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Why it’s vital to pick the right health supplements

Taking dietary supplements without knowing what your body needs is not only futile, but can also be potentially harmful in the long run

Consider how supplements can interact with other vitamins and existing medications
Consider how supplements can interact with other vitamins and existing medications (iStock)

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The side door of my fridge looks like an apothecary’s chamber. Inside, you’ll find various types of dietary supplementation, from vitamin D tablets to probiotics and Omega 3 capsules. The madness doesn’t stop there; littering my kitchen counter, I also have fiber supplements for my gut, fizzy tablets that explode into vile concoctions of magnesium and zinc for my menstrual cycle, an amino acid drink for my workouts, and tea bags full of valerian to help me sleep. It’s safe to say that my health and fitness are my priority, and I value looking and feeling my best. But the casual observer may dare to ask – has this gone a bit far?

Judging by the number of bottles on the counter, the answer may sound like an obvious “yes” until you learn how I take these supplements. I don’t take them all simultaneously and hope for the best; I use a targeted approach and only take direct supplementation when needed. I live by the approach that supplementation is the support act of health and wellness, whereas whole foods are the main show.

However, for some people, taking daily supplements, such as pills, capsules, powders, and drinks, is a catch-all solution to nutritional deficiencies from eating a poorly constructed diet. And because dietary supplementation is marketed directly to the consumer, they often make arbitrary decisions based on marketing claims. Our desire to live healthier lives, lose weight, reduce pain, increase energy, or have glowing skin can drive our decisions, and that’s what marketers aim to solve. But we as consumers don’t necessarily have the education or skills to ascertain if a product will deliver on its promises or if we even require it.

Wouldn’t it make life easier if you could take a multivitamin pill? Depressingly, it just so happens that research by John Hopkins Medicine has revealed that multivitamins provide little benefit to the consumer. As it turns out, the only supplementation recommended in a blanket approach is folic acid for pregnant women, as a deficiency in folic acid can be determinantal to a baby’s neural tube development. The rest is genuinely supplemental and at your discretion.

But buyer beware, supplementation is a big, fuzzy enigma in the world of nutrition. It can range from single vitamin supplements, such as vitamin C tablets, to products containing an ingredient, such as protein or amino acids. There is also a chasm between high-quality supplements and ones that are only marginally better than a placebo. So even if you’re like me and want to impact a health concern with targeted supplementation directly, it’s hard to know whether we benefit from one of these promises or invest in very expensive urine. It’s why the best rule of thumb is to invest in high-quality whole foods for your dinner table rather than bottles of manufactured pills.

According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority in India (FSSAI) and US Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary supplementation can be in the form of herbs, botanicals, enzymes, live microbes, vitamins, minerals, concentrates, metabolites, constituents, extras, or combinations of any dietary ingredient from the above. All these ingredients and combinations are wrapped up in the larger picture of the supplementation industry. We must know that any industry has profit-making at heart, and the supplementary industry is booming. According to Fortune Business Insights, the market size was 61.2 billion USD in 2020 and is projected to double by 2028.

Even though FSSAI regulations dictate that products must contain wording that states that a product is not to be used for medical treatment purposes, whether the consumer knows anything about metabolites or enzymes or the quality of these products is doubtful. According to a US study by The National Research Center, most consumers believe dietary supplements undergo the same rigorous testing as their over-the-counter drugs. Since dietary supplements in the US and India aren’t labeled as drugs but as food, they undergo a different approval process with differing product standards.

Therefore, a consumer’s reliance on assumption alone can lead to well-meant but ill-advised consumption decisions.

But does this mean that supplements are harmful? The simple answer is no, but it’s a complex discussion. Some products which don’t pass quality testing may have mislabeled or undisclosed ingredients; others may not submit their “new” dietary ingredients that haven’t yet been approved for use in the country where it’s sold. Sometimes, more expensive ingredients listed on the product may be swapped for less expensive ones. Other times, not enough of a supplement is added to the product to make any measurable change in the consumer’s health. In more sinister circumstances, adulterated ingredients can be found within a product or junk fillers. These circumstances may not make a product harmful, per se, but they can make it ineffective and not worth your money.

Drinks like kefir dramatically improve gut motility without the need for supplements
Drinks like kefir dramatically improve gut motility without the need for supplements (iStock)

But what about vitamins, minerals, and botanicals (such as echinacea)?

Taking these supplements isn’t inherently bad or harmful, but it’s the context of your own body that matters. Before taking a vitamin and mineral supplement, consumers need to consider how it can interact with other vitamins and their existing medications. According to McGill University, caffeine and calcium supplementation can inhibit iron absorption. If you’re iron deficient and taking a supplement, be cautious when consuming caffeine and calcium to allow maximum iron absorption. St. John’s Wort, although often taken for moods, can reduce the effectiveness of a birth control pill and interact with thyroid medication. According to the National Institute of Health, vitamin K can act as a blood thinner, which isn’t advised before surgery, as it can prevent blood clotting.

To add a few more dashes of insult to injury, the AMA Journal of Ethics tells us that adverse reactions to dietary supplements account for 23,000 emergency room visits annually because the dietary supplement may interact with your prescribed medication. Therefore, always consult your doctor before adding any supplementation to your diet.

Let’s re-route ourselves back to the origin of the problem – most of us want to take dietary supplements to support a poor diet. We can fix this without the help of heavy supplementation. Instead, we can use delicious food that dramatically improves our energy, gut motility, moods, and overall health. It’s called eating the rainbow. Choose a fruit and vegetable of each color to consume daily. Greens, reds, oranges, yellows, reds, purples, and whites – all fruit and vegetable colors have the fantastic quality of having different vitamins and minerals associated with their color. Also, changing the method of preparation you use – steaming, baking, roasting, grilling, boiling, or leaving your fruits and vegetables raw, allows you to unlock different nutrient properties, which are incredible at optimizing your health.

If you’re more tech-inclined, try some food journaling apps like MyFitnessPal, which will break down your micronutrients so you can spend your money on the appropriate food, not false promises. And finally, if you still need help to achieve your recommended daily requirement of vitamins and minerals, contact your doctor to discuss what supplements will work best for you.

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