“The doctor of the future will no longer treat the human frame with drugs, but rather will cure and prevent disease with nutrition.” –Thomas Edison
My dear friend Charlotte, aged 67, called me with some bad news about her health.
She was out walking near her home when she began to lose her balance. She found herself shuffling along instead of walking smoothly.
Her gait was off.
Charlotte’s poor balance frightened and confused her. She wondered, what could be the problem?
She said that she figured she was just tired. After all, Charlotte attended exercise classes three times each week, which included strength training and yoga.
However, Charlotte told me that later that evening, when she tried to get out a friend’s car, she had difficulty and needed help.
Charlotte felt nervous and scared and made an appointment to see her doctor right away.
Long story short, after a physical examination and numerous lab tests, including a lumbar puncture, it seems that Charlotte has a condition called normal pressure hydrocephalus (NPH).
At the writing of this article, the doctor needs to perform more tests to be sure.
But if Charlotte discovers that she has NPH, it is a long-term condition and generally cannot be cured. The most common treatment is the placement of a shunt—something Charlotte’s loathe to get.
In most cases, no one ever knows the cause.
If the shunt surgery is successful, Charlotte will lead a healthy life, which means she will keep my independence and will not need nursing care.
I’m praying for my dear friend.
Meanwhile, the doctor listed about 20 different dietary and nutritional supplements Charlotte should take daily.
If you know anything about me through my writing, you know that I research “everything.”
I was curious to know what gives with the supplements?
Unlike many people, including perhaps you, dear reader, I never took supplements of any kind. I assumed I was getting all of the nutrients I needed through food.
So, I went on a quest of discovery.
What Are Dietary and Nutritional Supplements?
Dietary supplements are not medicines and should not be considered a substitute for food.
Unlike medicine, dietary and nutritional supplements are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). They therefore do not need to prove that a product is safe and effective to sell them.
However, manufacturers of supplements are not legally allowed to say their products cure, treat, or prevent disease.
Marketers of dietary and nutritional supplements can only say their products “support” health or “may contribute” to well-being.
Dietary supplements are not medicines and you should not use them to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent, or cure diseases.
There are more than 50,000 supplement products marketed in the U.S. 50% of the adult population consume dietary supplements.
However, the federal government can take action against companies and websites that sell dietary supplements when they make false or deceptive claims about their products, or if they promote their products as treatments or cures for diseases.
Who Needs Supplements?
“Thy food shall be thy remedy.” – Hippocrates (called the “father of medicine”)
One thing on which practically all nutritionists seem to agree is that eating too much fat can increase your risk of high cholesterol levels and increases your risk of heart disease.
Sensible eating habits include getting sufficient vitamins and minerals (often referred to as micronutrients because your body needs only small amounts of them).
Without micronutrients in your body, you could suffer from a vitamin deficiency, which can result in horrific diseases and medical conditions.
- Scurvy (sailors would succumb to this disease due to a lack of vitamin C found in fresh fruits and vegetables).
- Blindness (people still become blind in some developing countries from vitamin A deficiency).
- Rickets (soft, weak bones that sometimes lead to skeletal deformities, such as bowed legs, which result from a deficiency in vitamin D).
On the other hand, the benefits of micronutrients include:
- Strong bones
- Prevention of congenital disabilities
- Healthy teeth
Vitamins and minerals are not the same things:
Vitamins: organic and broken down by heat, air, or acid
Minerals: inorganic and hold on to their chemical structure
This means: Minerals can easily find their way into our bodies through plants, fish, animals, and the drinks we consume, while vitamins can be challenging to get into our system from the foods we eat because of cooking, storage, or exposure to air.
But minerals and vitamins together keep our eyes, skin, lungs, gastrointestinal tract, and nervous system healthy.
For our food to keep us healthy, it should include:
- Protein (found in fish, meat, poultry dairy products, eggs, nuts, and beans)
- Fat (found in animal and dairy products, nuts, and oils)
- Carbohydrates (found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans and other legumes)
- Vitamins (such as A, B, C, D, E, and K)
- Minerals (such as calcium, potassium, and iron)
- Water (both in what you drink and water found in food
If you are not getting these necessary minerals and vitamins in your food, this is where supplements can help.
Jeffery Blumberg, PhD, professor of nutrition at Tufts University School of Nutrition, Science, and Policy says about using supplements, “It’s one thing you can do that’s not too hard to do.”
Dr. Blumberg believes that seniors, specifically, need to do what they can to protect themselves from heart disease and cancer, which happens to be the two leading causes of death among those over sixty-five years of age.
Nutritional supplements may include what’s missing in a typical diet.
To Dr. Blumberg, it’s clear: a diet that follows the food pyramid and daily supplements.
What does he recommend?
- Vitamin B folate (protects from cardiovascular disease and stroke; found in dark green, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, spinach, orange juice, and lentils).
- Vitamin K (good for healthy bones; found in collard greens, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce, and kale, which is the vitamin k King).
- Vitamin E (conflicting evidence that this vitamin reduces the risk of heart disease, cancer, and other conditions, found in fatty foods such as nuts and oils).
- Calcium and Vitamin D (prevent bone thinning, which can lead to fractures; however, the best source is the sun).
Supplements do not make up for a poor diet. While they can help, they cannot replace many of the nutrients and fiber found in food.
There are government-recommended daily doses of vitamins and minerals considered to be relatively safe and useful.
However, megadoses promoted for the treatment of some illnesses may not be good for your health and can possibly interfere with the absorption or activity of other nutrients and can cause serious side effects.
The possibility of side effects, as well as the lack of substantial evidence supporting the use of megavitamins, should not be ignored.
- Vitamins and minerals have no calories.
- Food has all the vitamins and minerals.
- If your diet lacks a vitamin or mineral over a long period, you will develop a deficiency.
- The “best” form of most vitamins and minerals is the kind you get from food.
*See your doctor for diet and nutrition recommendations to treat a health condition.
So, What to Do?
- Read the labels: Dietary supplements come with Supplement Facts labels that list active ingredients such as fillers, binder, and flavorings, etc.
- Understand the side effects: You are most likely to have side effects from dietary supplements if you take them at high doses, take many different supplements, or take them in place of medicine.
- Know the quality: Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) are established by the FDA that help ensure and identify, purity, strength, and composition of dietary supplements. These guidelines help reduce the chance of contamination or improper packaging and labeling of a product.
Seven Questions to Ask Your Health Provider
Before taking any nutritional or dietary supplements, ask:
- Do I need a supplement?
- What are the potential benefits for me?
- What does the research say about the benefits?
- Does this product have any safety risks?
- What is the proper dose to take?
- How, when, and for how long should I take it?
- Should I take it as a pill, powder, or liquid?
The term “dietary supplement” describes a broad and diverse category of products that you eat or drink to support good health and “supplement” the diet.
A handful of vitamins, minerals, or other dietary supplements can never take the place of a healthy diet, according to David Grotto RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).
Even so, the ADA recognizes that some people require supplements because they are not getting the adequate amounts of vitamins and or minerals they need in sufficient amounts in their diet.
These groups include:
- Pregnant women
- Nursing mothers
- Strict vegetarians
- People with food allergies or intolerances
- Senior citizens
Also, people with diseases such as cancer, kidney, cardiovascular, or bone disease, just to name a few.
When I last visited a health food store, I discovered a dizzying assortment of dietary and nutritional supplements from vitamins to minerals to diet pills.
There seemed to be thousands of options!
But since Charlotte’s doctor had given her a list of “must” have supplements, she knew what to look for.
Boomer women are concerned about the future.
Boomer women are trying to stay healthy.
Boomer women say they worry more about their health than their finances.
This article has presented several ideas to help you determine the pros and cons of using “dietary supplements.”
Do you still have questions?
Below I’ve listed several valuable resources you can trust.
“My supplements are similar to my training—I always commit to being a better version of myself.” —Ronnie Coleman
Resources Printed from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements
Educational materials on dietary supplements
ODS provides accurate and up-to-date scientific information about dietary supplements.
NCCIH also provides scientific information about dietary supplement ingredients