Pros & Cons of Food Supplements

Half of American adults take some type of supplement. Photo Credit Thinkstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images

Over half of the adults in the U.S. use at least one type of dietary supplement, the most common being multivitamins, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The term “supplements” encompasses a variety of products such as vitamins and minerals, herbs and enzymes. Taking the right supplements can be beneficial to your health, but they are not without risk. Never take any type of supplement without first talking to your doctor.

Boosting Your Nutrition

As the name implies, supplements add to your diet. If your diet is lacking in a certain nutrient — like vitamin B-12 because you’re a vegan — you can get the extra nutrition you need in supplement form. With that said, don’t rely on supplements to take the place of a healthy, balanced diet. It is best to get the nutrition you need from food sources.

Battling Chronic Disease

Supplements also offer separate health benefits and can help combat chronic diseases. For example, regularly taking fish oil supplements may help lower blood pressure and triglycerides and decrease your risk of heart disease. Chamomile can help soothe sore throat and upset stomach and improve sleep; and St. John’s Wort may help improve mild depression.

Be Smart with Meds

You have to be extra careful when taking supplements if you’re taking medication. Many herbs and vitamins interfere with medications, either causing potentially dangerous side effects or rendering the medication ineffective. Vitamin K can reduce the effectiveness of blood thinners; St. John’s Wort can reduce the effectiveness of antidepressants and birth control pills; and antioxidants, like vitamin C and E, can reduce the effectiveness of some types of chemotherapy. If you’re on medication, never take any type of supplement without the consent of your doctor.

Don’t Fake It

Dr. Kelli Ward, an osteopathic physician from Arizona, notes on the American Osteopathic Association website that many multivitamins contain synthetic nutrients instead of natural nutrients. Your body cannot absorb synthetic nutrients as well as natural ones so you may not be getting as much nutrition as you think you are. Ward recommends choosing all-natural vitamin and mineral supplements made from food sources. That way, your body will be able to absorb more of the nutrients from the supplements.

Overdoing It

When used as prescribed or suggested on the bottle, supplements are generally safe; in most cases, problems with toxicity occur as a result of inappropriate or excessive usage. For example, excess intake of vitamin A can contribute to birth defects, reduce bone mineral density and damage the liver. Too much iron can cause diarrhea, nausea, dehydration, low blood pressure, dizziness, fever, chills, headache and flushing. Overdoing it on vitamin D can lead to hypercalcemia — or too much calcium in the blood.

Supplement confusion

The protein supplement section at the health food store is dizzying. Athletes look to these products to improve performance, bulk up, or slim down but are they beneficial? Protein bars and shakes can be convenient, tasty snacks, but don’t look to them as a magic bullet- eating more protein doesn’t mean building more muscle or getting leaner. Most Americans get enough protein from their usual diets. Strict vegetarians may need to be more aware of getting sufficient protein, but for the majority of people, protein supplements are unnecessary.

Getting the Most out of Vitamin Supplements

Another potential problem with vitamin supplements is that many people don’t take them correctly. If you’re one of those people, it’s likely that any nutritional value of the pills you’ve paid for is being flushed straight through your body without being absorbed. In other words, you’re wasting your time and money.

To make sure you get the full benefit of any vitamin supplements that you’re taking ensure that they are only taken with water that is room temperature. Knocking back your pills with hot or chilled drinks can damage them and make them less effective. Try not to drink any tea or coffee immediately before or after taking your supplements as they interfere with the way your body absorbs nutrients. Also, if the bottle says to take your supplements with food – do so. Likewise, check the bottle to see if you should take your supplements on an empty stomach.

While vitamin supplements can be helpful, particularly amongst people who struggle to eat a balanced diet, they’re certainly not an easy option to take the place of a healthy lifestyle. So consider your particular needs before deciding on supplementation, and if you go ahead and start taking the pills, make sure you always read the labels, and take your vitamins properly and safely.

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More information:
– Are supplements as good as whole food? by The Benefits of Eating Healthy
– Vitamins, Minerals, Nutrients, and Supplements by Veg Health Guide
– Pros And Cons Of High Protein Shakes In Losing Weight by The Health Watcher
– The Disadvantages of Protein Shakes by Healthy Eating SFGate
– Advantage & Disadvantage of Food Supplements by Healthy Eating SFGate


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