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How to Buy Dietary Supplements

September 17, 2012 (Updated: August 21, 2018)

As a practicing physician, my patients frequently ask about dietary supplements, including vitamins and related substances. Here are the top two questions:

Do I need to take vitamins?

Which vitamins should I take?

Since these topics come up so often, let’s take a look at both issues right now, starting with the first question.

Do You Need to Take Vitamins?

Short answer: Yes! Everyone needs to take vitamins, even those of us who study nutrition and eat carefully. Studies show that basic nutrients, such as a simple multivitamin, can improve everything from markers of aging and heart disease to memory and mood. Furthermore, I’ve seen patients reverse heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and a number of other ailments by taking the right combination of vitamins. Several of my patients have even been able to cancel different types of surgery, including one heart transplant, after taking appropriate supplements. That’s how much difference vitamins and other nutrients can make in your health.

Our bodies are amazing machines, but they require the proper fuel to function. Everything you eat provides fuel for your body. But are you getting quality fuel to help you go the distance? Or is it nutrition-free filler that will leave you stranded?

Unfortunately, even if you eat a healthy diet, you probably aren’t getting all the nutrients you need. Over-farming depletes minerals and lowers important nutrient levels in many foods. In addition, several nutrients are lost to pesticides and herbicides and are reduced further during transportation, storage, and cooking. As a result, it’s next to impossible to obtain the recommended amounts of many nutrients from food alone, based on the Institute of Medicine’s Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) guidelines.

Vitamin E is a good example. It promotes heart health and strong circulation. Many foods contain vitamin E but only in small amounts. One international expert calculated that getting therapeutic levels of vitamin E from food sources alone would require eating 9 tablespoons of olive oil, 75 slices of whole-wheat bread, and 200 peanuts every single day! I don’t know about you, but I would rather take a supplement. In fact, this is why I recommend that my patients take at least a daily multivitamin as well as some other nutrients not easily obtained from food sources alone.

Which Vitamins Should You Take?

Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question because individual differences play a huge role here. Age, gender, ethnicity, existing health conditions and medication, occupation, medical history, family history, activity level, food preferences, stress levels, sleep patterns, exposures to pollution and toxins, and many other factors play a role in answering this question.

That said, here is my list of the top 11 supplements that I believe most people should be taking. Since there is simply no room to explain dosage details, I’ve provided links to previous articles (whenever possible) with that information or a general recommendation. For the top two suggestions, I recommend purchasing from an established company, rather than a generic, cut-rate brand.

If you’ve been vitamin shopping lately, you know that there are literally dozens of choices for each of these products as well as a wide range of prices. So here are some suggestions on what to look for in a quality product.

10 Tips for Buying and Using Nutraceuticals

1. Beware trendy, fad nutrients. Every few months, another supposedly miracle product hits the headlines. Typically, the studies cited are either too small to be useful, too brief (lasting a few weeks or less), or they raise more questions than they answer, requiring further research.

Furthermore, if there have not been any long-term clinical trials — animal or human — we have no way of knowing the effects of taking this supplement for years at a time. As a rule, I prefer to let the dust settle in the research arena before recommending a product.

2. Avoid synthetics; buy food-based nutrients. You may have to do a little detective work on this one, but it is important. Basically, there are two types of supplements — those derived from food sources and those artificially created in a laboratory, often from derivatives of coal tar, a by-product of coal distillation.

Aside from the fact that coal tar is not what I’d call a healthful substance, there’s another reason to seek out food-based nutrients — something called cofactors.

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Let’s look at vitamin C, for example. In nature, vitamin C is found in fresh produce, like fruits and vegetables, where it exists in the company of other compounds known as bioflavonoids. Vitamin C and bioflavonoids work as a team. Check the label of your vitamin C for bioflavonoids, which will be clearly listed in the ingredients. If it is not listed, you’re not getting the full measure of vitamin C’s health-promoting properties.

To get the best results from your supplements, look for the following:

  • Vitamin C with bioflavonoids
  • Vitamin E in its natural form (sold as d-alpha-tocopherol) preferably with mixed tocotrienols. Avoid the synthetic form (sold as dl-alpha-tocopherol).

Not all supplement labels clearly mark the nutrient as synthetic or natural, so you may have to contact the manufacturer. Generally, synthetics are much less expensive than natural forms since the ingredients are cheaper and easier to formulate.

3. Watch out for unnecessary ingredients like dyes, chemical coatings, and sugar. Not all non-nutritive elements in a supplement are bad. Some products need binders or fillers for various reasons. But other ingredients are simply best avoided, and you’ll need to read the fine print on the label to identify them. Watch out for some of these key words:

  • Soy
  • Yeast
  • Whey
  • Cornstarch
  • Various sugars (ingredients ending in “-ose” are sugars)

4. Ask questions. Nutraceutical manufacturers usually have websites and toll-free phone numbers. If you have questions about a product, email or call the manufacturer. If you get no response or if the reply is not helpful, that may tell you all you need to know about the company and its products.

5. Follow product instructions. Most supplements are best absorbed when taken with or immediately after a meal. This is not true of all, however, so do read the dosage instructions for specifics. Here’s one example: Taking vitamin E without food may reduce absorption to a mere 3%. You’re paying good money for your vitamins, but not following instructions could mean you’re essentially throwing it away.

6. Look at the big picture. Before purchasing supplements, consider the medications you are taking as well as your existing health conditions. Certain supplements are not compatible with some medications, so educate yourself. Your local pharmacist can also help you identify and avoid possible drug interactions.

7. Take it personally. We’ve all had a friend or relative recommend something — a restaurant, movie, nutritional supplement, what have you. When you try it, you sometimes find that what the friend raved about was underwhelming at best. That’s because you are unique. Things that work for one person don’t necessarily have the same effect on another — something that’s especially true of nutrition and supplements. So be cautious in this regard, and consult with your doctor or pharmacist first.

8. Store it properly. Supplements must be stored in a cool, dry environment away from direct sunlight. The refrigerator is one option, but a cupboard is fine, too, as long as it’s not above a stovetop or other heat-producing appliance. And pay attention to expiration dates. I suggest monthly reviews of your supplements to ensure they are still effective.

9. Give it time. Some supplements, such as digestive enzymes, produce results fairly quickly. But other nutrients require time to reach therapeutic levels in your body, sometimes as long as 4 to 6 weeks. Be patient while your body heals. The payoff will be worth it.

10. Don’t let price be your only measuring stick. There are places where it makes sense to cut corners, but supplements are not one of them. The cheapest vitamins are usually inexpensive for a reason, such as synthetic ingredients based on coal tar, lots of useless fillers, or other potentially harmful or unnecessary ingredients.

Here’s another way that bargain vitamins can take a bite out of your budget. Check dosage info. You could end up with an inexpensive product that must be taken two or three times more often than a more costly one, cancelling out any savings.

Effectiveness is another concern with inexpensive products. I suggest my patients look for nutrients from companies with a reputation to protect. Serious firms do not make snake-oil sales pitches, promising their product can cure everything from hair loss to heart disease. Although the USDA forbids vitamin manufacturers from making claims about curing disease, some marketers play fast and loose with those rules, especially with weight-loss and muscle-building products. So beware grandiose claims and too-good-to-be-true solutions for any health condition.

As you may know by now, I am a big believer in nutritional supplements, but it’s important to educate yourself on the subject and to have realistic expectations. The people who need vitamins most are those who eat chemical-laden processed or prepared food. Attempting to operate a highly sophisticated machine with a mixture of sugar, salt, grease, dangerous chemicals, and toxic substances is a recipe for disaster. Taking the right vitamins can help counteract some of the damage done by the Standard American Diet (SAD), but not all, not by a long shot. So if you insist on filling your fuel tank with triple-bacon cheeseburgers and deep-fried candy bars, don’t be surprised if it sputters, stalls, and stops now and then, no matter which vitamins you’re taking.

I discuss the topics of food and supplements with patients all day long. Many times, people hear what I’m saying only after they have been diagnosed with a life-threatening ailment. Please don’t let this happen to you. The best time to start taking vitamins is before you have a health crisis. Vitamins can help repair damage before it does real harm to your health. That’s why I urge you to make certain you’re getting the nutrients you need in your daily meals and from appropriate supplements.

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