Dietary Supplements

What are dietary supplements?

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of a dietary supplement is “a product intended for ingestion that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.”

These products can be things like vitamins, minerals, and herbs. They typically come as liquids, powders, tablets, and even nutrition bars. You have most likely already seen or heard about dietary supplements. They are sold at pharmacies, grocery stores, and even gyms. Common dietary supplements are diet pills and muscle-building powders. They might make statements on their packaging like ‘fat loss’ or ‘build lean muscle mass.’ About half of all teenagers report using dietary supplements, but there is a lot to think about before deciding whether to use one yourself.

Are dietary supplements regulated or controlled?

Over-the-counter and prescription medicines must go through several steps and safety measures to get FDA approval. This includes studies and experiments that show how the medicines work and affect people.

The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) from 1994 does NOT require the FDA to regulate dietary supplements. DSHEA only requires that the manufacturer of a product provide a “Supplement Facts” label that has an accurate ingredient list.

Dietary supplements are also required to present a disclaimer on their packaging. This disclaimer says that “the statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”

Is it safe to take dietary supplements?

Supplements and weight loss products have been found to be contaminated with:

  • Pesticides
  • Heavy metals
  • Stimulants
    • Stimulants speed up messages traveling between the brain and the body. This increases alertness and energy. Caffeine (found in coffee and some teas) and nicotine (found in tobacco products) are some everyday stimulants. Medicines that are stimulants are closely regulated and require a prescription from a health care provider.
    • Stimulants in weight loss and muscle-building products can be dangerous. Too much of a stimulant can cause anxiety, fast heart rate, and seizures.

    In 2015, the FDA with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that dietary supplements lead to over 23,000 emergency department visits every year. Using supplements can cause kidney problems, liver problems, heart problems, and stomach problems. In severe circumstances, the use of these products has resulted in loss of life.

    Dietary supplements and Eating Disorders

    Dietary supplements also present dangers related to eating disorders.

    Here are some facts from research studies:

    • Teenage and young adult women who use diet pills have 6 times more likely to develop an eating disorder compared to those who did NOT use diet pills
    • Diet pill users are 3 times more likely to develop anorexia nervosa than non-users
    • Young men who take creatinine (a substance thought to improve strength and increase muscle mass) are 3 times more likely to start using anabolic steroids
    • Individuals with Muscle Dysmorphic Disorder (MDD), typically cisgender males, see themselves as not muscular or lean enough. To change their appearance, they might try exercising constantly, taking several different dietary supplements, such as creatinine, or even using anabolic steroids.

    Most eating disorders involve some form of “weight management” or “unhealthy weight loss practice.” Individuals may use dietary supplements to try and maintain a certain body weight or size that is not healthy for them. They might also be putting some of the harmful ingredients described above into their body without realizing it.

    As a teenager, you are most likely a social media user and consumer. SOCIAL MEDIA and the intense pressures it puts on physical appearance can be harmful to self-esteem. Keep in mind that dietary supplements are not the answer to accomplishing a fitness or weight-loss goal. You might even see celebrities or online influencers advertising and promoting dietary supplements to their online followers. Do not be fooled and think that supplements are the reason why a celebrity looks a certain way. As you will read in the next section, the supplement industry wants to make a profit, and celebrity endorsements are just one way of increasing the sales and popularity of a product.

    What should I think about before taking a dietary supplement?

    Some questions to ask:

    • Does it have an FDA disclaimer?
    • Does the product seem ‘too good to be true?’
    • Does it make claims like “lose 20 pounds in 10 days?” or “build muscle lightning quick?”
    • Does the product have side effects?
    • Are you sure you know what the product contains?
    • Remember, some products might have harmful ingredients in them.
    • Has the product been tested by someone other than the manufacturer (company making the product)?

    So you may be wondering: do you really even need to use a supplement?

    The short answer is most likely no!

    • If you are eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep, you do not need any sort of nutritional aid.
    • Speak with your health care provider BEFORE taking a dietary supplement if you have a specific question or concern.
    • Blood tests are one of the most common ways to see if you are lacking in a certain vitamin or other substance like iron. In cases like that, your health care provider will most likely have you take a daily multivitamin or specific prescription.
    • Remember, you have control over your own body and what you decide to put into it.

    Social movements

    Organizations, social groups, and individuals have been working to put in place regulations and even bans on dietary supplements. They hope to protect children, teens, and adults from the negative health problems caused by supplements.

    While dietary supplements can advertise many health benefits, it is important to consider whether the science supports this. Before taking any supplement, it is always a good idea to talk to your health care provider about it.

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