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Dietary supplements Facts and Myths

Americans now spend an estimated $ 28 billion a year on dietary supplements. But do supplements actually work? Who needs to take them?

That was what I was questioning myself, and so I started to research on that topic. I was never really into taking pills, not even for nutritional reasons. If a doctor subscribed me some vitamins I simply forgot about taking them. But you know what? I am still alive and feel very healthy.

Anyway, I tried to leave my own attitude behind, to give you a summary of what I found in sophisticated press.


Vitamin C, the most famous one

There is no doubt that dietary supplements are big business. They are relatively cheap in production, but sold for a high price. The first industrially compounded vitamin C was sold in 1933. While there is a clear connection between the former seafarer disease “scurvy” and a vitamin C deficiency, the effectiveness of vitamin C is highly scientifically controversial when it comes to treating colds. And there is also a side effect in taking high dosages of vitamin C (more than 1 gram/day) over a longer period: You are more likely to get kidney stones.


What do experts say: who really needs supplements?

All experts seem to agree that dietary supplements are unnecessary for everyone with normal eating habits and a well-balanced diet. The funny thing is that health- conscious people who are already eating well are in particular the ones consuming supplements. 

For some individuals, like pregnant women, vegans or few elderly, it can be quite reasonable to take some essential micronutrients like folic acid, calcium, iodine, and omega-3 fatty acids. Also some people may have low vitamin D levels, due to not enough sun exposure (when exposed to sun, the body naturally produces vitamin D).

 Who thinks that he is suffering from a lack of micronutrients should get checked by a doctor first. It is inevitable to do a blood test to really find out.


Does taking dietary supplements have side effects?

When reading through articles about side effects of too high dosages of supplements I found some more examples than the one of vitamin C which I already told above. For example, too much magnesium causes diarrhea, an overdose of Vitamin D could harm your kidneys, and too much Vitamin A can lead to loss of hair etc. Scientists also found that extreme doses of antioxidants can cause genetic mutations in stem cells.

Vitamin overdose seems to be rare though. However, the question arises: Why spending a lot of money in buying dietary supplements, which my body doesn’t even need? Isn’t the better investment to shop organic veggies and fruits? I bet that is the better carbon footprint than buying industrial compounded substances.


A real interesting self-experiment

I found a very interesting article in the TIME magazine (October 10, 2011) about supplements. The author John Cloud tested effect of dietary supplements in a self-experiment. For five months he took 22 pills a day, but before and after his experiment he took a blood test to see if anything had changed. He did not choose the pills randomly, but he provided the supplement company with details of his eating habits and medical history, to get his customized suite of products. After swallowing 3.000 pills and spending $1.200, only two values of his blood report had changed significantly. His vitamin D level had increased by 75%, and second his level of high-density lipoprotein (HDL – the one you want to have) cholesterol had been higher by 46% which is good.

The author told that his blood hadn’t really changed, but the supplements had made him feel healthier and more robust, which he explains as a strong placebo response.

There is one more interesting thing John Cloud tells about his self-experiment: Because the nutraceuticals made him feel virtuous, he unconsciously changed his eating routine to the worse and gained more than 4 kg in 2 months. He explains that psychologists name this behavior “the licensing effect”.


To sum it up

After reading through all these articles my résumé kind of matches my initial conviction: Just eat right, and your body will get all he needs!

If you don’t know how to nourish yourself well, better inform yourself how to do that than taking pills.

If you have an increased vitamin requirement for whatever reason (pregnancy, extraordinary physical exertion, some form of illness, after injuries, not enough sun exposure…) don’t hesitate to swallow your supplements.

Taking a blood test before is for sure a good idea to really know what your body needs. That will save  you some money in the end.




Let us know about your experiences with food supplements.

Talk to you soon,


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1 comment to “Dietary supplements Facts and Myths”

  • Miikka Hast, August 10, 2012 at 4:57 am

    Hi Bibi,

    Read your supplement article. Good stuff. I am pretty much against all synthetic pills and try to avoid for example antibiotics as long as it’s still possible. I try to replace all with natural healing foods or extracts. I have found that working well for me. I do take some supplement vitamin D in the dark months.. since it’s really dark up here in the winter. and some B when I feel deficient.

    I also believe that healthy eating habits should cover all but I find that when you do a lot of sports for an extend perioid of time (long winter trips or surf trips) it’s good to have some “superfood” supplements. And I found for example gingseng to be a good one. Plus when travelling it’s hard to eat well many times.

    It’s an interesting subject.