Supplements: Help or Hype or Hope?

This post is a summary of information from a talk I gave at the Bell Family Branch YMCA in Hartwell, GA on April 12th and 30th, 2018.

Broccoli and pillsAre you among the 76% of Americans who take dietary supplements?  And, if you are  in the 55+ population, are you one of the 80% who take supplements? The most popular supplements are multi-vitamins, vitamin D, vitamin C, calcium, and B-complex.

This post will cover multi-vitamins and minerals; next week we’ll cover muscle-building and weight loss supplements.

How much do you really know about the supplements you are taking? Dietary supplements are a profitable business with a $40 billion annual market. Supplements are regulated by the Food & Drug Administration, but not as well as many people would like them to be. In 1996, the Dietary Supplement Health & Education Act put supplements in a new category, unlike  food additives or drugs, supplements do not undergo testing to make sure they are

  • pure
  • safe
  • or that they work before coming to market

More people are more worried about artificial sweeteners, which undergo rigorous safety testing, than dietary supplements, which are lacking in safety testing.

What is a supplement?

Dietary supplements include thousands of products that fall into these categories:

  • Vitamins: such as vitamin D or C
  • Minerals: like calcium or magnesium
  • Herbs or botanicals: such as St. John’s Wort or echinacea
  • Amino acids: like branched chain amino acids or arginine
  • Dietary substances: like glucosamime or curcumin
  • Concentrates or extracts: such as green tea extract or resveratrol

Decoding a supplement label

All supplements must have a supplements facts panel, similar to a nutrition facts panel found on food packages. And, supplement makers can make claims called structure-function claims: things like, “supports heart health,” “supports bone health,” or “supports muscle health. “But they can’t say “prevents heart attack,” “treats low bone density,” or “will make your muscles grow like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s.”  Any time there is a health claim you will find this statement (usually in small print):

“This statement has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Interesting, because many of us take supplements to treat, cure, or prevent disease!

Beware of testimonials

The promotional materials for supplements can make all sorts of outrageous claims. As showcased in this article from Center for Science in the Public Interest, testimonials abound and many use identical testimonials to make your think that real people are praising the value of the supplements, when in fact they are paid advertisements.

Multivitamin mineral supplements

Since multis are the most popular dietary supplement, let’s look at what you need to know.

First, look for an age-appropriate supplement: adults over 50 have somewhat different nutrient needs than younger adults. “Silver” vitamins or vitamins for “50+ for her” or “50+ for him” are formulated to meet your needs. Multivitamin-mineral supplements are safe, relatively cheap, and can fill gaps in your nutrient intakes. But, they may also be unnecessary. (Supplement users have healthier habits that those who don’t take supplements: they tend to eat better, get more exercise, and more likely to be non-smokers.) And, multis don’t provide everything you need. For example, no multi provides all of the calcium you need.

Some things to consider fall into my “don’t” list:

  • Older adults should not take a pre-natal vitamin, unless they are pregnant. Pre-natal vitamins are formulated to support the health of the baby and mother. They contain higher amounts of many nutrients, including iron, that are not needed in large amounts as we age.
  • Avoid adult gummies or chewables: they don’t measure up to pill or capsule forms and many contain far less than the recommended levels of nutrients and may be lacking trace minerals such as zinc, magnesium, or chromium.
  • Don’t fall for special “immunity,” “muscle function,” “heart health,” “energy,” or even “healthy appearance” claims. These are more expensive and just not necessary.

Resources for more information on vitamin and minerals

My “go to” source for learning about vitamin and mineral supplements, updated research, as well as food sources, is the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health. On this site, you will find a wealth of information on individual nutrients: here is a link to the consumer information on vitamin D, to show you an example.

And, in our book, Food & Fitness After 50, we provide more information on supplements that might be helpful in specific disease conditions.

Look for next week’s post on muscle building and weight loss supplement!

Chris Rosenbloom, along with co-author, Bob Murray, talk about supplements and much more in Food & Fitness After 50.