4 Ways to Tell if Dietary Supplements are Safe and Right for You

By , SparkPeople Blogger
By Dr. Christopher R. Mohr, R.D., PhD

There are more than 29,000 dietary supplements on the market today. It’s a multibillion dollar market.

But how do you know what’s in your supplements? How do you know if they're effective? And, most importantly, how do you know if they're safe?

With so many people interested in taking dietary supplements and so many out there, first you need to do your homework. Putting your trust in an ad or infomercial is clearly not the best way to find out what's right for you. Instead, use these four strategies to cut through the hype.

1. Will the supplement actually work?

The purpose of dietary supplements is to improve an aspect of your health, reduce the risk of developing a health condition or ease symptoms associated with a disease. So when evaluating the product, ask yourself, “Is it possible for the supplement to actually help me?”

For example, omega-3 fatty acids are powerful in reducing blood fat, also known as triglycerides, and therefore reducing the risk of heart disease. Is this your goal?

If the answer is yes, the next step is to consider whether the supplement in question is necessary, and whether it will lower your triglycerides faster than you could if you didn't take the supplements.

Do you need the omega-3 supplements to reduce your triglycerides, or is there another way that you could do that, such as losing weight, increasing your exercise and/or making some dietary changes?

2. Is this product useful for me?

Certain supplements are designed for specific issues or disease states, such as diabetes, heart disease, etc. Therefore, if you don't have those diseases or health conditions, you don't need to consider supplements to treat them.

Similarly, the market is now flooded with weight loss supplements. Research--and common sense--tells us that all these supposed “weight loss supplements” are useless. At this time, there aren't data to support their use. On the flip side, we know that clean eating and exercise do work. So why go for the expensive and unproven quick fix product that’s not going to cause change--and could potentially cause harmful side effects--when we actually know what does work? Ditch the fat loss supplements, and, if you suffer from a condition such as diabetes or heart disease, talk to your health care provider to see whether your specific situation could benefit from a supplement.

3. Are there scientific, placebo-controlled studies to support or refute the claims being made for the supplement? Have the results been duplicated?

Dietary supplements are being developed, improved, and launched all the time. Unfortunately, well-conducted scientific studies take much longer to carry out, and in the meantime, consumers are buying and trying those supplements. Dietary supplements do not have to endure the same rigor as prescription and over-the-counter medications; however, some supplements have had a number of safety and efficacy studies conducted on them. Such studies are published in peer-reviewed, scientific journals. Access to thousands of well-respected journals can be found for free on PubMed.gov, a resource of the National Library of Medicine at this website.

4. Where are you getting your information? Is this supplement safe?

Unfortunately all too often dietary supplements are recalled. Earlier this year, more than 150 fat loss supplements and other similar products were pulled from the market.

Where did you hear about the dietary supplement in question--a friend, trainer, magazine, infomercial? Ideally the information should come from a registered dietitian with a specific knowledge about dietary supplements. Don't trust everything you hear from a friend, read in the back of your fitness magazine or see on TV.

It’s crucial to talk to a health professional who knows about dietary supplements to make sure you have all the information before taking any supplement. The clerk at the vitamin store is not a reliable source for information on the safety and efficacy of supplements; he or she is in the business of marketing and selling supplements, not protecting your health. Nor is your trainer. (If your trainer tries to sell you supplements, it might be time to find a new one.)

This is a basic list of questions and concerns that should be answered prior to consuming any dietary supplements. What’s most important, though, is to remember that dietary supplements are called supplements for a reason—they are intended to supplement whole foods in the diet. No dietary supplement can or will ever be able to replace what can be obtained through a healthy diet. Consuming adequate calories and fluids should be your first concern. Dietary supplements should then fill in the very gaps in your nutritional needs--but only if they are proven to be safe, legal, and beneficial.

Dr. Christopher R. Mohr of Mohr Results is a weight loss and nutrition expert. He has a weight loss column in "Men’s Fitness" and has written more than 500 articles for magazines and websites. His expertise has been sought out by LL Cool J, Denise Austin, Emeril Lagasse, the Washington Redskins, and thousands of regular people. As a registered dietitian with a doctorate in exercise physiology, Dr. Mohr has the tools and strategies to help people get into the best shape of their life.

Do you take any dietary supplements? Which ones? Where do you get your information on supplements?

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Brain supplements and other types of natural alternatives should be used as part of a holistic approach that should include diet, emotional health,physical health.No supplement can provide a magic bullet 1 pill fixes all solution.But used in conjunction with strategies to deal with the other 4 pillars of good mental health.

If you are interested i expand on this theme on my blog http://thesmarterbrain.brain-smart.

Sarah Thornton-Miller is a highly respected London based brain specialist with 25 years of research focus on the effects of the many naturally occurring nutrients found in popular brain supplements in helping control anxiety as well as successfully treating depression, preventing memory loss or easing attention deficit disorders .

I regularly take an Omega-3 and probiotic supplement. I just began taking Glucosamin, Lycine, and Vitamin E to help with a recurring achilles tendon injury. Report
I take CLA extreme, calcium/magnesium/zinc combo, vitamin D, centrum silver supplements everyday Report
Great article. It is very true, you need to be educated on what you put into your body. That is why the supplement I will take is one that was custom made specifically for me based on my DNA. We have this technology now that allows you to take an in home, cheekswab DNA assessment, mail it in and you receive a detailed report of what your body needs to fix any genetic flaws. We then send your customized whole food supplement to your door every month. One size fits all nutrition is extremely flawed and will soon be a thing of the past. Info on this technology can be found at: http://squidoo.com/DougLee Report
I take Viactiv now that I'm out of Flinstones w/ iron, plus White Kidney Bean extract, sometimes St John's Wort, melatonin, and of course always caffeine. Report
I take only the one's my doctor suggests might help my conditions. Report
I take an adult gummi general vitamin. I do it mainly for the folic acid, being that we will probably be starting a family sooner than later, and I want to keep my folic acid intake higher to prepare for that. Report
My doctor has approved a multi-vitamin, calcium & fish oil for me. This is all I take. Report
I took the supplements I have to my doctor and we discussed them. I take a multi-vitamin targeted for women my age, a calcium/magnesium/zinc w/D combo and CoQ10, all of which I experience as working for me and which my doctor "approved." Report
Take the target brand multi vitamin and reading the daily value have quit some of the single vitamins also take calcium with D and gucosamine/chondroitin all with my doctors approval Report
Just a regular daily women's multivitamin for me... the store brand of Centrum. I wouldn't touch diet pills with a ten-foot pole, and all the ones that have been recalled just reinforce that decision. :) Report
I take a good multivitamin from Nutrilite. I trust Nutrilite products to be all natural and manufactured to pharmaceutical standards. If you dissolve a Nutrilite vitamin in water you smell fresh cut plants, not a chemical smell! Report
I'm a big fan of the multivitamin and vitamins C, E, B, and D, as well as Flaxseed oil. I have an early onset auto-immune disease and fibromyalgia, so the more energizing and immune-system-aiding vitamins I can take, the better! Since I have started taking them regularly, I have felt much better! Even when college causes me to lose a little more sleep than I would like (like right now!) Report
I tried a gluco/chrond. supplement and I never felt any diff.! I do take L~Lysine
daily, unless there's a prob., then twice daily. I need others, but haven't the $$
for scripts, much less the supps! So, I've been trying to eat more dairy, fruit etc. Report
I only take Fish oil and Flaxseed Report
I take calcium w/vitamin D since I don't eat much dairy. I try to get everything else I need from food, not supplements. Report
I have almost 2 boxes of Pharmanex Lifepak nano left that I am taking which includes vitamins, minerals, and marine lipid concentrate. After I use that up, I plan on ordering less expensive vitamins from Forever Living. Report
The liquid vitamins "VEMMA" & the energy drink "VERVE" (which also has the vitamins have been a God send for me. I was able to get off oxygen, have energy, brain functioning again, and more importantly was able to discountinue about half of prescription medications. Doctor has complete knowledge and agrees if the vitamins do the job I am better off with less scripts! Report
This is odd that I would receive this today! I went to the doctor and she said the same thing! She also said that alot of people aren't getting enough Vit. D. New studies have show a link between depression and pain with not enough vit. D. This blog I enjoyed alot. Report
One of the things Sparkpeople has helped me with is that I have changed from the shot-gun approach on vitamins and supplements to filling the gap approach. The first week or so, I saw how much I needed to reach my recommended daily amount AFTER I planned my meals for the day or actually ate them. Now I am taking supplements just to get me to those levels. I buy from a reliable source (doctor..homeopathic) and I have to say since I have been regularly hitting those levels, I feel better, am sleeping better...and interestingly enough actually remembering more of my dreams sleeping. I have more energy, better brain focus. It actually has been quite amazing. Report
I can't take any multivitamins, let alone take a chance on any other type of supplement! Something in them makes me very sick,even glucosamine/chondroiton which my doctor suggested that I take for my knee injury! Report
I take fish oil and eat pumpkin seed everyday. Also take a multi-vitamin One a Day for women 50 and over Report
All I take is my multi-fish oil,B vitamin,flaxseed,cranberry,A & D ,& calcium. Also a fiber supplement in the afternoon. Report
I have difficulty in getting enough calcium in my diet so I make sure I take Citrical + D supplements every day. I started this in my 50's. The most important part of taking calcium supplements is to understand that the body only absorbs so much calcium at a time so to get the full effect of the supplement you need to space the pills apart. I have had a life long habit of taking a daily multivitamin. I sell Meleauca products so I use their vitamins and have always been satisfied with their qualaity. They have great literature too! I get my information from several sources and have always talked to my Dr about what I take. When I see my Dr, I always make him aware of my medications and supplements. He has prescribed me to take a baby aspirin every day. Report
I am 61 and have been taking vitamins probably since I was about 12. They have served me well so far, so I'll keep it up. I take a good multi vitamin, 2000 vitamin C (1000 twice a day), calcium + D, omega-3 every other day presently. My "recipe" has varied and changed throughout the years as I "listen" to my body. Occasionally add B6 & B12 as needed. Loved Linus Pauling's book on Vitamin C and the "The Vitamin Bible" by (I think, Earl Mindell). Report
The only supplements I have ever taken are plain old vitamins. Currently, I take a multi-vitamin and a calcium-magnesium-zinc-vitamin D supplement.

I don't believe the diet supplement claims, and won't waste my money or risk my health on them. Report
I take a few supplements - calcium, vitamin D, B12 and iron. The only reason I take them is because my doctor suggested that I do so - based on results from my blood work. I have watched my parents fall prey to all kinds of articles recommending all kinds of supplements, for the most part it is a waste of money. Vitamins are drugs that haven't undergone the rigorous testing that our prescription medications have. My background is in cellular medicine so I try to make myself familiar with the scientific literature before taking anything new. I really think it is important to find strong evidence that taking a supplement will be beneficial before putting it in my body !! Report
I am post-op gastric bypass, so it is imperative that I get the proper supplements for my diet, as my body does not digest food as it used to. So I am taking a multi-vitamin, B-complex, B12, and calcium citrate daily. I also take a B5/B6 for energy. All of these were recommended and approved by my gastroenterologist. I will resume taking fish oil next year, after I have my fourth and final planned surgery. I have been told that it is not good for my blood clotting ability to take fish oil before, during, or immediately after surgery. I am also tested every 3-6 months for the nutrients in my blood, and I have sometimes been low on Vitamin D. Those times, my doctor has prescribed vitamin D, which I take as prescribed. Then, my blood is tested again after 3-6 months. So I am always aware of how these supplements are working for me, and I am careful about where I buy the supplements. I have never, nor will I ever, taken diet pills or weight-loss supplements. I do not believe they work; it seems like a waste of money to me. Report
I take a powder called Green Vibrance and one called Blue Lightening. I was told by a non scientific source that it helped meet the fruit and vegetable requirements in a day. I would love to know if it really is helpful. I just don't know where to look it up. I tried the link in this article. Report
I just take a multivitamin at this point; however, I don't take it every day - pretty much every other day. Why? Well, I've been tracking my intake of vitamins, etc and sometimes I get too much (according to daily feedback report) of some fat soluble vitamins and I've been doing a pretty good job of getting most of my nutrients from food.

I have noticed that since I've been taking the vitamin again (about a month now after a long hiatus) that I have had problems with insomnia. Nothing too bad, but sometimes I lay in bed for an hour or more before falling asleep. One of my friends told me that chromium may disrupt one's sleep - I checked and my vitamin has chromium. I've been taking the vitamin at night. I've skipped it the last couple nights and have not had a problem sleeping. I'm trying for the first time to take it in the morning - so fingers crossed that I fall asleep quickly tonight!! Report
WE could have prevented thousands of children being born with neural tube defects if we had been able to get the word out about folic acid being essential for pregnant women to take! All women of child bearing age should take a multi-vitamin with folic acid why take a chance? We believe in insurance policies for cars, houses why not in disease prevention!?! This is really a no-brainer. As for the crack about Health Food Store staff I take exception to this generalization. I am a nurse with 30 years experience and my husband is a nutritional biochemist and we own a health food store. We have two friends with stores who are Certified Clinical Nutritionists. WE all believe in helping people live to their highest potential, what is wrong with that? Report
I take a women's multivitamin, fish oil, calcium, black cohosh, and vitamin E on the recommendation of my health provider Report
seems to differences between brands, especially with Omega 3's -It's been hard to find one that doesn't make me burp and taste fish oil, but I finally did. I take the ones my doctors and chiropractors endorse, there are differences in quality. Report
Fish Oil and Flaxseed Oil-with omega3 Report
I think before you put any kind of pill or vitamins inyour mouth you should talk to your doctor Report
I take calcium, Vitamin D, Centrum vitamins and Glucosamine. I ask my doctor for information and get his approval before taking any over the counter supplements. Report
I take Omega 3 pills, one a day women vitamins along with Vitamin D 1000's per my doctor. I am big on taking pills those were things I was told I would need by my doctor. I would never take diet pills and I always ask my Doctor what vitamins I need that is how I got the suggestions I listed. Report
I take Omega 3-6-9 daily. It seems to help with depression and mental stability. Thanks for the post. Very helpful. Report
I take calcium, and fish oil capsules. I buy them at Costco. I trust things I get from there. Report
I thought this was an excellent blog entry with clear and easy to read information.

I personally despise the "diet pill" industry and was happy to see the statement made about diet pills not being proved to work.

Supplements I take without a prescription (iron is sometimes prescribed) include fish oil capsules and sometimes B12.

Although this is controversial in some circles, I do take a kind of vitamin pill in that I like Slimfast Low Carb shakes as snacks and sometimes part of a meal. I do not use them to lose weight at this time, I just like them; these would probably be considered a supplement but I do not so consider them, they are just an improvement over ice cream. Report
Just calcium and iron for me. The iron was essentially prescribed, and I have a huge family history of osteoporosis that I'd love to dodge. Not too many horrific breaks, but I'd love to avoid shrinking. Report
I don't know if you have to have a specific concern to take a supplement. A lot of these are proven effective at prevention. For women, Folic acid is very important and my doctor advised my to take it for up to 6 months before even planning on becoming pregnant. So I take a few key supplements (calcium, folate, multivitamin) in addition to a healthy, clean diet (as best as I'm able, anyhow!) to help prevent any potential future health concerns. Report
Re: "The purpose of dietary supplements is to improve an aspect of your health, reduce the risk of developing a health condition or ease symptoms associated with a disease."

I disagree. The purpose of dietary supplements is to take advantage of naive people to make money. Report
I take Calcium w/D a multivitamin and a fish oil supplement GNC brand. These have all be approved by my Dr. The multivitamin is not supercharged, but low dose. Report
I go to a health food store usually for my supplements. I take Flaxseed oil for my omega3, a slow release multivit and slow release multimineral. During cold and flu season and if my grandkids are sick and I'm babysitting I will take extra vitamin C and zinc. I try not to overdo the dosage as I know that can be harmful. Report
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