Katie Ferraro by Katie Ferraro

The majority of adults in the United States report taking a dietary supplement on a regular basis or every day. Heavy use patterns add up, and Americans now spend more than $30 billion per year on dietary supplements. But just because the masses are spending mad amounts of money on increasingly dubious products doesn’t mean YOU have to as well! Here are five reasons why most dietary supplements are a waste of your time and money.

1.) You Don’t Need Supplements

Have you ever had a friend who eats fast food, but balances it out by adding a diet soda? Just like diet soda doesn’t undo poor food choices, dietary supplements don’t replace wise meal and snack patterns. As their name implies, supplements are intended to supplement—not replace—healthy and wholesome food choices.

Of course, it’s easier to pop a pill than it is to put together a balanced plate of lean protein foods, fresh produce and whole grains. However, the vast majority of healthy adults can—and should—obtain all of the nutrients they need from food alone.

There certainly are circumstances when a dietary supplement is indicated, but these usually have to do with treating a diagnosed nutrient deficiency. Here are some situations where a supplement may be useful:

  • Iron supplements if diagnosed with iron deficiency
  • Prenatal vitamins with folic acid before and during pregnancy
  • Vitamin B12 for vegans and older adults with low B12 levels
  • Calcium and vitamin D for those at risk for or who have osteoporosis
  • Fluoride for older infants living in areas where municipal water supply isn’t fluoridated
  • Vitamin K in a single prophylactic dose for newborn infants to prevent bleeding
  • Omega-3 fatty acids for people at risk for heart disease who don’t consume fish

2.) Some Supplements Can Cause Toxicity

In an environment where “more” is often perceived as being “better,” consumers tend to think that if a supplement provides 100% of their needs, then something that provides 1000% must be 10 times better. The truth is, it doesn’t work that way with supplements.

There is no data that supports megadosing of supplements for health outcomes. (Megadosing is generally considered to be the practice of consuming 10 times or more the recommended amount of a vitamin or mineral supplement.) When taken in high doses, some fat-soluble vitamin supplements like vitamin A can cause harm by building up to toxic levels in the body. And even water-soluble vitamins (which is excreted through urine if you consume too much) can still have negative effects on your body. For example, the water-soluble nutrient vitamin C can cause diarrhea and other gastrointestinal discomfort if consumed at high levels.

If you do take vitamin and/or mineral supplements, it is wise to stay below the Institute of Medicine’s Tolerable Upper Intake Levels. These upper levels tell you the maximum daily intake you should ingest and are based on available research.

Supplements can also harm people who have certain underlying health conditions, or who take prescription medications for those conditions. For example, someone taking the blood thinner Coumadin could experience serious harm from high levels of vitamin K, which promotes blood clotting.

The effectiveness of seemingly run-of-the-mill medications can be altered if taken in conjunction with certain supplements. For example, oral contraception for birth control can be rendered inactive if taken with the supplement St. John’s wort. St. John’s wort can also interfere with other medications, including antidepressants, causing them not to work as intended.

Pregnant and nursing women should be especially cautious with supplements, including herbal supplements. While taking a prenatal vitamin with iron and folic acid is always a good idea during pregnancy, the ability of other agents in supplements to cross the placenta or be transmitted through breast milk can pose a threat to an unborn baby or infant. Most supplement products have not been tested on populations such as pregnant and nursing women or infants and small children, and individuals in these groups should avoid taking them.

3.) Supplements Don’t Prevent Disease

Although supplements are often confused with drugs, supplements are not drugs. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—the agency tasked with oversight of the supplement industry—supplements are, “Not intended to treat, diagnose, mitigate, prevent or cure diseases.”

If you read the fine print on your supplement bottle, you should find that exact FDA statement. But supplement manufacturers take great liberty in their marketing of these products, often implying the relationship between their supplements and a particular performance outcome or health benefit.

While there are certain health claims that some supplements can carry, these claims are few and far between, and apply to just a small fraction of the actual supplements sold every year. You can become an informed consumer and see if the supplement you are taking has an FDA-qualified health claim, or if it boasts the more common but less rigorous structure-function claim. Check out the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements for research briefs to learn which supplement claims are really worth listening to.

4.) Active Ingredients and Amounts are Often Unknown

If you are a supplement user, take a look at the supplements that you take. Ask yourself, “Why am I taking this supplement? Is there evidence-based data to support this supplement’s use? Is there an established body of peer-reviewed published literature that proves this supplement works?” And lastly, “Do I even know if what it says is in the bottle is actually in the supplement bottle?”

That last question brings us to the next point about why most supplements are a waste of time and money: Supplement manufacturers do not have to disclose the amounts of ingredients, or sometimes even the exact ingredients in their products. A well-known supplement industry practice is to hide behind the term “proprietary blend.” Citing protection of secret ingredients and formulas, manufacturers are not required to divulge how much, or even what is in the bottles they are selling.

To recognize actual health benefits, some supplement products go so far as to include prescription drugs in their supplement ingredients. Red yeast rice extract, which purports to control cholesterol, has actually been found to contain statins. Statins are prescription drugs that should not be included or sold in over-the-counter supplement products. This supplement helps lower cholesterol, but only because it includes a prescription drug that was developed to lower cholesterol.

On the other end of the spectrum, some herbal ingredients have been found to not contain any active ingredients at all.

5.) Natural Means Nothing

In the supplement world, there is no legally defensible definition for the term “natural.” In fact, when it comes to the natural products industry, the word “natural” more often than not means nothing. The perception of a natural supplement product is that it is not artificially fabricated. This is highly ironic given that the vast majority of dietary supplements are synthetically created in a laboratory environment and likely do not contain any natural, plant-based or nonsynthetic ingredients.

Other marketing jargon and catchphrases frequently used to sell supplements include “prescription strength,” “high potency” and “medical grade.” As with the word “natural,” these terms mean nothing for you—just more profits for supplement manufacturers.

When it comes to sports supplements, most are just as unnecessary as are herbal products. While there is some data to support the use of creatine in sporting events that require bursts of speed, pounding a protein shake after your workout does not by itself build muscle. Dietary protein plays a role in muscle recovery, but it is the repetitive motion and stress on those muscles over time that builds mass—not your protein drink.

Supplement Summary

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the vast array of dietary and sports supplements available in the marketplace. But just because you haven’t heard of a particular “cutting edge” supplement—or you can’t pronounce it’s name—does not mean you need to buy it. Exceptional athletic performance and optimal health come from hard work and a body fueled by good food, not expensive and worthless lotions, potions and pills.