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Supplements: Analysis of Risks and Benefits

Supplements are one of the most widely researched and debated topics in the world of human health and nutrition. From dietary supplements to sports performance supplements , human curiosity to go a step further has resulted in a blooming market for products. Many of them are truly beneficial. However, there are a huge number of supplements which are plain fillers . In some extreme cases they might even cause serious damage , especially if they contain banned substances. Presence of banned substances can have serious consequences for athletes , who might fail their drug tests . In extreme cases it may even result in death. One such recent incident was the death of a gym trainer due to the consumption of a banned substance DNP. However, as the incident showed us improper information resulted in the blame being given to caffeine a natural ,effective and safe to use supplement.

Supplements have important benefits such as helping in correction of nutritional deficiencies. They may also enhance a physiological process connected with athletic performance. Keeping these factors into mind it is essential for an individual to assess the benefits and minimize the risks from supplements. The process for the same is not straightforward but with expert advice and research one can consume supplements safely, if needed. Correct decision making is crucial in ensuring maximum health benefits while avoiding being swindled or worse harmed in any way.

Myths Surrounding Supplements

While supplements have many benefits , there are several myths surrounding them. Some of the common myths associated with supplements are as follows

  • Efficiency : Supplements are considered to be more effective than a healthy diet. Many supplements are advised to have superior digestibility and bioavailability of minerals and vitamins which are seldom true
  • Instant Results : Supplements are often advertised as providing instant benefits and changes to the body when compared to food. Often people wrongly believe effect of food takes a longer time.
  • Diet: Often it is assumed diet is unbalanced and unhealthy therefore supplements are necessary to correct dietary deficiencies. For example many supplements advertise “antioxidants” as a necessary component which cannot be obtained from a healthy diet. In reality, if you are consuming fruits and vegetables your body already has antioxidants to counter oxidative stress.
  • Insurance Policy: Supplements are advertised as an insurance policy, incase your diet becomes unhealthy. Truth be told our body doesn’t change overnight and it doesn’t need an insurance policy. Long periods of nutritional deficiency is harmful which can be corrected by dietary intervention.
  • Superior Results: Supplements are advertised as providing superior results for the same macro or micronutrient. Many unscrupulous companies advertise their products especially protein powders as having better results than food. Our body does not know the difference between protein from food and from supplement if their compositions are comparable.

Common Risks Associated with Supplements

Supplement usage comes with a few risks , primarily due to the fact that the industry is not well regulated. An investigation carried out by the New York State’s Attorney General’s office found that only 1 out of 5 products in USA contained what was advertised. Some products didn’t contain anything at all and were fillers. Athletes have taken Vitamin B-12 under the impression that it boosts athletic performance. While Vitamin B-12 is needed for a good health, unfortunately it does not boost athletic performance. Hence, there are a myriad of risks associated with supplements from misleading claims, not getting intended benefits to high costs. They may be summarized as follows:

  • Ineffectiveness: The supplement is ineffective and does not provide the advertised results.
  • Decrease in performance: The supplement ends up decreasing performance rather than enhancing it.
  • Banned substances: The supplement may contain banned substances which could result in failed drug tests for athletes.
  • Side Effects : Using supplements without expert advisory might result in experience of side effects
  • High Costs : Unnecessary high costs especially when dietary alternatives exist.
  • The active substance is missing: The supplement may not contain the prime ingredient or the active substance.

Strategies to Minimize the Risks

While supplements contain a fair amount of risk, with the right knowledge not only can these risks be minimized but their benefits can also be maximized. Supplements can help correct nutritional deficiencies and enhance athletic performance. They can help in achievement of nutritional goals. In 2014, the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) came up with a simple four step strategy which can help an individual make smart decisions with respect to supplement selection. They are listed as follows :

  • Seek Professional Advice: When in doubt seek professional advice from a health professional or a nutritionist who can highlight if there is any clear benefit in using the supplement.
  • Third Party Testing : Look for third party testing. Even though the testing programs may have certain limitations a simple online search from their respective websites will help you be aware of those limitations. For example Informed Sports tests for banned substances but does not test the contents. Which means you can be sure nearly 160 banned substances are screened for but you cannot be sure if the claimed active substance is present. Thus,you will probably rely on the reputation of the company selling the supplement and their transparency in the manufacturing process .
  • Research Specific Warnings : Look for the warning signs on the bottle and research the risks.
  • Review the Label and Look for Red Flags : Look for clear red flags. If a claim is too good to be true then it probably is. Look closely at the ingredients. For example a common practise among unscrupulous protein powder manufacturers is to fill up the supplement with non essential amino acids and advertise the thing as “protein”, if you do not read the label you will not get the intended results.

This article isn’t meant to scare someone about supplements. Rather it is intended to make a person aware of the nature of the supplement industry . There are clear benefits to using supplements under certain circumstances. However, that should be determined after consulting with a professional or thorough research. Informed choices and smart decisions go a long way in ensuring proper supplement usage.

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