Supplements Questions to Ask an Expert

With so many supplement products and so many unknowns about them, explore these questions with qualified nutrition experts—before you take a supplement:

  • What are the claims? Who's making them? Why? Are the claims valid?
  • Where did the product information come from? Is the manufacturer a trusted, nonbiased source?
  • Is the supplement generally safe? Can it cause harm in any dosage?
  • Does the product come from a company that's known, or highly likely, to follow safe, appropriate manufacturing practices?
  • What's known about the supplement's effectiveness for its proposed benefit?
  • How do the active ingredients work in the body?
  • What plant or plants and part of the plant or plants do the main active ingredients come from?
  • How much of the active ingredients does the supplement have? What else does it contain?
  • What are the risks and benefits of using the supplement: for anyone, for you?
  • What scientific evidence supports this product formula or brand?
  • What side effects might result from taking it?
  • How much (dose), how often, and how long is it safe for you to take it?

Adapted from American Dietetic Association/American Pharmaceutical Association, A Healthcare Professional's Guide to Evaluating Dietary Supplements (2002).

For more about these supplements, see:

  • Amino acid supplements—chapter 19.
  • Androstenedione, or "andro"—chapter 19.
  • Carnitine—chapter 19.
  • Chromium picolinate—chapter 19.
  • Creatine—chapter 19.
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)— chapter 19.
  • Ergogenic aids—chapter 19.
  • Fiber pills and powders—chapter 6.
  • Fish oil supplements—chapter 22.
  • Garlic supplements—chapter 22.
  • Glucosamine—chapter 22.
  • Laetrile—chapter 22.
  • Lecithin—chapter 22.
  • Pangamic acid—chapter 19.
  • SAM-e—chapter 22.
  • Shark cartilage—chapter 22.
  • Spirulina—chapter 19.
  • Wheat germ and wheat germ oil—chapter 19.

For All Supplements...

Before you decide to take a dietary supplement, go with the tried-and-true as your best approach for fitness. There's plenty of scientific evidence supporting the benefits of physical activity, healthful eating, and a healthful lifestyle. If you take a supplement— any supplement—keep these general tips in mind:

  • Give up the notion that dietary supplements are simple, immediate solutions to your health problems. Even supplements that offer benefits take time and ongoing use to make a difference.
  • Skip the lure of this myth: "Even if a supplement won't help me, at least it won't hurt me." High dosages, taken long enough or combined with other supplements, can be harmful.
  • Best practice: Talk to your doctor before you take any supplement! That's especially important if you're under age eighteen, pregnant or breast-feeding, chronically ill, elderly, or taking prescription or over-

the-counter medicines. See "Warning: Supplement Interactions!" in this chapter.

  • If you're already taking a dietary supplement, tell your doctor to make sure it's safe and appropriate for you and your health status. Be prepared to discuss:
  • Supplement name, type, and daily or weekly dose (Bring the container if you can.)
  • How long you have taken it and plan to take it, and why—and if you really need it!
  • How long you've had the symptoms you're treating with supplements; if your symptoms improved
  • Your typical day's food choices
  • Other medications and supplements (over-the-counter and prescription) you're taking
  • Any health problems or illnesses
  • Whether you're pregnant or breast-feeding
  • Whether you drink alcohol or smoke; if so, how often and how much
  • If you have allergies
  • If you're on a special eating plan (self-prescribed or medically prescribed)
  • Known side effects (appetite loss, headaches, nausea)
  • Cautions or warnings, including amount and upper limit
  • If you're pregnant, planning for pregnancy, or breast-feeding, talk to your healthcare provider about supplements! Some are safe, even recommended. Others, such as some herbal and other botanicals, aren't.
  • Unless your pediatrician prescribes them, avoid giving supplements to your child or teen. That includes herbals! For more about supplements and kids see "What about Nutrient Supplements?" in chapter 16 and "Caution: Herbals Not for Kids!" in this chapter.
  • Look out for supplements with fraudulent claims. Besides being ineffective, they may be costly or harmful.
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