The Best Dietary Supplements That Just Might Save Your Life

By Nicci Micco, Anna Roufos, "These Supplements May Save Your Life…," December 2006

The truth about vitamin and mineral diet supplements.

"I am glad that you alerted me to the danger of "overdosing" with calcium. My wife needs to know this! "

Danielle Schupp, a registered dietitian who is affiliated with a top fitness club in New York City, works with people who are generally committed to a healthy lifestyle. Her clients eat well, exercise and take the supplements—vitamins and minerals—they think they need. The problem, as Schupp notes, is they often don’t really know what they need. “I had a client in her mid-forties who had recently discovered her bone density was low,” recalls Schupp. “She had become so obsessed with preventing osteoporosis—her mother had it—that she was supplementing with 2,500 milligrams of calcium a day plus getting dairy and various calcium-fortified foods in her diet. All in all, she was consuming about 5,000 milligrams of calcium a day—well above what she needed to reduce her risk for disease.” By the time the client was referred to Schupp, she had developed kidney stones from taking too much calcium.

Though perhaps an extreme case, Schupp’s client is one of millions of Americans who are turning to supplements with the belief that they can help make them healthier and stave off diseases. Americans now spend $23 billion a year on supplements—nearly triple the $8.8 billion we spent in 1994. We’re also shelling out $36 billion annually on fortified foods, such as vitamin-fortified cereals and juices with calcium added.

The supplement trend began taking off 30 years ago, says John Vanderveen, Ph.D., a retired Food and Drug Administration scientist: “There emerged a philosophy—perpetuated by some scientists and some supplement companies—that vitamins and minerals could be used not only to meet nutrient requirements (and prevent deficiencies), but also to improve health and treat chronic conditions.” From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, U.S. supplement use grew steadily; then, the trend exploded. The ignition: the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994. This law defined the term “dietary supplement”; it also established a dream regulatory situation for the companies that sell them. DSHEA stipulated that supplements were to be regulated like foods, not drugs, which meant manufacturers would not be required to prove a product safe or effective before selling it. It also allowed manufacturers of supplements and fortified foods to market their products with health-associated claims similar to those used to sell pharmaceutical drugs.

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