FOOD, FACTS and FADS

Exploring the sense and nonsense of food and health

There’s A Supplement for That!!

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By Sally J. Feltner, Ph.D, MS, RDN

In 1994, Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act that loosened the regulation requirements that ultimately favored the manufacturers and led to an explosion of the dietary supplement market.
As a result, the FDA now has minimal regulation over testing prior to marketing concerning the safety or effectiveness of any supplement. Any testing is the responsibility of the manufacturer so it becomes difficult to “prove” any safety issues that may be present.

Since 1994, the FDA has taken action against many products because they contain prescription drugs or contaminants. Most of the products under scrutiny were labeled for use as sexual enhancement, body building, and weight loss.

Dietary Supplement Labeling:

Fortunately, what goes on the label is regulated. Structure/function claims can advertise  how the product affects normal body structures (such as “helps maintain strong bones”) or functions. Claims such as “improves circulation”, “prevents wrinkles” “supports the immune system”, and “helps maintain mental health” can be used, whereas “prevents heart disease”, “cures depression” cannot be.

If a function claim is made, the labeling has this warning: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” So who needs them?

Take the Case of Robert
Robert is 70 years old and has always been healthy. Recently, he experienced a few episodes of forgetfulness but thought nothing of it and attributed it to old age. Then he began feeling tired and having tingling in his hands and feet, difficulty walking, and diarrhea. He finally made a doctor’s appointment.

His blood test revealed he had a vitamin B12 deficiency and after a diet history, the doctor noticed he ate very little meat or dairy.  Due to his age, the doctor explained the deficiency could be caused by a condition common in older adults that reduces the ability to absorb  the vitamin and suggested he start to take a daily supplement containing the vitamin. He also gave him an injection of vitamin B12 in case the vitamin was not being adequately absorbed by Robert.

Who may benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements? 

People with a diagnosed vitamin and/or mineral deficiencies

Newborns (vitamin K)

Vegans (vitamin B12 and D)

Pregnant women (folate and iron)

Elderly persons on limited diets (multivitamin/minerals)

People on restricted diets (multivitamins/minerals)

People at risk for osteoporosis (calcium, vitamin D)

People with alcoholism (multivitamin/minerals)

Elderly people diagnosed with vitamin B12, vitamin D and/or folate deficiency)

  • Guidelines for Using Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
    Purchase products with USP (U.S. Pharmacopeia or the CL symbol (Consumer Laboratories) – tested for purity, ingredients, and dose.
    Choose supplements containing 100% of the Daily Value or less.
    Take supplements with meals.
    Tell your health care provider about the supplements you take.

Nonvitamin NonMineral Supplements

Fatty Acids: Omega-3’s, fish oils, DHA and EPA, flaxseeds

Claims: To reduce heart disease and enhance brain function. This claim has recently been disputed and needs further research as to its effectiveness.

Omega-3s compete with omega-6s (vegetable oils like corn oil, soybean oil, safflower seed oil) for conversion to eicosanoids that help regulate blood clotting, inflammation, and blood pressure in the body.
Problem: We have far more 6’s in the food supply than we have 3’s. They work best at a ratio of 1:1 but instead we have 20:1 in favor of 6’s.

Flaxseeds contain alpha-linolenic fatty acid and have to be converted to EPA and DHA in the body; but this is not very efficient in humans and decreases as we age. EPA and DHA are the active forms which can lower inflammation and blood clotting factors. That is why we should eat EPA and DHA directly from fish instead of relying on their conversion in the body from alpha-linolenic acid.

Bottom Line: Found to not be very effective in reducing heart attacks in supplement form.
Best to get them eating fatty fish 2-3 times a week. (salmon, trout, tuna)
Possible problems with mercury and contaminants in fish (farmed and wild-caught
Fish oil supplements not recommended for anyone taking blood thinner medications.

Enzyme Supplements

Enzymes are proteins so they are all broken down in the small intestine to amino acids; thus, the original enzyme and its functions are not intact – so little if any effect can be gained from taking them.

One exception: Some are made to work in the digestive tract before they are broken down. For example, lactase breaks down lactose and is helpful to people who are lactose intolerant.

So, if these are not specially coated to protect them as they are in cystic fibrosis, most enzyme supplements are totally useless to the body.  Healthy people make their own digestive enzymes in the pancreas and small intestine.

Hormone Supplements
Many marketed to athletes to replace the desirable steroid hormones that enhance muscle growth and strength and can be dangerous, like growth hormones. Again, without putting them to the test, there is no way to measure their safety or effectiveness.

Melatonin:
Not a protein, but a steroid hormone made in the pineal gland in the brain.
Marketed as a sleep aid and help with jet lag.
Claimed to improve sleep duration and quality
Somewhat effective
Dose is important – start low.

Coenzyme Supplements:
Coenzymes are enzyme helpers.
A proper  is coenzyme Q 10.
Needed as an electron carrier in the final steps of energy (ATP) production
Are often claimed to be needed when statins are taken. .
This can cause side effects of statins of muscle pain and weakness.
Some studies show benefits of reduced pain – but not all

Herbal Remedies
As with all supplements, they are only as good if they are effective. Human studies with herbal remedies have helped identify which herbals and supplements lack beneficial effects or have adverse effects. Some can pose a health risk. Results of most studies are mixed.

  • Guidelines for Herbal Use
    Don’t use for serious, self-diagnosed conditions.
    Let your doctor know what herbals you take.
    Clear the use of herbal remedies with your doctor if you take prescription meds.
    Do not use if attempting or are pregnant.
    Don’t mix herbal remedies.
    If you are allergic to certain plants, make sure the same is not true of the chosen herbal supplement.
    Buy herbs with the USP label or have the CL label.

Functional Foods
Generally taken to mean food or food ingredients that may provide a health benefit beyond the effects of traditional nutrients it contains

Examples of functional foods with apparent health benefits include:

  • Stanol and sterol fortified margarines, psyllium fiber, whole oat products – reduced blood levels of LDL cholesterol
  • Omega-3 acids – reduce blood triglycerides – high doses
  • Cranberry juice extracts – decreased urinary tract infections
  • Folic-Acid fortified breads and cereals – decreased neural tube defects
  • Probiotics – decreased risk of infections, lactose intolerance, diarrhea

Don’t be fooled by the claims made by the purveyors of dietary supplements – In my opinion, most are more than likely no better than the remedies peddled by their ancestors, i.e., the snake oil salesmen. You cannot turn a poor diet into a healthy one using supplements.

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