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Do you really have to take a vitamin? 5 things you should know before buying



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Supplements: to take them or not?


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It seems every corner of the internet is overflowing with advertisements for vitamins, herbal remedies, fat loss supplements, muscle building shakes and sleeping pills.

As someone who has worked in the health fitness industry for many years, I know that many, if not most, are just junk. They are charlatans and hustlers who try to make money quickly from your pain points. They're great marketers who know that phrases like "lightning-fast weight loss" and "forever banishing cellulite" sell products that may or may not be straight flimflam.

In the largely unregulated supplement industry, many products are ineffective, full of fillers or undisclosed ingredients. Some are downright dangerous. Who can you trust? How do you know which supplements are best for you? Which products are effective and safe to take?

I want to preface the rest of this article with two very important disclaimers:

First, it is impossible to cover everything you need to know about choosing safe and effective supplements in one article. To learn more, you should read official information from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), and the US National Library of Medicine. While I quote many primary studies in this article, you can browse the PubMed database to learn more about specific supplements, their uses, benefits, and risks.

Second, although I have had training in nutrition, anatomy and physiology, I am not a registered dietitian or doctor of any kind. If you are interested in taking supplements for a particular symptom or a medical condition, please consult a registered dietitian or your doctor before doing so.

Now what you need to know about supplements before you waste your money.

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1. Supplements are not strictly regulated by the FDA or the USDA

. Currently, the supplement industry is largely unregulated, especially compared to the food and drug industry. The FDA still uses a law passed nearly 20 years ago – the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) – which has only one true provision: "It is manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements and food ingredients banned on the market that have been falsified or mislabeled. "

This means that manufacturers themselves are responsible for testing the safety and efficacy of their products, and for labeling their own products. The FDA can address a supplement after it comes on the market if it is mislabelled or unsafe, but damage may already have been done by then.

You can learn more about what is required from supplement manufacturers by reading the FDA's FAQ on dietary supplements. However, FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb announced in a February 2019 statement that he plans to introduce stricter regulations, so things are sure to look for the supplement industry.

Nevertheless, here are a few examples of what happened in the past due to low regulation:

  • Companies have sold highly concentrated caffeine powder and liquid to consumers in bulk. The FDA has identified an illegal and unsafe practice.
  • A supplement brand sold products with dangerous hidden ingredients. The FDA has announced warnings for both consumers and the company.
  • Supplement companies illegally claim to treat opioid use disorders. The FDA has sent warning letters to the companies.
  • Nearly 20 supplement brands sold products with illegal claims about Alzheimer's disease treatment. The FDA sent warning letters to all companies.

2. You should not take the same supplements as everyone

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Personalized vitamins are better than what you find on the shelf, but you should still consult a doctor or dietician about special care supplements.


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If your diet, lifestyle, fitness routine, sleep habits and health status are not the same as anyone else's, why would it make sense to take the same supplements as everyone else?

For some supplements, this is clear: You probably wouldn't be tempted to take a calorie-dense, high-protein, and high-carb shake after exercise if you weren't trying to build muscle. You probably won't grab sleep aids if you don't have any sleep problems at night, either.

For other supplements, the break is not so noticeable. Everyone needs vitamins, right?

Yes, everyone needs vitamins and minerals and other certain nutrients (here is a very useful PDF chart from the FDA about the main nutrients, their functions and RDAs), but not everyone has the same amount of the same nutrient needed.

Take vitamin B12 as an example: people who follow a vegan or vegetarian diet can benefit from supplementation with B12 because this vitamin is mainly found in animal products or fortified products. If you eat eggs, dairy, chicken, seafood, or steak, you probably don't need extra vitamin B12.

If you want to know more about which vitamins you really need, I highly recommend Dr. The Vitamin Solution. Romy Block and Dr. Arielle Levitan, two doctors who founded Vous Vitamin, a personalized multivitamin company.

I found this book to explain all the essential knowledge about vitamins, minerals and other supplements in an easy to understand way and help you determine which supplements are best for you – or at least a helpful discussion with your doctor .

3. Supplements don't replace whole foods

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Supplements will never be as good as eating whole, nutritious foods like fruits and vegetables.


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Unfortunately, it is a myth that taking vitamins and supplements can replicate a healthy diet. Just as you can't & # 39; live out a bad diet, & # 39; you cannot & # 39; supplement it outdoors. Vitamins can certainly help bridge the gap between what you get from your diet and what you don't, but using supplements as a way to "fix" your diet won't work.

There are so many nuances here. For example:

That list is far from complete, but you can see that vitamins and supplements not only magically reverse bad eating habits. Scientific conclusions vary widely – from "we don't need vitamins at all" to "the benefits outweigh the risks" – but the general consensus seems to be that vitamins and supplements can help prevent nutrient deficiencies in certain populations and when taken correctly and support health in combination with a nutritious diet.

4. Yes, you can overdose vitamins and supplements

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Taking too many vitamins can cause dangerous side effects, so be careful to check the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) for every vitamin you take.


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A common vitamin myth is this: "If I take too many vitamins, that's fine, because my body will only keep what it needs and remove the rest as waste."

This is an ubiquitous mindset but a dangerous one. You can in fact get an overdose of vitamins. The term is "vitamin toxicity" and can occur with any vitamin. For almost every vitamin, there is a set Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) or Adequate Intake (AI), as well as a Tolerable Upper Intake Level (UL).

The RDA or AI means an ideal daily intake, while the UL indicates the high level of what is safe to consume. RDAs, AIs, and ULs are all values ​​under Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs), the set of reference values ​​assigned to foods and supplements for consumption.

Recently, experts have seen an increase in vitamin D toxicity, probably related to touting the benefits of vitamin D on immune function, bone health and mood.

It's not just vitamins that can also be toxic: Minerals taken in high doses can be toxic, as are electrolytes, herbs, and sports supplements. Zinc, for example, a mineral known and loved for its immune-boosting properties, can cause immunosuppression in extremely high doses.

Pre-workout supplements high in caffeine can cause abnormal heart rhythms and serious overdoses can be fatal. Potassium, a well-known electrolyte found in foods such as bananas and spinach and in sports drinks, can also cause toxicity. This condition is called hyperkalaemia and can lead to muscle weakness, fatigue, nausea and, in severe cases, life-threatening cardiac arrhythmias.

Exceeding the UL of a vitamin, mineral, electrolyte, or other supplement can cause harm, so be careful about your research on supplements you plan to take.

5. Supplements can interact dangerously with medications you take

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Some supplements can reduce the effectiveness of certain medications or cause side effects – talk to your doctor about supplements if you are taking any medications.


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If you are currently on regularly prescribed or over-the-counter medications, talk to your doctor about drug-nutrient interactions.

A drug-nutrient interaction is any reaction that occurs between a vitamin, mineral, antioxidant, electrolyte, or other nutrient and a drug. A drug-supplement interaction is any reaction that occurs between a supplement and a drug.

Good intentions to supplement your diet with vitamins, minerals and herbs can backfire and cause complications. Take these examples:

How to choose the right supplements for you

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Smart supplementation can optimize your health and condition, but poor supplementation can be potentially dangerous.


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If you're generally healthy and want to take supplements for overall health, I think it's best to use a personalized multivitamin service, such as Vous Vitamin, Baze, or Persona Nutrition. This isn't as good as going to a doctor or dietitian, but it's much better than just swiping the first multivitamin bottle you see in your cart into your cart.

Some of these companies have more in-depth personalization processes than others, but in general, with a personalized multivitamin, you can be confident that you are not getting too much of a specific vitamin or getting a vitamin that is needed or actually needed. harmful to you.

If you don't follow that route (and even if you do), always (always!) Look for signs that a supplement is legitimate. By legit I mean that it has been tested and / or evaluated by third parties, and it is certified not to contain any ingredients other than what is on the label (even though it has no shady fillers). Those marks are:

  • Certification by the National Sanitation Foundation (NSF). The NSF is an external evaluation agency for food and nutritional supplements. When a supplement carries the NSF certified label, it means that it has undergone a thorough safety and risk assessment and is constantly subjected to "regular on-site inspections of production facilities and regular retests of products to ensure that they continue to meet the same high standards required to maintain certification over time. "
  • US Pharmacopeia (USP) Verified Mark. The USP is an independent, non-profit organization that investigates drugs, foods, and dietary supplements to determine their safety and efficacy. The USP Verified Mark on a supplement means that the supplement has four critical components, which you can read about on the USP supplement page standards.
  • Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) certification. This is the only FDA-related certification for supplements. The FDA has established Good Manufacturing Practices for the production of supplements and nutritional supplements that have this certification in accordance with the FDA guidelines for production.

Even better, look for a nutrition facts label versus a supplement facts label. A nutrition facts label means the product is sold as a food product, not a supplement, meaning it has been reviewed and approved by the FDA for human consumption. A whole dietary supplement with a nutrition facts label, an NSF certification, a USP Verified Mark and GMP certification is the best of the best.

Check the labels of each supplement you use to avoid vitamin toxicity. Taking multiple supplements every day and also taking vitamins from food can put you at risk for vitamin toxicity – for example, if your protein shake is fortified with vitamin B12 and your multivitamin contains 250% of the DRI for vitamin B12, you may want to alternate them or choose another protein shake that is not fortified.

Finally, I will end with the same feelings that I started with: consult your doctor or a registered dietitian if you are interested in taking vitamins or supplements for a specific symptom or a medical condition.

Supplements not only can interact dangerously with medications that you are already taking, it is also important to rule out medical conditions that may need to be treated with prescription medications.

The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care professional if you have questions about a medical condition or health goals.


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