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Dietary Supplements 101

Supplements

Many people take supplements to be healthy, lose weight, gain weight or achieve any number of health goals. However, there are various things to consider before taking a dietary supplement.

What is a Dietary Supplement?

In 1994, Congress created the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act which defines dietary supplements as products that:

  • Are intended to supplement the diet;
  • Contain one or more dietary ingredients (including vitamins; minerals; herbs or other botanicals; amino acids; and other substances) or their constituents;
  • Are intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and
  • Are labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement.

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How are Supplements Approved for Sale?

Manufacturers of dietary supplements must obtain FDA approval by providing convincing evidence that a specific supplement is both safe and effective. However, unlike prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medicines, herbal products and/or supplements are not tested to ensure their validity and/or safety.

Once a dietary supplement has been marketed, the only way a product can be restricted or removed is if the FDA can prove that the product is unsafe.

Are There Risks Associated with Supplements?

The FDA states: "Many supplements contain active ingredients that have strong biological effects in the body. This could make them unsafe in some situations and hurt or complicate your health. For example, the following actions could lead to harmful -- even life-threatening -- consequences:"

  • Combining supplements
  • Using supplements with medications (whether prescription or over-the-counter)
  • Substituting supplements for prescription medicines
  • Taking too much of some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, and iron
  • Taking contraindicated supplements before, during and/or after surgery

It is important that you always tell your health care providers (doctor, dietitian, pharmacist, etc) of the supplements you are taking.

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If I need to take a supplement, how do I know what is Safe to Purchase?

If you take supplements, or plan to take supplements, do your homework first. Check out these resources for reliable and scientific information:

Consumerlab.com - Supplement brands must pass product reviews or voluntary certification to be posted on this website. If the product "passes," the manufacturer may then purchase a license to use the Consumer Lab seal of approval.

US pharmacopeia - www.usp.org is an independent testing agency. If product passes ingredient and product integrity, purity and potency tests, then the manufacturer may display USP Verified Dietary Supplement on their product label.

NSF Dietary Supplement Certification - www.nsf.org: The NSF mark means the product has undergone third-party testing for identity, purity, quality and consistency.

Additionally, you may find free publications, clearinghouses and information on The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS).

What are Alternatives to Taking Supplements?

If you're looking for a way to improve your health with diet alone, talk to a dietitian. A dietitian can show you how to obtain the nutrition or health goal you are working towards. Many foods, especially fruits and vegetables, are actually super foods and have significant influence through a unique blend of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. Additionally, there are tips, tricks and food combinations that dietitians can show you to help your body effectively use what you eat. For example, vitamin C foods improve the way the body absorbs iron.

As Hippocrates said, "Let food be thy medicine."

Mandy Seay is a bilingual registered and licensed dietitian who holds both a bachelor's degree in nutrition and in journalism. After gaining 30 pounds while living abroad, Mandy worked to lose the weight and regain her health. It was here that she discovered her passion for nutrition and went on to pursue a career as a dietitian. Mandy currently works as a nutrition consultant and freelance writer in Austin, Texas, where she specializes in diabetes, weight management and general and preventive nutrition. She recently published her first book, Your Best Health, a personalized program to losing weight and gaining a healthy lifestyle. Please visit Mandy's website at Nutritionistics.com.

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