Q: What is a dietary supplement?
A: A dietary supplement is a product intended for ingestion that contains a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.
This is the first installment of a multi-part series of articles, taking a look at the various facets of the nutritional supplement field. This time around, we’ll be looking at the more mundane, or at least less-freaky-sounding, end of the spectrum – stuff you’re apt to find in a casual perusal of your local drug store or supermarket. Basically, things like vitamins and less-esoteric herbs… things you won’t need to need to skill up (or head to a specialty store, either online or in the big blue room) to gather, basically.
One thing that you’ll become intimately familiar with, whether you’re looking at the latest workout-blasting powder or something as simple as a multivitamin, is the asterisk (*), which appears on pretty much every single thing that proclaims to offer a health benefit.
* – These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
What this means is that there is a whole buttload of leeway here, and, furthermore, that many of the nutrients don’t have any kind of recommended daily amount (RDA). In short, it’s the Wild West out there – anyone can say anything does whatever they want. As a result, a lot of research has been done to support or debunk the efficacy of various supplements, which has resulted in a little bit more clarity on the subject, as well as this really cool graph.
Seriously, that graph is about twelve flavors of awesome, because it covers not only what works (and how well), but debunks some of the misconceptions about the purported benefits of several supplements. In addition, it separates the various claims by how well research backs up the different health claims. For instance, it looks like people are throwing the the whole nine yards at diabetes, but only one thing – cinnamon – shows even a moderately tangible benefit. Other supplementation claims have even less success, with everything arrayed against migraines and herpes falling below the Mendoza Line for efficacy. However, there is some good news to be found out there, too. Vitamin D stands its ground pretty well, as does Folic Acid and good old cranberry juice. I’d never even heard of red rice yeast before, but it looks like it’s got some promise in terms of taking care of your ticker and the plumbing attached to it. St. John’s Wort also looks like it lives up to its billing as an aid in the fight against depression, too.
Conspicuously absent, however, are things that are expressly stated to give you more energy or help you lose weight (through changing digestion, suppressing appetite, or what have you). In all probability, there would be so many things there, it would warrant its own bubble graph. Then again, “eat less and exercise more” isn’t something you should really get from a pill, anyway. Having done some outside reading, since I’m not averse to the George Jetson plan of better living through chemistry, there are other fitness benefits to some of the supplements presented that aren’t included on that graph. Vitamin D has been shown to help aid endurance and strength, and fish oil is a source of healthy fats (in the form of both Omega 6 and Omega 3 fatty acids, though as the bubbles show, those latter may not be all that and a bag of chips). Later in this series, I’ll dissect and discuss the various things that go into my daily regimen (or, as some folks with a penchant for picking up heavy things call it, “my stack” – I can’t help but visualize a huge pile of Legos whenever somebody says that to me; if memory serves, they remain quite crunchy in milk).
If you’re staying true vegan or vegetarian, and want to supplement with something like fish oil, a company called New Harvest makes a veg-friendly EPA capsule (it’s wheat-based), which I free sample of through BzzAgent a few weeks ago. I found these capsules, somewhat surprisingly, to have a slightly more pronounced flavor than the conventional fish oil I take, but they do offer similar levels of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids.
Unless you’re looking at a supplement that expressly says it contains just one thing (like green tea extract, or vitamin E capsules), you’re apt to find all kinds of ancillary things tucked in there. In the main, these are well-intentioned, and ostensibly support the function of the main supplement, but there are a lot of manufacturers that take a kitchen-sink approach. This can be a good or bad thing, depending on what you’re looking for.
Obviously, read the labels on anything marked and marketed as a nutritional supplement carefully. If you have any question about taking something new, especially any kind of sensitivity to the supplement or the additional ingredients (or they’re contraindicated by something more important in your daily regimen), check with your doctor or nutritionist before taking them.