What Are Dietary Supplements?

By: Mark S. Cassidy, MS

Anytime I am consulting a client or athlete, or teaching a health and wellness course, the topic of dietary supplements is broached.   Which ones work, which don’t, are they safe, how much or many should be ingested, are they worth the money … are all the type of questions that are asked.   

So, let’s get some clarification … 

Definition of Dietary Supplements

According to the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA), dietary supplements are products which are not pharmaceutical drugs, food additives, or conventional food, and which also meet any of these criteria.  A dietary supplement is intended to provide nutrients that may otherwise not be consumed in sufficient quantities, in a person’s daily diet.

Dietary supplements products are labeled as ‘dietary supplements’, will contain a vitamin, dietary element, herb, amino acid, or any food type substance, concentrate, metabolite, ingredient, extract, or combination of these type of things.

The FDA has different protocols for substances depending on whether they are claimed to be drugs, food additives, food, or dietary supplements.  Dietary supplements are taken by mouth, and are regulated in United States law as a type of food rather than a type of drug.  Like food, no government approval is required to make or sell dietary supplements.  The rules for drugs do require government approval.  The supplement manufacturer will run tests to check the safety of their dietary supplements for the public, however these tests are basically designed to express that any supplement is not unsafe for general consumption or sale.  The concept of acceptable quantitative ingestion on varying individuals would not be done or required.   These products are not intended to prevent or treat any form of disease.  In addition, if ingested at too high a level can cause a person to become sick and in some reported cases lead to fatalities. 

If a dietary product makes some extraordinary claim (like fat burning, energy booster, strength gainer… etc.) it should be highly questioned.  Because of the lack on standardized testing and regulations, some studies have determined that more than 90% of dietary supplement benefit claims to be misleading.

Categorizing Dietary Supplements

Surveys have estimated that more than half of the U.S. adult population (approximately 55%) consume some form of daily dietary supplements.

There are more than 50,000 dietary supplements on the market, and they can be purchased at health food stores, drug stores, general retaliators and on-line fitness companies. There is an estimated $25 billion in yearly sales of supplements in the United States. 

Supplements as generally understood include the following:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Fiber Products
  • Amino Acid Products
  • Protein Products
  • Carbohydrate Products

Generally speaking, dietary supplements are not all bad.  They are designed to simply ‘supplement’ required nutrients that a person’s body will need to function properly.  Although true food sources are more nutrient dense, the human body will process ingested nutrients the same, whether it comes off the vine or in tablet form (example: Vitamin C)

There are six classifications of nutrients:

  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Fats
  • Carbohydrates
  • Protein
  • Water

Vitamins are an organic compound required by the human body.  They are vital nutrient that cannot be made or synthesized in sufficient amounts, so they need to be obtained, in appropriate amounts through a person’s daily diet.  For example vitamin C is an antioxidant that boosts a person’s immune system, while vitamin B12 aides in the formation of red blood cells, and is involved in regulating a person’s metabolism.

Minerals are inorganic compounds, that serve a variety of body functions, depending on the mineral itself.  For example, calcium is known for creating new bone mass to help reverse osteoporosis.  Potassium phosphate in conjunction with sodium phosphate help to change urine acidity and prevent kidney stones.  While some studies have shown that chromium may be helpful for people with type 2 diabetes, helping lowering glucose levels and improving their insulin sensitivity. 

Both vitamins and minerals assist with the body’s use of fats, carbohydrates and proteins.

Fats are one of the three main macronutrients, along with carbohydrates and proteins. It is necessary to ingest fats in one’s diet, but too much can be harmful to a person health.  Your body will make and store fat when there is an excess in calories ingested.  Fats help the body utilize vitamins properly, help regulate body temperature, supply protection for vital organs and is the long-term source of energy production for the body

Carbohydrates are a type of macronutrient that is categorized as sugars, starches and fibers found in various fruits, grains and vegetables.  When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream and used as an energy for the body.  Food manufacturers also add carbohydrates to processed foods in the form of starch or sugar.  Sports drink products would be a good example of this. 

Proteins are essential macronutrients for the human body and are the building blocks of body tissue. The total number of proteins that the body possess is so vast that there is no way to scientifically measure them.  Proteins can also serve as a fuel source, but only if there is an extreme depletion in fat or carbohydrate stores.  Proteins are various combinations of another substance, called Amino Acids.  Amino acids can be divided into three categories: essential amino acids, non-essential amino acids, and conditional amino acids.  Essential amino acids cannot be made by the body, so they must be consumed in a person’s diet.  Non-essential amino acids can be formed in the body by utilizing the essential amino acids for construction.  Conditional amino acids are usually present in times of perceived mental or physical stress and if someone has a medical illness.

Water is an inorganic, transparent, colorless chemical substance which is a necessary fluid of all living organisms; like animals and people.  It is absolutely a vital nutrient required for life, even though it has no caloric value or organic nutrient qualities.  It basically possesses no taste or aroma, unless it has other nutrients like sugar, fruits or vegetables added to it.  Just about every form of food that has a level of moisture, has a water component to it.  The human body is composed of 55% to 78% water.  To function properly, the body requires between one and seven liters of water per day to avoid dehydration; the precise amount depends on the level of activity, air temperature, and humidity levels. 

Reasons for using Dietary Supplements

The reasons for people taking dietary supplements can range from looking to compete in athletic performance events, trying to lose weight, or simply to use them as a meal replacement. 

Dietary supplements may be used to replace or add to an athlete’s meal program, help enhance weight gain or muscle mass, in some cases to promote weight loss, or in hopes to improve athletic performance.  Among the most widely used dietary supplements by athletes include single or multi-vitamin supplements, protein bars or powders, branched-chain amino acids tablets, meal replacement shake products, creatine tablets or powders, or products that claim to enhance an athlete’s energy and testosterone levels.  These targeted athletic supplements are sold either as a prepared single ingredient or in a proprietary blended formula. 

When trying to lose weight, making diet and lifestyle changes for many people can be an extremely difficult venture.   So many people turn to dietary supplements that are promoted to assist with weight loss in the hope that these products will help them achieve any weight-loss goals more easily.  Various studies have indicated that between 10% - 20% of people in the United States have used a weight-loss dietary supplement at some point in their adult life.

Dietary supplement products that promote weight loss come in a variety of forms, which include bars, tablets, liquids, shakes, and powders.  Weight-loss product ingredients can include a variety of plants, herbs, fiber components, levels of caffeine and minerals that are claimed to lower body fat percentage.  Manufacturers make various claims about these products, such as being able to reduce macronutrient absorption, suppress appetite, burn body fat more effectively, and increase an individual’s body metabolism. 

Conclusion

As I had mentioned earlier, supplements are not all bad.   Personally speaking, I have taken and continue to take supplements to this day.  My reasoning behind this is that I know that due to my busy schedule that I can’t always sit down and eat a proper meal during the day.  So rather than going to a vending machine of a drive-through-window I keep food replacement options at the ready.  This can be a sport-bar, sport-drink, vitamin pack, or a meal replacement powder.  Mostly I will mix the supplement powder or drink with milk, fruit and ice, in a blender to make it more palatable and digestible.  I would never suggest to only use dietary supplements for all your nutritional requirements.  Eating grains, meats, vegetables, pastas, fruits and fishes are vital to everyone’s physical and mental health. 

My suggestion for anyone who wishes to start using supplements, for whatever reason, is to make sure you do your homework first.  It is important to know what each ingredient in any dietary supplement can and cannot do.  Look at it this way, if the beneficial selling point on the supplemental packaging seems too good to be true, it probably is.  Dietary supplements can be financially costly so you don’t want to waste your money on products making false claims.  Without me listing any specific manufacturer or brand, I can say with 100% certainly that there is no supplement on the market that can simply burn body fat by swallowing it or rubbing it on your skin; or increase your energy levels so much that you no longer require sleep.   

Health and Fitness experts unanimously agree that that making solid lifestyle changes, which included following a healthy eating pattern, taking in a variety of non-processed foods, motoring your caloric intake, engaging in physical activity at a level that addressees your fitness goals, and obtaining adequate amounts of sleep is the most appropriate way for achieving a long-term healthy body weight. 

A consultation with a medical health care provider, certified fitness professional, collegiately educated strength and conditioning coach or registered dietician would be your best source for finding out the most accurate dietary information.  These professionals will be able to assist in figuring out the potential risks and benefits to your dietary and exercise program, which will allow you to achieve your health, wellness and athletic goals in a safe, efficient, and timely manner.

 

Mark S. Cassidy, MS has been actively involved with the Fitness and Athletic Industry for over 25 years.   He has held professional positions with The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, World Instructors Training Schools, Philadelphia 76ers, YMCA, Delaware Blue Coats, Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, and American Heart Association.  Mark has an Associate’s degree in Business from Delaware County Community College, a Bachelor’s degree in Exercise Physiology from Temple University, a Master’s degree in Organizational Development/Business Psychology from The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and certification through the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  He has professional experience as a Fitness Instructor, Strength Coach, Sports Coach-Counselor, Exercise Therapist, Sales Manager, College Professor, and Athletic Facility Director.