Look inside my medicine cabinet and you'll see a lot of half-empty supplement containers. There's Emergen-C (for when I feel a cold coming on), probiotics (for gut health), capsules of conjugated linoleic acid (supposed to burn fat)... and on and on. You probably have a similar collection. It's testament to the fact that the supplement industry is huge, with around $27 billion in sales in 2015 alone. Clearly, I'm not the only sucker for a good before-and-after ad and all-caps, pie-in-the-sky promises.
So how many of these claims should you believe, and what kind of regulations or verifications, if any, do vitamins and supplements undergo? Here are some of the most common myths you shouldn't believe about vitamins and supplements.
Supplements can rev your metabolism
"Since no product can do this, and it can't even be measured, it's an outright lie," says personal trainer Pat Barone. "Products claiming to boost metabolism simply dehydrate the body, making it look like weight loss is occurring."
Vitamin C can stave off a cold
Mega-doses of vitamin C don't fight off or shorten the duration of a cold. If you're slamming vitamin C for this reason, you're literally pissing money away. "The body only absorbs 180mg [of vitamin C] at a time," says nutrition and exercise physiologist Franci Cohen. "Over 1,800mg [in a 2,000mg tablet] will just get excreted through the urine."
If you do want to take vitamin C for its ability to help the body absorb nutrients from food, Cohen recommends dividing tablets into pieces and taking them throughout the day. Finally, a use for your pill cutter.
More is better when it comes to vitamins
Your body still has to process everything that goes in it. Too much of a good thing can be a waste of money at best, and life-threatening at worst. "Vitamins... can be toxic if not life-threatening if taken improperly," say Drs. Arielle Levitan and Romy Block."We have seen patients end up in the ICU or on the liver transplant list from supplement use."
Vitamin overdoses can be particularly problematic for children, who are often given cartoon-sponsored chewable vitamins that taste basically like candy. What could go wrong?
If a supplement has good press and positive reviews, it must be legit
Here's how I choose my supplements: I search on Amazon for the product with the best reviews and lowest price. Turns out that's the classic mark of a shill. "Most Amazon reviews are bought and paid for," says Paul Eftang, who owns a supplement company. "I've had multiple companies approach us offering to give us hundreds of five-star Amazon reviews for our products"
There's a lot of marketing hype out there, which is why it's important to buy products recommended by your doctor, not a store associate or anonymous reviewer. "Should you buy supplements on your own? No way. It's a waste of money and can cause a host of other health problems," says Dr. Scott Schreiber, who is double board-certified in rehabilitation and nutrition. "Take supplements prescribed by a health professional that come from a high-quality company that only distributes its product to health care providers. Make sure the supplements are third-party tested to ensure the highest quality ingredients are in the products."
BUT. Even then you should be wary, because some health care providers have an agenda. "Health care providers often have financial incentives to prescribe supplements, as they get a portion of the cost," says Dr. Drew Ramsey, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. "That's standard practice with supplements."
YIKES. Who knew those seemingly innocent gummy multivitamins inhabit a world riddled with subterfuge?
You don't need a multivitamin if you eat a healthy, balanced diet
In a perfect world, everyone would eat the recommended five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day. The body absorbs nutrients better when they're in actual food -- plus, fruits and vegetables have hundreds of disease-fighting phytonutrients you won't find in a capsule.
But the reality is that most #saddesklunches aren't high in fresh produce. "Most Americans don't eat organic or healthy; therefore a supplement can be used to replace the missing nutrients," Dr. Schreiber says.
So yeah. You probably need to shell out for a multivitamin, ideally one with the NSF- or USP-verified mark. "Make sure it's tested by an independent organization," says Dr. Robert Silverman, who has a masters of science in nutrition. "I only carry companies that have third-party certifications."
Supplements are regulated
This is technically true in theory, but not so much in practice. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was signed in 1994, which established a special category for supplements. Under this law, supplements aren't regulated as drugs by the FDA; instead, they are considered foods, hence the name dietary supplements. Supplements don't have to go through the same rigorous approval process that drugs do, Eftang says, meaning there's often no consistency from batch to batch. This is why you'll see phrases on vitamin bottles that proclaim, "Supports a strong immune system*" with the asterisk pointing to a statement that says, "Claims have not been evaluated by the FDA."
"Supplements are not tested first in humans and only after they have caused injuries that are reported to the FDA can actions be undertaken to protect the public," notes pathologist Dr. Matilde Parente.
Even if you do report a problem to the FDA, it's kind of the Wild West in supplement county, and there's only one sheriff. "It's not that they don't have regulation," Eftang explains. "It's that the FDA does not have the man hours to monitor everyone." Keep that in mind the next time you're at the drugstore seeking a quick, supposedly natural fix for whatever ails you.
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