I get asked about supplements all the time. Which ones I take, which are good, which are bad, which will help you put on muscle, which will help you burn fat…. I’ve probably been asked every supplement related question you can think of.
And my answer is always the same – it depends.
Supplements and Safety
A friend passed this Frontline investigation on nutritional supplements to me the other day after a friend sent it his way. He hadn’t had a chance to watch it yet but figured I’d be interested as his friend said it was eye-opening.
It’s an hour-long investigative report into how ugly the supplement industry can be. This piece states how fish oil does more harm than good, supplements can be tainted with anabolic steroids, and how people can bottle almost anything and sell it as a health product.
It’s easy to believe we’re smarter than average and would never fall for something that doesn’t work, but it happens. And unfortunately, even the most trustworthy sources have been known to embellish or exaggerate scientific studies and research papers to make their blogs posts/books/products look more legitimate.
I have books on my shelves written by experts, people I highly respect and look up to, filled with terrible, sometimes contradictory, sources and references. People write these books and fill them with whatever sources they can find because they know that 99% of their readers aren’t going to look them up. They know that most people will take what they say as fact just because they list references.
As stated in this article by Fitocracy founder Dick Talens, this happens all too often in the fitness industry. Diet books, exercise equipment, nutritional supplements, and even major news outlets all fall victim to this game of making outrageous, hard to prove claims.
No matter how good or bad you’re told something is, you should always hesitate to trust any of it.
Frontline Doesn’t Care About Your Health
How this particular news piece made it’s way to me is important. A friend sent it to me after a friend passed it on to him. His friend believed the information in this report would help people, so he shared it. Not at all uncommon.
But had this report been about how great multivitamins are or how drinking plenty of water is important, we wouldn’t be talking about it at all. That kind of information isn’t exciting or worth sharing. People want to read, see, or listen to something new – something shocking. And the more shocking something is the more likely we are to share it with friends and family.
As noted in The Great Courses’ How Ideas Spread, it’s human nature to want to share these kinds of things. It’s simple, more surprising or shocking pieces of content are more likely to be shared. News media outlets know this and do their best to make their pieces as “shocking” as possible. No matter what the data actually says.
This is a big part of why health and fitness information is so confusing. We encounter articles every day telling us that protein causes kidney disease and cancer, dietary fat gives us heart attacks, and carbohydrates cause diabetes. And while some studies may suggest that in certain cases some of these headlines may hold true, media outlets would rather grab your attention than share the real story.
So instead of “High Protein Diets May Cause Further Damage to Those With Pre-existing Kidney Disorders” we get “Protein Causes Cancer”. One title grabs your attention while you wouldn’t think twice about the other.
Media outlets are interested only in one thing, and it’s not your health.
There is some good information in this Frontline report.
I wholeheartedly agree with their messages of being careful with what you put in your body, trying to take shortcuts by using pills is a terrible idea, and that too much of a good thing can harm you.
But, like typical health reports, it also contains a lot of misleading information, exaggeration, and scare tactics put in place to get people talking.
For example, near the midway point of the report, they interview Dr. Paul Offit, Pediatrician and author of “Do You Believe in Magic”. He had this to say in regards to vitamins:
“You need vitamins to live. The question is do you get enough in food, and I think the answer to that question is yes.”
Dr. Offit may think we get enough vitamins from our food, but most studies suggest otherwise.
Even with the prevalence of obesity and overeating in North America, many of us suffer from malnutrition. Take this study, for example, in which a sample of obese youth was checked for deficiency in four vitamins and minerals. Of the 156 individuals with a BMI above the 95th percentile for age and sex, 81% had inadequate amounts of vitamin E, 27% had inadequate amounts of magnesium, 55% were low in calcium and 46% did not get enough vitamin D. These children consumed 124% of their daily need for calories, yet most were deficient in at least two of the tested essential nutrients.
It would appear, then, that many of us don’t get enough vitamins from our diet and may benefit from a multivitamin.
Vitamin D was another big target during the Frontline report. The dangers of over supplementing with vitamin D were discussed at large during a gloomy portion of the report. And it’s true, when over supplemented, vitamin D absolutely will do harm. But that doesn’t change the fact that vitamin D deficiency is now recognized as a pandemic worldwide.
Yes, some people take way too much vitamin D and it is harming them, but the vast majority of people don’t get enough and shouldn’t be afraid to supplement with 1,000 IU per day, especially during the winter months when sun exposure is limited.
Other risks and issues were overblown at times, but my biggest concern with this piece is its portrayal of all supplements as bad and/or dangerous.
Not all supplements are “pills and potions”, as Frontline would have you believe.
Are Supplements Safe?
In the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test the effectiveness, safety, or purity of nutritional supplements. Instead, the FDA puts the onus on the manufacturer to ensure these things and states on their website that “consumers may contact the manufacturer or a commercial laboratory” with any questions or concerns. They also provide a place for anyone to report an adverse effect to a supplement.
Despite what the aforementioned Frontline report may lead you to believe, it is not the FDA’s job to test safety or effectiveness of dietary supplements. As per their own website, the “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed”.
In Canada, however, things are different. I don’t recall this being mentioned in the Frontline piece, but we have much stricter regulations in place here. In Canada, all products must be cleared by the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) before being produced or marketed. The NHPD ensures each supplement manufacturer has a proper license, follows good manufacturing practices, and that clinical trials support claims and safety of each product. They also ensure thorough adverse event reporting and standard labeling conventions are used.
At the end of the day, supplements sold in Canada are more likely to be safe, effective, and labeled properly. This is good, but doesn’t necessarily give us a green light to pop as many pills as we want. As noted in the investigative report, too much of anything can have negative results.
How to Intelligently Approach Nutritional Supplements
There are three things you need to ask yourself before taking a supplement:
- What are the chances that my diet is deficient in the nutrients I’m thinking about supplementing?
- Which physiological system do I hope to target with this nutritional supplement and do I need to target that system?
- Is there appropriate, peer-reviewed research demonstrating that this supplement does what manufacturers claim it can do, without causing harm?
If you can’t answer any of these questions you should hold off on taking the supplement until you do more research and/or talk to an expert. A good place to start your research is Examine.com.
After going through the initial three steps listed above, if you decide that you want to try using a dietary supplement, I’d strongly recommend buying supplements that fit the following two criteria:
- Manufactured by a larger company that’s been doing business for a long time, provides certificates of analysis, and is certified by a third party.
- Contains as few ingredients as possible, ideally just one. For example, if want to supplement with creatine, don’t purchase something that has creatine, amino acids, caffeine, dextrose, and sucralose in it – just buy creatine.
Supplements Can Help
Supplements are not all bad and when used intelligently, can help supplement an already healthy diet.
People get into trouble when they take too high of doses, purchase from poor manufacturers, or view them as a shortcut to their health and fitness goals. We see bodybuilders or athletes taking certain things and think that if we take the same products we will look or perform just like them.
But that’s simply not the case.
Supplement | noun | something that is added to something else in order to make it complete
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Supplements are a very small piece of the overall health and fitness puzzle. If you aren’t eating right or exercising in a manner that will help you achieve your goals, all the supplements in the world won’t help.
Doubling your protein intake via whey isolate will not turn you into a muscle-bound beast overnight. Taking two multi-vitamins per day is not twice as good as taking one. It just doesn’t work that way.
It’s a confusing world out there. Constant mixed messages and investigative reports like this particular Frontline piece don’t help. From my twenty years of experience in this field, I’ve learned that things are rarely as good, or as bad, as we are lead to believe.
This is why it’s important to question everything, and try things for yourself.