To call it the Wild West would be hyperbolic, but the market for dietary supplements is not as tightly regulated as the drugs market. This leaves consumers more vulnerable to being mis-sold products. It’s important to note that most dietary supplements are safe but some can present health risks, especially when taken in high doses.
What are dietary supplements?
Dietary supplement encompasses everything from vitamins and minerals to botanicals and biosimilar products (such as so-called “natural male hormones”).
For the most part, though, people use “supplement” to mean an individual vitamin or mineral preparation or a multivitamin.
The evidence of the benefits of taking dietary supplements is mixed at best.
However, the evidence linking dietary supplements to health problems is stacking up.
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Harvard Health provides an overview of studies linking high doses of vitamin supplements to a number of health problems.
The health body prefaces its assessment by saying: “Most supplements are safe to take, but there are exceptions.”
- High doses of beta carotene have been linked to a greater risk of lung cancer in smokers
- Extra calcium and vitamin D may increase the risk of kidney stones
- High doses of vitamin E may lead to stroke caused by bleeding in the brain
- Vitamin K can interfere with the anti-clotting effects of blood thinners
- Taking high amounts of vitamin B6 for a year or longer has been associated with nerve damage that can impair body movements (the symptoms often go away after the supplements are stopped).
It’s important to note that supplements can play an important role for some high-risk groups.
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“For instance, adults diagnosed with osteoporosis may require extra vitamin D and calcium beyond what they get from their regular diet,” explains Harvard Health.
The health body adds: “Supplements also can help people with Crohn’s disease or celiac disease, conditions that make it difficult to absorb certain nutrients. People with vitamin B12 deficiency almost always need a supplement.”
What the FDA says
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently published safety guidelines for dietary supplements.
It advises against the following:
- Combining supplements and using supplements with medicines (whether prescription or over-the-counter) can land you in the danger zoneSubstituting supplements for prescription medicines
- Taking too much of some supplements, such as vitamin A, vitamin D, or iron
- Some supplements can also have unwanted effects before, during, and after surgery. So, be sure to inform your healthcare provider, including your pharmacist about any supplements you are taking.
According to the NHS, most people do not need to take vitamin supplements and can get all the vitamins and minerals they need by eating a healthy, balanced diet.
“Many people choose to take supplements but taking too much or taking them for too long could be harmful,” warns the health body.
How to achieve a healthy, balanced diet
A balanced diet means eating a wide variety of foods in the right proportions, and consuming the right amount of food and drink to achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.
The Eatwell Guide shows that to have a healthy, balanced diet, people should try to:
- Eat at least five portions of a variety of fruit and vegetables every day
- Base meals on higher fiber starchy foods like potatoes, bread, rice or pasta
- Have some dairy or dairy alternatives (such as soya drinks)
- Eat some beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other protein
- Choose unsaturated oils and spreads, and eat them in small amounts
- Drink plenty of fluids (at least six to eight glasses a day).
“If you’re having foods and drinks that are high in fat, salt and sugar, have these less often and in small amounts,” says the NHS.
According to the health body, you should try to choose a variety of different foods from the five main food groups to get a wide range of nutrients.
“Most people in the UK eat and drink too many calories, too much saturated fat, sugar and salt, and not enough fruit, vegetables, oily fish or fibre.”
The Eatwell Guide does not apply to children under the age of two because they have different nutritional needs.