10 popular supplements: are they actually helpful?

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Story and photos by Chris Peters, NewsNetNebraska

A pill a day keeps the doctor away, or at least that’s the direction the American psyche appears to be heading.

A report by Packaged Facts says that nutritional supplement sales rose 7 percent in 2012. Sales figures for the industry are at $11.5 billion, with an expected total of $15.5 billion by 2017.

The variety of supplements available leaves consumers to question “which ones do I really need?”

Popular supplements rated by their estimated effectiveness.

Karen Miller, a registered dietitian and the nutrition educator for the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Campus Recreation Center, said most people have no need for supplements and should search for the nutrients where they’re found naturally, in food.

Still, there are people with deficiencies. People with medical conditions or people on diets lacking in certain nutrients, like some vegetarian and vegan diets, will need a boost in some areas.

Miller and Kayla Colgrove, a registered dietitian and UNL Extension educator for Gage County, broke down 10 of the most popular supplements.

Probiotics

Found most commonly in yogurt, probiotics promote intestinal health by helping balance some of the 400 different kinds of bacteria found in the intestines. They can help treat diarrhea, gas and cramping in the stomach or intestines.

“Probiotics are one of the things that are pretty harmless and can really benefit a lot of individuals,” Miller said. “I’ve seen people have pretty dramatic results.”

Miller and Colgrove both said probiotics may not work for everyone, but they are rarely harmful, so it’s worth a trial run for 6-8 weeks. As far as getting the biggest bang for your buck, Colgrove said it’s best to just eat yogurt rather than spend the money on supplements.

Sports

Sports Supplements

A wide variety of products fit under the sports supplements umbrella, like protein powders, fat burning pills and muscle activity enhancers like creatine. Miller said it’s a “buyer beware” category, mostly due to the lack of FDA regulation.

Colgrove, who threw javelin as a track athlete at UNL, knows the value of refueling muscles after a workout. She said that’s the only time she would consider taking a sports supplement, but mentioned that chocolate milk works just as good as any supplement will.

Glucosamine

Glucosamine is intended to aid with joint pain. It’s best to consult with a doctor before starting to use it, however, and it should not be used to treat other pain in similar areas, like a torn ACL in the knee. Its effectiveness is still case-by-case.

“It’s conflicting,” Colgrove said. “There are some studies that show it helps, and there are some that show it doesn’t.”

Fish Oil/Flaxseed Oil

Fish oil and flaxseed oil are both high in Omega-3s, helping fight heart disease and high triglyceride levels. Both are anti-inflammatory, meaning they aid in the prevention of a wide range of other diseases.

FishOil

The main difference between the two is that fish oil is more easily absorbed by the body. Since fish oil and flaxseed oil do most of the same work, Miller recommends using fish oil, unless you’re a vegan (fish oil does come from fish, after all.)

One danger of fish oil is that it is a blood thinner. That can help in many cases, but for people already on blood thinners, it’s best to consult a doctor before use.

Calcium

Calcium is one of the most lacking minerals in American diets. Both Miller and Colgrove said people need to take more in, but neither totally support opting for a supplement.

One obstacle with calcium supplements is slow absorption by the body. In order to effectively receive 100 percent of the daily recommended value, it would be wise to split it into three doses spread out during the day.

“It’s not perfect, but it can be helpful (if done correctly),” Miller said.

Colgrove still favored going for natural food, like fortified cereal, broccoli, almonds or soybeans.

Multivitamin

Multivitamins

Multivitamins are often viewed as a “super supplement,” providing a safety net for people who don’t watch their intake carefully. Miller and Colgrove said the perception doesn’t necessarily equal reality, but as long as you are careful about what you are eating, a multivitamin can be beneficial.

“For someone who has several nutritional deficiencies, I might recommend one,” Miller said.

Colgrove agreed that multivitamins can be helpful for people with vitamin deficiencies, but warned that they can be dangerous for someone who is already above their daily value.

“You have to be careful for toxic levels,” Colgrove said. “You definitely can get too much (of one) vitamin.”

Theoretically, someone could die from consuming excess amounts of one vitamin, she said. It’s unlikely that someone eating a regular diet and taking a multivitamin would reach those levels, but it’s smart to monitor your intake and consult with a doctor before jumping into a regimen.

“You definitely don’t want to take a multivitamin just to take one,” she said.

Vitamins B

Both Miller and Colgrove advised against using individual vitamin supplements. In almost all cases, they would favor getting the nutrients from food first. If that’s not enough, they prefer multivitamins over individual vitamin supplements.Vitamin B is heavily present in American diets, Miller said, and only people with medically-shown deficiencies should consider a supplement.

VitaminC

Vitamin C

Many people take vitamin C to battle colds or heal wounds. Colgrove said there are so many foods with high quantities of vitamin C that it’s foolish to take a supplement.

And no, megadoses of vitamin C will not make your skin invincible, just like it won’t save you from the common cold. Those are only myths, Miller said.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is one of the most lacking vitamins in American diets alongside calcium. It’s one of the only vitamin supplements Miller thought could be helpful for most people.

“It’s kind of the wonder nutrient right now,” Miller said.

That being said, she still says to get it from food, or to simply walk outside. You can get a healthy dose of vitamin D from the sun.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E is an antioxidant that promotes immune function and vascular health, and was once thought to decrease the risk of stroke. When the vitamin was isolated, however, Miller said it actually increased the risk of stroke in subjects of a study.

Miller advises only to get vitamin E from dietary sources, not from supplements, as it can be dangerous.

“I don’t know anyone that recommends just a vitamin E supplement,” Miller said. “The jury is still out on the supplement side of it.”

Colgrove recommends nut seeds and vegetable oils. Some leafy green vegetables are known to have vitamin E as well.

“I would always recommend getting those nutrients from food first, then supplement if needed,” Colgrove said.

This notion holds pretty true for all supplements: food first.

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