With the market flooded by herbal and nutritional dietary supplements in the last few years, newcomers to healthy diet supplements might be paralyzed by the sheer number of choices. From St. John’s wort to multivitamins to fish oil, the industry is booming in the face of a nation of people trying to make positive nutritional choices. How are these products tested, though? What sorts of regulations govern their use and (perhaps just as important) their marketing to consumers?
The Food and Drug Administration rigorously tests most food products for safety. Despite this, the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act does not obligate nutritional supplement marketers to provide safety and effectiveness data to the Food and Drug Administration. This is a loophole that many producers of so-called nutritional supplements exploit by marketing their products as cure-alls or herbal remedies when, in reality, they may be completely ineffective at treating what the label claims (and in some cases, it may even be harmful). This legislation represents a departure from evidence-based medicine, which relies on clinical trials that determine a medication or treatment’s effectiveness measured against a placebo.
If evidence-based medicine is not the standard in the dietary supplement industry, one may justifiably ask, “Are they worth taking at all?” Some are, and some are not. The key is to thoroughly investigate any supplement you intend to take prior to ingesting it. A complete physical exam by your physician is also an excellent idea, as he or she will often be able to tell you if you lack certain nutrients in your diet. Be honest in describing your eating habits, as physicians can only determine an accurate course of treatment using the principles of evidence-based medicine. If you are ashamed and lie about the nutrition you’re receiving, your doctor may not feel a nutritional supplement regimen is necessary.
After your exam, ask about effective dietary supplements and how they differ from less effective treatments. Research the brand online and see if there are any studies you can find to support the claims that the marketers make. Talk to friends and family about the reputation of certain brands, because you may find that their physicians have given them advice about excellent supplements (as well as brands to avoid). Monitor your weight and overall health closely while taking nutritional supplements. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, talk to your physician immediately. When taking the treatments themselves, follow the directions laid out by the manufacturer and your physician. It may be tempting to take more than a single dose of certain vitamins, but this can actually lead to serious health complications.