take Lugol’s iodine solution as an iodine supplement, I no longer use it. I still recommend Lugol’s solution for people who have thyroid problems because it’ll ensure the quickest path to recovery. Currently I consume a tiny fraction of kelp powder each day to maintain my iodine levels. It has a strong fishy taste but is incredibly cheap and nutritious.