Supplements, as the name suggest, are meant to supplement your body with the required missing key nutrients. Elderly people take calcium supplements for bone health, athletes eat supplements to gain muscle power, young women take supplements for weight loss, pregnant women take folate supplements to prevent neural defects in infants and even a newborn baby is given vitamin supplements right from birth up to year or so. People spend thousands of rupees every year only on supplements. Just because everyone is doing it, it does not mean you should also follow suit. While some supplements are advantageous, most of them are a waste of money, time and health for the reasons given below.
Supplements are Not Nutrient Replacements
Drinking ginger ale after consuming a pack of French fries to aid digestion is not going to undo the ill effects of the fries even though it can regularize digestion. Supplements work the same way too. They can only supplement and not replace healthy and wholesome food choices. People think It’s simple to pop a pill into their mouth rather than including foods from all food groups to ensure a balanced and well-nourished meal. But, food alone can nourish the body with all the required nutrients and not supplements.
In rare cases of nutritional deficiency, dietary supplements are prescribed and these are the genuinely useful ones. Such cases include:
- Vitamin & folic acid supplements before and during pregnancy.
- Iron supplements for iron deficiency.
- Vitamin D and calcium supplements suggested for people at risk or already having osteoporosis.
- Vitamin B12 supplements for vegans and older adults with low B12 levels.
- Fluoride for infants who reside in areas where the water is not fluoridated.
- Omega-3 fatty acid supplements for individuals at risk for heart disease who don’t consume fish.
- Vitamin K in a single prophylactic dose for newborn infants to prevent bleeding.
Some Supplements Can Harm Your Health
- We prefer quantity to quality. But this does not work to our benefit all the time and can sometimes, even cause damage to health. Fat-soluble supplements like vitamin A, when consumed in heavy doses (consuming 10 times or more than the recommended amount of a vitamin or mineral supplement), can increase toxicity in the body. Even water-soluble nutrients like vitamin C can cause diarrhea and gastrointestinal discomfort at high doses.
- Certain supplements can harm people with certain health conditions. High levels of vitamin K supplements (blood clotting) consumed by a person who is taking blood thinner Coumadin can have harmful side effects on the person.
- Pregnant and nursing women who take iron and folic acid supplements should be cautious against taking any other supplements such as herbal supplements. Even the agents in these folate and iron supplements can cross the placenta or be transmitted via breast milk and harm the unborn baby or the newborn infant. Extra precaution is mandatory in the case of carrying women before taking any supplements.
Supplements are Not Drugs
People often confuse supplements with drugs. Supplement manufacturers often wrongly project their products, implying the relationship between their supplements and some health benefit. Although some supplements can be beneficial to health in small proportions, the proportions are often blown up. Keep in mind the FDA’s quote on supplements, ‘Not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, cure or prevent diseases’ before purchasing one.
Ingredients & Their Quantity Remains a Mystery
Before taking a supplement or at least while taking a supplement question yourself on the purpose of taking the supplement and also on the ingredients that go into the bottle. The question on the ingredients used is authentic and unanswered till date.
Supplement manufacturers are not obliged to disclose the ingredients and their quantities used to prepare a supplement citing protection of secret ingredients and formula. They have every right to not even disclose the basic ingredients that go into the bottle. Some supplements even go to the extent of including prescription drugs to prove their benefits. For example, red yeast rice extract (controls cholesterol) has been found to contain statins (drug used to lower LDL cholesterol). On the other extreme, some herbal supplements do not contain any active ingredient.
The Inappropriate Use of the Term ‘Natural’
The term ‘natural’ is used just to capture the attention of the consumer and there is nothing more to it. Other advertising gimmicks in supplements include phrases like ‘medical grade’, ‘high potency’ and ‘prescription strength’. While the term ‘natural’ is intended to mean that it is not artificially prepared, most of the supplements are synthetically prepared in the laboratory without any plant-based, natural ingredients.
Most of the sports supplements are pure gimmicks, just like the herbal products. Protein and energy drinks are often hyped to build muscle mass and provide the athlete with immense strength. Dietary proteins are important for protein recovery, but regular exercise to activate the muscles is mainly needed for building muscle mass.
The Bigger Picture
The marketing industry exists just to hype any unworthy product by giving flashy names and mentioning unknown ingredients. Just because we can’t pronounce an ingredient name it does not mean that we need to buy it. Athletic performance and good health come from eating a well-balanced diet, doing physical activity regularly and staying stress-free rather than from these expensive and unworthy pills. Athletes can get in touch with a nutritionist/dietitian specializing in sports nutrition at www.firsteatright.com who can help plan a healthy diet plan suiting the requirements of the athlete.