Millions of people around the world take food supplements, also called dietary or nutritional supplements. As the name implies, these health products are designed to provide the body with nutrients that it lacks. Just like medicines, these supplements can come in the form of capsules, tablets, syrups, and the like. (However, take note that they are not medicines because they don’t treat diseases.)
What’s great about food supplements is that you can easily get a nutrient boost if and when you need it. You can even buy them from a traditional or an online drugstore without a prescription. Of course, you shouldn’t take food supplements indiscriminately. There are plenty of considerations before you take and continue to take these products.
Here are some things you need to know about food supplements:
Not Everyone Needs Food Supplements
Again, the purpose of food supplements is in the name itself: it supplements your diet with whatever nutrient your body lacks. The thing is, most people can get their nutritional needs from food. As long as you eat a healthy, balanced diet, you’ll have little to no need for food supplements.
On the other hand, there are certain groups of people who may need food supplements even if they’re in relatively good health. For example, if a woman is pregnant or is trying to get pregnant, she may benefit from taking folic acid and vitamin D supplements. The latter is also recommended for breastfeeding women, as well as those who have limited exposure or cannot be exposed to the sun.
Other people who may benefit from food supplements include people who are over the age of 50 (vitamins B12 and D, folate), vegans (vitamins B12 and D2), and children who are under age 5 who don’t have a good appetite (vitamins A, C, and D).
You Can Overdose on Food Supplements
While food supplements are not medicines, you can still overdose on them. What’s worse is that you might do so unknowingly. One scenario is if you eat or drink fortified foods and beverages, such as cereals, milks, or juices, and then you take food supplements for the same nutrients.
Some negative consequences of nutrient overdose include:
- Vitamin A. Excess vitamin A can result in liver damage, reduced bone strength, and even birth defects.
- Iron. An overdose of iron can cause nausea. It may also damage the liver, and even result in toxicity in the heart.
- Fat-soluble vitamins. Vitamins A, D, and E are called “fat soluble vitamins” because the body stores the excess in the liver and fat tissues. These nutrients can build up over time and cause toxicity.
Food Supplements Have Side Effects
In relation to the previous point, keep in mind that food supplements may also have side effects that relate to the medicines you are taking. Some dietary supplements may clash with anesthesia, for example, resulting in lower potency.
Some common side effects you should watch out for include:
- Vitamins C and E may reduce the effectiveness of some chemotherapy drugs.
- Vitamin K can interfere with the effects of warfarin, a blood thinner. Vitamin K helps prevent excess bleeding by helping your blood clot; meanwhile, warfarin prevents blood clotting to reduce the risk of deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, and similar conditions. Those taking warfarin should therefore not take vitamin K supplements.
- St. John’s wort, which is used to treat depression and mood disorders, can make several drugs less effective. These include birth control pills, heart medications, and transplant drugs.
All of these simply mean that you shouldn’t take food supplements indiscriminately.
Consult Your Doctor for Best Results
Most if not all food supplements are over-the-counter, which means you can purchase them even without consulting health professionals. However, it would be more beneficial if you actually talk to your healthcare providers first before taking any dietary supplement. Aside from avoiding unpleasant or downright lethal side effects, your doctors, dentists, and dietitians may be able to recommend the most effective or valuable supplements based on your unique health condition.
Food Supplements Undergo Testing
To make sure that food supplements contain the right ingredients, aren’t contaminated, and dosed correctly, they undergo testing and inspection. Aside from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) also has a hand in ensuring the quality of food supplements. In particular, the DTI’s Bureau of Product Standards formulate the national standards for all types of consumer products.
In the end, nothing beats a healthy diet. However, because not everyone may have access to or are able to eat a variety of healthy foods, it’s fortunate that food supplements are widely available.
Just keep in mind that, just like what it says on the packaging, dietary supplements have “no approved therapeutic claims.” They shouldn’t be used to treat any disease, but rather to only enhance what you already receive from your diet.