I know I'm not alone: Deciphering which supplements to take, how much of ‘em, and when can be a stressful deliberation for us all. The supplement industry is a challenging one to navigate—so many packaging claims, promises, and high prices to dig through. To separate fact from fiction about supplements and hopefully clear up some of our collective confusion about them, we caught up with Lourdes Castro, MS, RD, a registered dietitian. Ahead, she delves into common myths regarding supplements that aren’t backed by science, plus how to reap the most benefits if you do take them.
4 common myths about supplements, according to a registered dietitian
1. They’re highly regulated and scientifically proven to work
First, Castro explains that the supplement industry isn’t regulated in the same way that prescription drugs or food products are. “Let's face it, there's a lot of hype around dietary supplements, but not all are based on fact," she starts. "One of the biggest myths is that all the claims made by supplement companies are backed up by evidence. Unfortunately, that's just not the case."
According to Castro, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not oversee whether a dietary supplement is safe and effective before it’s sold. “That means supplement companies can make all sorts of claims without proving their products actually work,” she says.
What’s more, Castro points out that the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, which passed through Congress, made it so the dietary and herbal supplement industry is exempt from most FDA drug regulations. By law, they can sell and market their products without scientific backing for their health and medical claims.
To that point, Castro says most supplements must be assessed with a critical (not to mention a nutrition expert's) eye to ensure their efficacy and safety. “So, what about those claims that a supplement will help your hair grow, sleep better, or boost your immune system? Honestly, it's hard to know what to believe. The FDA doesn't look into supplements before they hit the market, and they're regulated differently from normal food and drugs. That means you need to be careful and do some research,” Castro says. She also suggests consulting with a registered dietitian or medical professional before starting a new supplement, especially if you have any preexisting conditions.
The FDA doesn't look into supplements before they hit the market, and they're regulated differently from normal food and drugs. That means you need to be careful and do some research,” Castro says.
Of course, not all supplements are bad or potentially harmful. However, Castro suggests carefully looking into the products you’re buying. “To be sure you're getting a quality product, look for supplements made by reputable companies. And if a claim seems too good to be true, it probably is. Ultimately, it's up to you to be informed and cautious when it comes to dietary supplements,” she says.
2. There’s no difference between getting nutrients from supplements vs. whole foods
Although supplements may be a useful way to meet some nutrition needs, Castro notes that research shows they’re not as powerful as whole foods in many cases. “While it may be tempting to rely on supplements to meet your nutritional needs, there's growing evidence that getting nutrients from whole foods is better for your health. This is because the benefits of nutrients may not come from them alone, but from their interactions with other compounds found in food,” Castro says.
According to Castro, the interaction between compounds in foods that boost their nutritional benefits is referred to as the “entourage effect.” “This theory suggests that the synergy between nutrients and other beneficial compounds helps unlock receptors responsible for increasing nutrient potency,” she says. Castro likens this to synergies between nutrients, like how vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium or combining turmeric and black pepper makes it 2,000 times more anti-inflammatory. That said, she notes there are likely many more nutrient combos we’ve yet to learn about or have yet to be investigated.
Research has also shown the benefits of the entourage effect. “Studies have found that people who eat seafood—like my favorite, Secret Island Salmon—one to four times a week are less likely to die from heart disease compared to those who take omega-3 supplements,” Castro says. Meanwhile, she notes that foods rich in beta-carotene and other antioxidants like vitamins C and E have been shown to protect against certain types of cancer. In contrast, beta-carotene supplements may increase the risk of heart disease and certain cancers in heavy smokers and drinkers.
“Overall, it's clear that the entourage effect plays an important role in the health benefits of nutrients and that consuming whole foods is likely a better choice than relying solely on supplements,” Castro says.
3. They don’t need to be paired with specific foods for increased absorption
While it may seem obvious, Castro underscores the importance of acknowledging the fact that not all supplements should be consumed in the same manner. “The way supplements are absorbed into your body can vary depending on the type of supplement,” Castro says. This is especially true for the absorption of different types of vitamins and minerals.
“For instance, when it comes to vitamins, we need to distinguish between fat-soluble and water-soluble vitamins since they are absorbed differently. Fat-soluble vitamins such as A, D, E, and K dissolve in and are absorbed via fat, so it's best to take these supplements with fatty foods to increase their absorption rate,” Castro says. She recommends consuming foods like whole-milk coffee, full-fat Greek yogurt with berries, or avocado toast to get the most out of fat-soluble vitamin supplements. On the flip side, water-soluble vitamins don’t need to be consumed with fat and can be consumed with or without food.
Meanwhile, the absorption rate of different supplements depends on the type of mineral. “For example, two popular mineral supplements are calcium and iron, which are better absorbed with certain vitamins. Calcium requires vitamin D to be properly absorbed, while iron requires vitamin C,” Castro says. To get the most out of your calcium supplement, she recommends taking it with a glass of cow’s milk fortified with vitamin D. Similarly, she recommends taking your iron supplement with a glass of vitamin C-rich orange juice that can help increase its absorption.
4. A multivitamin provides all of the nutrients necessary
While we may wish for a magic capsule that can provide all the necessary nutrients in one, it does not exist. “Using a multivitamin as a backup plan is a smart move, especially if your eating habits are all over the place. But it's important to remember that while it can give you a little push towards your health goals, it won't replace the foundation of a healthy diet and lifestyle,” Castro says.
Indeed, according to the registered dietitian, the truth is what you put on your plate matters the most. “Experts say that getting your nutrients straight from food instead of supplements is the way to go. Building a varied and nutritious diet over time is the best way to ensure you're giving your body the right stuff. Sure, taking a pill is an easy fix, but if you're serious about your health, chowing down on some quality grub is the way to go,” Castro says.
"Building a varied and nutritious diet over time is the best way to ensure you're giving your body the right stuff. Sure, taking a pill is an easy fix, but if you're serious about your health, chowing down on some quality grub is the way to go,” Castro says.
When is it appropriate to take a supplement?
In conclusion, while there are many misconceptions about the supplement industry, Castro says there’s definitely a time and place for them when consumed safely and correctly. “Supplements can offer several benefits for individuals seeking to address certain health concerns or nutritional deficiencies. One common reason for turning to supplements is to address chronic conditions and deficiencies caused by illness or physiological needs,” she says. “For example, individuals with iron-deficiency anemia may benefit from iron supplements, while pregnant women may need prenatal supplements to ensure healthy fetal development."
Additionally, supplementation can help meet nutrient intake when obtaining enough from foods alone is challenging. “Vitamin D is one such nutrient, as it can be challenging to obtain optimal levels from food alone due to factors such as geolocation and skin melanin levels,” she says. Of course, it’s always important to consult a healthcare professional before taking supplements to ensure safety and effectiveness.
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