Smart about supplements

  • Published
  • By Capt. Maggie Coppini
  • 380th Expeditionary Medical Group
"Ah, deployment. . . I'll finally have time to focus on myself with no distractions. I'm going to work out every day, eat right and drop some weight. I'm going to be so ripped when I get home! The other day I saw a bunch of supplements at the BX and a buddy of mine told me that the pre-workout shake he has really boosts his energy during his workouts. He even skips dinner and just drinks a protein shake in his room instead. I think I'll start doing that. I wonder what other supplements I should try while I'm deployed to the 380th."

American culture is going through a supplement craze and manufacturers know how to market these products to us consumers--just look at the money we spend on supplements each year. The NY Times reported in 2013 that Americans spend about $32 billion annually on dietary supplements. Thirty-two BILLION dollars! Additionally, 55,000 supplements are sold in the U.S. but only 0.3 percent (170) have been studied closely enough to determine side effects. While some supplements like essential vitamins and minerals may be safe to consume regularly, there are many supplements whose long-term effects are simply unknown or downright harmful.

The Food and Drug Administration does not regulate the manufacturing process of these products so they sit on the shelves until someone gets very sick or dies from taking them. Manufacturers are required to list the ingredients, include a "supplement facts" panel, and state that the product does not prevent, treat or cure disease or medical conditions. However, there are no guarantees of quality, purity, composition, safety or effectiveness. The FDA estimates that 70 percent of dietary supplement companies aren't following basic quality control standards.

Supplements can stress your liver and kidneys as they are broken down during digestion. Your risk for liver damage increases if you already have a compromised immune system, medical condition, drink alcohol regularly or are taking medication. But even healthy people can suffer hepatitis or other liver problems if they consume high levels or multiple kinds of supplements. Red flags to watch out for include being aware of high-risk product categories: bodybuilding products, weight-loss products, diabetes products and sexual enhancement products. Also, if the label claims to have a similar effect to an FDA-approved drug, that's an indication that it may contain substances not on the ingredients list, prescription drug analogs or banned substances. "May cause positive results in a performance-enhancing drug test" should be a no-brainer red flag, especially for those of us in the military who have to take random urinalysis tests. Also, be on the lookout for labels that claim to cure a wide range of unrelated diseases (i.e. cancer in addition to diabetes), that promise quick fixes (i.e. "Cures XYZ in 7 days!"), has text in a foreign language or has a black box warning.

To make informed decisions about dietary supplements, look for products with seals from third-party verification programs like United States Pharmacopeia, NSF International, Informed-Choice, HFL Sport Science and ConsumerLab.com. The Human Performance Resource Center online is a DoD-sponsored organization and they have a lot of great information on their website. They also have a link to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which is free for .mil users and it's easy to start an account. Always check with your doctor before starting a new supplement, and don't try anything new while you're deployed. As always, there's no replacement for a healthy diet and regular exercise. Don't think you can chow down on all of those desserts at the dining facility and then swallow a pill that makes the fat and calories (POOF!) disappear. Be smart about what you're feeding yourself and how to build your healthiest physique.