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The Scoop on Supplements

By Susan Kleiner and Maggie Greenwood-Robinson

In the past several years, sales of dietary supplements have experienced explosive growth, surpassing $17 billion in sales a year and climbing. This growth has occurred despite the fact that some supplements have proven to be potentially harmful. Several years ago, for example, I would recommend that people take 400 IUs of vitamin E supplements, a fairly standard dosage. Today, however, I don’t recommend anything higher than 100 to 200 IUs because of a study that found a slightly higher death rate (about 4 percent) in people who took 400 IUs of vitamin E or more than in those who took a placebo. That level of vitamin E amounted to an extra 48 deaths for every 10,000 people who were consuming it. With some supplements, there are just too many unknowns.

On the other hand, it appears that certain supplements are critical to good health. Omega-3 fatty acids are a good example. If you’re not a fish eater, you should probably be taking omega-3 supplements because of their impressive list of health benefits. However, that’s not to say that some day in the future research may surface that supplemental omega-3 fats aren’t as beneficial as now thought.

Many of us tend to believe that certain supplements can cure disease. But in the case of vitamins and minerals, the only disease they will cure is one caused by a deficiency of that vitamin or mineral. It is always better to try to get your nutrients from whole foods, in which nutrients work synergistically to contribute to good health. But when you don’t eat enough nutrients in your diet, supplementation with a daily multivitamin and mineral pill may be an important way to get what you need.

Beyond vitamin and mineral supplements, there is another class of nutrients called nonessential supplements. These are chemicals or compounds that don’t cause classical signs of deficiency diseases if they are absent from the diet. Put another way, these supplements aren’t required to maintain health or boost performance. We can certainly perform without nonessential supplements like medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil or creatine, but many strength trainers wouldn’t be comfortable without them. Is it possible to reach new levels of performance by including nonessential supplements in our diets?

It’s hard to say for sure, although the links between diet and performance are becoming clearer all the time. We have also come to realize that these links are more complex than we originally thought. Every day we read about new research discoveries relating to some factor in food that promises to boost energy or prevent disease. Sometimes these discoveries tell us that a factor previously considered nonessential may be important in improving health and energy.

Such information is all certain supplement manufacturers need to hear. Once one small piece of evidence surfaces—even in a single study—that a certain food factor may be helpful in preventing disease, building muscle, or enhancing performance, the next place you see that factor is in a supplement.

Unfortunately, supplement manufacturers don’t have to follow the same rigorous review process that is required for new drugs. Supplements are legally considered food, not drugs. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expects the same kind of truth in labeling with supplements as it does with food. But in contrast to drugs, supplements do not have to be proven to work before they are placed on the market. Fortunately, though, a number of companies are conducting good research on their supplements. You can look at the manufacturer’s website for supplements you use to see if the manufacturer has conducted research on the product. Ideally the research would be published in a scientific, peer-reviewed journal, meaning that other experts in the field have reviewed the research. This is the gold standard in scientific research, and it tells you the manufacturer has evidence to support its product claims.

Supplements have their place, and in chapters 8 and 9 I’ll discuss targeted use of specific supplements by the right person, with the right goals, and under the right conditions. No supplement is beneficial unless you’re following a healthy nutrition plan and training program and getting adequate rest.

This is an excerpt from Power Eating.

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