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Choosing High-Quality Dietary Supplements

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Updated June 29, 2014

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Choosing Dietary Supplements
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Dietary supplements are pretty much everywhere -- the grocery story, the local big box store, health food stores and vitamin shops. You can also order them online.

In any case, no matter where they come from, my advice is the same -- do your homework first. I mean, do you really need any dietary supplements. If you're eating a balanced diet, you're probably getting plenty of nutrients, so there's no need for more.

Maybe your diet isn't so great. In that case, taking a multivitamin or maybe a calcium and vitamin D supplement is fine, but it doesn't replace a healthy diet -- keep working on that.

But what if you're thinking about buying a supplement because you want to cure your hot flushes, drop 20 pounds, build muscles or improve your manly vitality? In those cases, don't bother -- you're wasting your money.

There are some times when supplements are beneficial -- if not crucial -- to good health. But if you have any health conditions, you need to speak to your health care provider before you go hunting for supplements.

What Difference Does It Make? 

They make look similar, but not all brands of supplements have the same quality. Dietary supplements are regulated, but not as closely as medications, and there are no strong standards that require the amounts of the ingredients listed on the label match what's inside the bottle.

That's a big problem if you need a specific dosage.

You also need to know that most of the claims that you see on the labels of dietary supplements are not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. These claims are also regulated, but companies find ways to make their products look pretty darned appealing. 

Dietary supplements come in a variety of price points too, and it's difficult to know if the expensive brands are worth the extra money.

Here's my advice:

  • Read the labels. Ingredients for the supplements should be from organic sources whenever possible.
  • Dietary supplements should be tested for toxic substances and any contaminants such as lead or mercury.
  • Look for hypoallergenic products if you have sensitivity problems or allergies. 
  • Look for an expiration date and make sure the product is fresh. If there is no expiration date on the label, buy something else.
  • Contact information should be easy to find on the packaging. If not, don't trust the company.
  • Join ConsumerLab.com to find out which brands of supplements they've tested for quality and dosage. 
  • Stay away from diet aids and body building products -- many contain bad ingredients and none of them work anyway.

If you're pregnant, nursing a baby, or have a chronic medical condition, be sure to consult a nutritionist, dietitian or health care provider before purchasing or taking any dietary supplements. Unless you have consulted with a health care provider, please follow the dosage instructions on the labels.

Sources:

American Cancer Society. "Choosing and Using Dietary Supplements Safely." Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatmentsandsideeffects/complementaryandalternativemedicine/dietarysupplements/dietary-supplements-choosing-safely.

National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. "Dietary Supplements: What You Need to Know." Accessed June 28, 2014. http://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx.

United States Food and Drug Administration Center. "Tips for Dietary Supplement Users." Accessed June 28, 2014. http://www.fda.gov/Food/DietarySupplements/UsingDietarySupplements/ucm110567.htm.

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