How To Navigate The Wild, Wild West Of The Supplement Industry



The wide, wide world of  the vitamin supplement industry has been aptly described as the wild, wild west where claims are rampant, anecdotes abound, and risks are inherent

Beth had been taking a woman’s vitamin formula that her girlfriend had recommended before she discovered that the iron-laden supplement was contributing to her irritable bowel.

David had no idea that the brain enhancing formula so highly touted in his favorite health magazine contained animal glandulars.

Karen didn’t realize that by taking her “multi” along with an antioxidant formula, she was ingesting too much selenium resulting in such strange symptoms as garlic breath and nail changes. Barry was surprised to learn that something as simple as taking a balanced B-complex might reduce his risk of cardiovascular disease.

super savvy tips on how to navigate the wild, wild west of the supplement terrain. #nutrition #blogger Click To Tweet



The wide, wide world of vitamin supplements has been aptly described as the wild, wild west where claims are rampant, anecdotes abound, and risks are inherent. As this vast territory of science continues to evolve, a few simple guidelines can be helpful in your quest for smart supplementation.

1. Work on improving your diet. In matters of supplementation, consider food first. Mom was right. Hippocrates would agree. Food can be a good tasting medicine, offering both preventive and curative “bioactive” compounds. There isn’t a supplement available that has mimicked the uniqueness of Mother Nature. Eating a varied plant-based diet rich in colorful produce, whole grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, and oils along with moderate amounts of fish or other lean animal protein sources is your best method of enhancing energy, improving immunity, diminishing the effects of stress, and preventing disease. As a practicing nutritionist who has provided vitamin consultations for many years, I often encounter many vitamin “users” who feel lousy and have a long list of health problems because their diet is a mess. They are strangers to their kitchen, relying instead on convenience or take-out as their nutritional mainstay, while placing their hope in a bottle of supplements. Their first remedy should be changing what’s in their fridge instead. Often the most dramatic improvements stem from the renovations that take place at the plate. A nutritionally intelligent approach to supplementation begins with an insightful journey into one’s eating habits and food consumption patterns to identify potential nutrient shortcomings. Many spas and health resorts offer personal dietary analysis and nutrition assessments provided by a nutritionist, the ideal supplement specialist.

2. Start with an iron-free multivitamin as a foundation. If you decide to go it alone and design your own supplement program without the aid of a professional, keep it simple. There is accumulating scientific evidence that a multivitamin mineral supplement providing at least 100 percent of the Daily Values for most nutrients can enhance immunity and reduce the likelihood of one acquiring or developing degenerative diseases associated with aging.

A recent economic impact report by The Lewin Group, a national health care consulting company, found that increased daily intake of a multivitamin by older adults could save Medicare more than $1.6 billion over five years. They reviewed 128 clinical studies on this topic and concluded that adults who take a daily multivitamin can reduce their risk of cardiovascular disease by almost 25% and improve their immune system. Currently, only about one-third of Americans take a daily multivitamin. An iron-free multi is recommended because too much iron can be problematic in certain individuals, so it is best to add iron as an individual supplement if a deficiency is indicated through blood work. A multi with 100% of the Daily Value for calcium and magnesium will require multiple pills due to the nature of the compounds taking up a lot of pill space, thus these nutrients may be best met through increased high-calcium food intake or a separate supplement.

It is important to be aware that there are numerous risks associated with exceeding a nutrient’s “upper level” (UL), which is the highest safe intake as defined by the Institute of Medicine (National Academy of Science). The National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements website ( is an excellent resource for information on dietary supplements, including Dietary Reference Intakes and UL’s. For example, you can look up a nutrient such as selenium and learn that the UL is 200 mcg. Thus, in Karen’s case, her vitamin cocktail provided a total of 400 mcg of selenium which over time, contributed to her toxic symptoms.

Recently, there has been an increased focus on the role of too much vitamin A and risk of hip fracture. While this particular vitamin story continues to unfold, it may be wise to limit the retinol form of vitamin A to 4,000 IU’s. Beta-carotene and other carotene compounds that are converted to vitamin A don’t seem to pose these problems, but because too much beta-carotene may increase the risk of lung cancer in smokers, a limit of 15,000 IU’s is advised.

3. Add “conditionally vital” supplements on an as needed basis. There are many conditions that increase the body’s demand for a particular nutrient including chronic inflammatory disorders, fatigue syndromes, hormone imbalances, insulin resistance, and chronic infections. Certain signs and symptoms can also be red flags for nutrient deficiencies. For example, muscle twitching may be related to magnesium need; restless legs may be indicative of iron deficiency; and loss or diminished taste perception may signal a need for more zinc. In addition, the use of many common prescription and over-the-counter drugs can also set the stage for nutrient imbalances. Some cholesterol lowering drugs deplete coenzyme-Q10 levels, a nutrient critical for energy metabolism. Some of the drugs thoughtlessly prescribed for acid reflux interfere with vitamin B12 absorption, a nutrient essential for neurological and cognitive function. Remember, when moving beyond a multi, it is a wise move to seek the advice of a nutritionist (not your girlfriend, mother, or hairdresser!) who will evaluate your health history and tailor “add ons” to your personal needs based on conditions, symptoms, medications, and test results.

4. Reevaluate your nutritional needs. Your supplement program warrants periodic professional tune-ups as your needs may change over time. The body is constantly in flux and nutrients are intimately involved in this dynamic. A sensible approach to supplementation should include a reassessment at least once a year or more frequently if signs or symptoms develop or change.

5. Stay informed and consider the source. Many supplement users fall prey to the claims of manufacturers and the mega-dosing hype of eager salespeople. Fortunately, there are some user-friendly resources to explore and I will wrap up with citing a few of my favorite finds to help you in your vitamin quest.

Do Your Research

• Websites: Consumer Labs – – a site devoted to product quality checks of nutritional supplements with a link to The Natural Pharmacist, an invaluable information aid.

• Books: PDR of Nutritional Supplements – everyone should have a copy.

• Organizations: Nutritionists in Complementary Care, a Dietetic Practice Group of the American Dietetic Association – Registered Dietitians who are supplement savvy

By Kathie Swift, M.S., R.D.

Healing Lifestyles & Spas Team
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