Dietary supplements: the good, the bad and the indifferent

Dietary supplements, including multivitamins, herbal supplements, amino acids and other similar products, have been a controversial topic over the past few years, as people seem unable to agree exactly how effective (or potentially dangerous) they may be.

If you walk into any mall, you are likely to see a Nutrition House or GNC stacked with multivitamins and nutritional supplements of all shapes and sizes, with an employee there ready to tell you about all of their amazing benefits for health, weight loss, muscle gain, and general well-being. The U.S. National Institutes of Health reports that the majority of adults in the United States take one or more dietary supplement either every day or occasionally.

However, despite the popularity of supplements, they also have a lot of vocal opponents. Web MD published an influential article in 2013 called “Don’t Waste Your Money on Multivitamins” that instigated widespread discussion and controversy regarding the actual effectiveness (and possibly even dangers) of dietary supplements. Others responded either by agreeing with the article, or publishing critical responses such as The Globe and Mail’s “In defence of multivitamins” written a few weeks later. Since then, people seem polarized as to whether supplements are useful, dangerous, or useless.

Christy Mitchell/ Brockpress

Christy Mitchell/ Brockpress

Something that is important to remember in regards to safety is that a lot of the negative press towards nutritional supplements come from sources based in the United States. Drug regulation is handled differently in Canada than in the United States, and CBC reported in 2013 that Canada is considered to have one of the best systems worldwide in terms of regulating natural health products.

According to Health Canada, “all natural health products must have a product licence before they can be sold in Canada. To get a licence, applicants must give detailed information about the product to Health Canada… once Health Canada has assessed a product and decided it is safe, effective and of high quality, it issues a product license… which must appear on the label.”

With this in mind, concerned consumers in Canada can look on the label for a Health Canada product number, which will ensure that the government has evaluated and approved the quality and safety of the product. Any items without this number (or with the label “EN-XXXXXX”) are either not approved, or have not yet been evaluated by Health Canada and are still under the review process.

It is still important, however, to consult with a doctor before taking any new medication, natural or not, as even products that Health Canada have deemed “safe” can still interact poorly with pre-existing conditions or with other medications. So always consult with your doctor either way; however, Canada’s regulations ensure that the general safety, consistency and quality of supplements is generally reliable.

Discussion of safety does not, however, address the concerns about actual effectiveness that have been circulating. The problem at the moment is that there still seems to be an extreme divide between people who think that supplements are absolutely useless, and people who think they are some sort of miracle substance that provides countless benefits that improve quality of life. The answer, as it usually does, lies somewhere in the middle.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) reports that some supplements can help some users meet some nutritional needs (emphasis on the “some”), but that their effects are generally exaggerated or inflated by enthusiasts. The NIH emphasizes that “supplements can’t take the place of the variety of foods that are important to a healthy diet,” and that one of the problems with supplements comes when people try to take supplements as a substitution for actually eating well.

While the effects of the majority of supplements are negligible or still uncertain, the NIH reports that certain supplements have proven beneficial. The specific supplements that they highlight as being useful are calcium and vitamin D for bones, folic acids for pregnancy, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish oils for heart disease. They claim that other supplements still need more study before their value can be determined.

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