Dietary Supplements

Young women's version of this guide

What are dietary supplements?

The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) definition of a dietary supplement is “a product intended for ingestion that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.” They typically come as liquids, powders, tablets, and even nutrition bars. You have most likely already seen or heard about dietary supplements. They are sold at pharmacies, grocery stores, and even gyms. Some common dietary supplements are diet pills and muscle-building powders. They might make statements on their packaging like ‘causes fat loss’ or ‘helps build lean muscle mass.’ About half of all teenagers report using dietary supplements, but there is a lot to think about before deciding whether to use one.

Are dietary supplements regulated or controlled?

While over-the-counter and prescription medicines must go through several steps and safety measures to get FDA approval, the same cannot be said for supplements. Medication is put through studies and experiments that show how they work and affect people.

The FDA requires that the manufacturer of a supplements provide a “Supplement Facts” label that has an accurate ingredient list. Dietary supplements are also required to present a disclaimer on their packaging. This disclaimer says that “the statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.”  So basically there is no evidence that a supplement will do what it claims to do, unlike the way that ibuprofen will decrease pain, for example.

Is it safe to take dietary supplements?

While some are likely harmless, there have been supplements and weight loss products that have been found to be contaminated with:

  • Pesticides
  • Heavy metals
  • Stimulants
    • Stimulants speed up messages traveling between the brain and the body. This increases alertness and energy. Caffeine (found in coffee and some teas) and nicotine (found in tobacco products) are some everyday stimulants. Medicines that are stimulants are closely regulated and require a prescription from a health care provider.
    • Stimulants in weight loss and muscle-building products can be dangerous. Too much of a stimulant can cause anxiety, fast heart rate, and seizures.
  • Anabolic steroids
    • Many body-building and muscle building products have small amounts of anabolic steroids in them.
    • Using anabolic steroids (even in small amounts) is associated with hair loss, depression, severe acne, and even life-threatening conditions like heart attack and stroke.

Dietary supplements lead to over 23,000 emergency department visits every year. Using supplements can cause kidney problems, liver problems, heart problems, and stomach problems. In severe circumstances, the use of these products has been fatal.

What about weight loss supplements, are they safe and effective?

Use of dietary supplements has been shown to cause an increase in disordered eating and eating disorder diagnosis. Individuals may use dietary supplements to try and maintain a certain body weight or size that is not healthy for them. They might also be putting some of the harmful ingredients described above into their body without realizing it.

As a teenager, you are most likely a social media user and consumer. Social media and the intense pressures it puts on physical appearance can be harmful to self-esteem. Keep in mind that dietary supplements are not the answer to accomplishing a fitness or weight-loss goal. You might even see celebrities or online influencers advertising and promoting dietary supplements to their online followers. Do not be fooled into thinking that supplements are the reason why a celebrity looks a certain way. Think about who stands to make money off of the promotion and/or sale of a product and whether they are advertising it for that reason.

What should I think about before taking a dietary supplement?

Some questions to ask:

  • Does it have an FDA disclaimer?
  • Does the product seem “too good to be true?” such as claiming you can lose 20 pounds in 10 days? or build muscle lightning quick?
  • Does the product have side effects?
  • Are you sure you know what the product contains? Remember, some products might have harmful ingredients in them.
  • Has the product been tested by someone other than the manufacturer (company making the product)?

Do I really even need to use a supplement?

 The short answer is most likely no!

  • If you are eating a balanced diet, getting regular exercise, and getting enough sleep, you do not need any sort of nutritional aid.
  • Speak with your health care provider before taking a dietary supplement if you have a specific question or concern.
  • Blood tests are one of the most common ways to see if you are lacking in a certain vitamin or other substance like iron. In cases like that, your health care provider will most likely suggest that you take a daily multivitamin or other medication.
While dietary supplements can advertise many health benefits, it is important to consider whether the science supports this. Before taking any supplement, it is always a good idea to talk to your health care provider about it.