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Are Nutritional Supplements a Waste of Money?

The FDA is stepping up its oversight of the $50 billion nutritional supplement industry. Hopefully, it'll help reduce the number of people who are hurt by harmful products. Unfortunately, it won't do much to reduce the amount we waste on useless ones. Nutrition Diva has the scoop on which supplements are money down the drain.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
Episode #515
Orange versus supplements image

More Oversight Won’t Save Us From Wasting Money

I’m glad that the FDA will be increasing its oversight of the supplement industry. Hopefully, it’ll keep some peoole from getting hurt. Unfortunately, stepped up oversight probably isn’t going to make a dent in the tens of billions of dollars that we waste on supplements that are completely legal and yet largely ineffective.  That responsibility falls on consumers.

Just because a given nutrient supports bone health or immune function or brain health doesn’t mean that taking it will reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis, cancer, or dementia. And in fact, a growing number of studies demonstrates that most of the supplements we take do not have any demonstrable benefits in terms of our long term health or disease risk.

If you’ve been listening to the Nutrition Diva podcast for a while, you’ll know that for the most part, I’m not a fan of most supplements. Not only are the benefits questionable, but in some cases, they may actually do harm.  

Fish oil and calcium, which are two of the most popular supplements, are good examples. Calcium is important for building strong bones and osteoporosis is a leading cause of disability among older women. However, taking high doses of calcium after menopause does not reduce the risk of osteoporosis and may actually increase the risk of heart attack.

See also: Should You Stop Taking Your Calcium Supplement?

Omega-3 fatty acids are important for heart health and heart disease is the leading cause of death. And yet, it’s become increasingly clear that while eating fish is linked with lower rates of heart disease (and other diseases), taking fish oil supplements is not.

See also: Are the Benefits of Fish Oil Overrated?

There are some situations where targeted supplementation makes sense:

  1. To correct a documented deficiency. If your doctor has diagnosed you with an iron-deficiency, for example, you’ll probably be given an iron supplement.
  2. To address a specific symptom or concern. If you are taking a course of antibiotics, for example, taking a probiotic may help prevent antibiotic-related diarrhea (See: Should I Take Probiotics With Antibiotics?). Or, if you have arthritis pain in your knees, you might want to try a glucosamine supplement to see if it helps. (And if it doesn’t, there’s no point in continuing.)  See also: Do Glucosamine Supplements Work?
  3. To compensate for a specific nutrient shortfall.  If you are unable to get the recommended amount of calcium from your diet, you might want to take a calcium supplement—but only as much as you need to fill the gap between what your diet provides and the recommended intake.

But the indiscriminate use of random supplements to improve your health or prevent disease is just about always a waste of money.  Taking a B-vitamin complex, for example, will not give you more energy. Antioxidant supplements do not reduce the risk of cancer.

A Healthy Meal Beats a Fistful of Vitamins

Isolated nutrients simply do not provide the same benefits as eating the foods that are rich in those nutrients. Taking a supplement made from powdered superfoods, for example, does not provide the same benefits as eating fruits and vegetables. And if you're already eating those fruits and vegetables, you're not getting any extra benefit from taking that supplement.

See also: Can I Get My Vegetables in a Pill?  and Can You Get Too Many Antioxidants?

Even worse, taking nutritional supplements often creates a false sense of security that you’ve got your bases covered and therefore can eat what you want. Not only are you not getting the benefits of eating whole nutrient dense foods, but you’re subject to the negative effects of ultra-processed or other junk foods.

We spend $50 billion a year on supplements, many of which are providing little to no benefit. I think we could get a lot more benefit from spending that money on nutritious food. Heck, for what some people are spending on supplements, they could afford nutritious food and a chef to cook it!

If you take random dietary supplements on the vague hope that they’re making you healthier, consider whether you might invest that money in your health more effectively. Maybe you could subscribe to a meal kit service or a produce box that would help you eat more vegetables and less take out. Perhaps you’d save enough to join a gym or yoga studio. Or, maybe you’d have enough to pay a cleaning service so you’d have time to use the gym membership you’re already paying for!

Other ideas? I’d love to hear them. You can leave me a message on the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206 or on the Nutrition Diva Facebook page.

Want to eat healthier but don't know where to start? Let me help! The next 30 Day Nutrition Upgrade starts soon. Details are here.

Orange versus supplements image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show. 

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