If you are unfamiliar with supplements, trying to buy them can be confusing and overwhelming, because there are so many different brands and products, with new ones coming out all the time. There are currently so many products that it is practically impossible to keep track of everything. Even people who work in the supplement industry tend to specialize in certain areas, such as vitamins/minerals, sports supplements, herbs, etc.
Supplements can also be confusing, because depending on who you talk to, you can get very different opinions. Many people have extreme or biased views of supplements, with people on one side saying everyone needs to take many different supplements and people on the other side saying all supplements are worthless. As with most issues, the truth is somewhere in between. There are certainly some great supplements available, but many products are essentially worthless, and others have some positive benefits, but are not worth the price you pay for them.
Perhaps the greatest amount of supplement confusion stems from the marketing tactics companies use to promote their products, especially in magazines. Many health and fitness magazines are owned by the same company as the products that are advertised in the magazine and even some of the articles are designed to promote their own brand of products. When I worked in supplement stores I frequently spoke with people about supplements and it was interesting that many people had biased views towards or against certain brands based on which magazines they read.
To make matters worse, supplement marketing often sites scientific research to add credibility to products, but this information is rarely presented in an honest and straightforward way. In many cases, the studies are poorly done, financed by the supplement company, have results that have been refuted by many other studies, or they have nothing to do with the product being sold. Unfortunately, the only way to find out if the studies and claims are legitimate is to find and read the original study, but this would be a daunting task even for people in the industry. Of course, supplement companies are well aware of that fact and they expect that people will not fact check their claims.
By quoting information from scientific studies, companies often try to make their products sound better than they actually are. The interesting thing is both reputable and disreputable companies use this tactic to help market their products. The difference between the good and bad companies is reputable companies put quality ingredients in their products and the labels contain accurate information. Disreputable supplement companies may have lower amounts of ingredients than the label claims or their supplements may not even contain some of the listed ingredients at all.
Companies frequently get away with making questionable claims or lying about how much of an ingredient is in a product, because the supplement industry is not government regulated. However, while the product itself is not regulated, there is some regulation about what information can appear on a label. For instance, companies are not allowed to make any claims about products preventing or curing diseases. Instead they have to make what are called “structure/function” claims.
A structure/function claim would be something like a calcium supplement label stating that “calcium is necessary for strong bones.” The label is not supposed to state “this supplement helps prevent osteoporosis.” Any supplement that references diseases such as osteoporosis must also include a statement like, “This supplement is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” These statements are required, because government regulations say that only a drug can make claims about preventing or treating diseases.
These statements/labels sometimes cause confusion, because your doctor may tell you to take calcium supplements to help with osteoporosis, but when you go to buy it, it likely says it is not meant to prevent any disease (including osteoporosis). Of course, it is ludicrous to think that a good calcium supplement doesn’t help prevent osteoporosis, but government regulations and particularly the drug industry, want people to think that only drugs are effective in preventing or treating medical problems.
Another label requirement that often causes confusion is when a product states it is a “dietary supplement.” When people see the term dietary supplement, they sometimes think it is for dieting, but every supplement is classified as a dietary supplement and it has nothing to do with dieting or weight loss. The only thing it means is the item is not a natural whole food. The dietary supplement term is basically used to distinguish between foods, which are regulated by the FDA, and supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA.
These types of regulations and other messages from the government or the drug industry have greatly contributed to people believing that supplements are useless and just a scam. Some definitely are a scam, such as those saying things like, “take this pill and have a great body without changing what you eat or exercising.” Fortunately, enough quality scientific research has now been done to show that some supplements can significantly benefit your health and fitness so fewer people are adamantly opposed to supplements and more people are willing to use supplements.
On a personal note, I have used supplements for about as long as I can remember, although I take significantly less than I did 10 years ago. I believe most people can probably benefit from at least one or two supplements, but there are also many people who take too many supplements. As their name implies, supplements are meant to be an addition to your regular nutritional program, basically to fill in things that are lacking from the foods you eat, but they should not be thought of as a replacement for eating healthy.
Supplements are also frequently used for their convenience, especially things like meal replacements and protein powders, but these products don’t necessarily have more benefits than eating healthy well-balanced meals. When deciding whether or not to use a supplement, it is important to have realistic expectations about what the supplement will do for you, then determine if the benefits are worth the cost. This may be something that will be difficult for you to do at this point, but in future writings I will cover more specific information about supplements to help you figure out what supplements, if any, will help you reach your health and fitness goals.
Ross Harrison, CSCS, NSCA-CPT is a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning