Popping The Pill

Not all dietary supplements are created equal. Here's why they may not be in your best interest.
The Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate them, their health benefits are difficult to prove, and just because a dietary supplement is labeled “herbal” or “natural” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good for you.

These are all reasons Lisa Cimperman, a dietician at University Hospitals Case Medical Center, isn’t sold on the health benefits of the wealth of dietary supplements available on store shelves these days.

“In this country, there is such an abundance of food. It’s rare to see a deficiency that requires a certain vitamin or mineral,” she says “It’s also difficult to find someone who’s had a significant, objective health improvement in health due to taking supplements. You have to look at everything else they’re doing.”

Not subject to governmental regulations that protect conventional food and drugs, Cimperman says, there is no mandatory safety testing for dietary supplements. So, even if she knows a certain supplement may be beneficial to a particular patient, she still can’t have absolute faith in its quality.

“Because they aren’t regulated, these supplements may be tainted with substances you wouldn’t want in your body,” she says. “They may react with other medications you may be taking.”

It’s not that Cimperman eschews all dietary supplements. “Some vitamins, herbs and supplements are good,” she says. “No one disputes that.”

But she does advise people to be cautious when buying them. First, check the label for a United States Pharmacopeia logo.

“This means the manufacturer has volunteered to have their manufacturing standards checked,” she says. It’s also a good idea to buy supplements from big-name companies such as Bayer or other large drug makers. “These companies have a lot to lose if they put out a shoddy product. Their standards tend to be higher.”

A Guide To: 4 Solid Supplements

Now that you know what to look for on the label, Lisa Cimperman recommends a few supplements that do have proven health benefits:

• Basic multivitamin: “It doesn’t need to be expensive or contain mega doses of anything in particular,” Cimperman says, adding that the latest trend is vitamins for weight loss, cholesterol control and other things. “Don’t worry about these. Kids can take a basic kids’ vitamin; men can take a men’s vitamin; women can take a women’s vitamin. That’s it. The other special ones are more expensive and aren’t really worth it.”

• Calcium: This is especially important for adolescent girls, because this is the age when they’re building bone mass. “If they don’t get enough calcium now, they’ll be at greater risk for osteoporosis later on,” she says.

• Vitamin D: This goes hand in hand with calcium, Cimperman says, aiding its absorption.

• Omega 3 fatty acid: This essential fatty acid has anti-inflammatory properties and has been studied in cardiovascular function, cholesterol control and rheumatoid arthritis. It’s also been shown to help lower triglycerides that lead to heart disease. “This is one supplement that has been evaluated through rigorous clinical trials,” Cimperman notes. “And it even comes in a prescription.” Omega 3 is also found naturally in salmon, tuna, flax seed and walnuts.

His & Hers

Cimperman’s take on two dietary supplement trends you may have heard about recently.

For Him: Saw Palmetto — This herb has been used to treat enlargement of the prostate. “There’s some good research out there on [it],” she says. “But talk with your doctor before you take it.”

For Her: Soy — Used to treat side effects of menopause, soy has been shown to reduce hot flashes. “It’s also been linked to breast cancer — with both raising and lowering the risk for it, depending on the study,” Cimperman notes. “It’s hard to recommend soy with firm conviction. But generally speaking, it’s safer to consume it from your diet than in a pill.” Try soymilk, beans or tofu.

Share this story: