November 30, 2012 at 11:32 am EDT | by Kevin M. Norris
Pill popping for health?

According to Consumer Report, dietary supplements have been taken by more than half of American adults; consumers spent $26.7 billion on supplements in 2009. Common motivations are to lose weight, stay healthy and avoid the use of prescription drugs.

With dietary supplements, the substitute may or may not be a better alternative to the original source. The supplementation, or in using the latest vernacular nutraceutical, industry is a tremendously huge and profitable world-wide market that will continue to grow at a rapid pace. But is it replacing real food and are most supplements safe? Everyone on the planet might think so. So it seems that everyone is popping some over-the-counter pill or powder perhaps to prevent disease or stave off a cold or simply looking for the perpetual elixir of life.

But don’t we all look for an elixir in some form or another to not only enhance our quality of life and ward off illness, but are also to prolong it? In doing so have we become a synthetically enhanced pill-popping society looking for the consummate magic pill in lieu of food consumed in the average American diet? This is all well and good, but shouldn’t safety be a consideration as well?

As a personal trainer for almost 20 years, I have never been a supporter of dietary supplementation (in the U.S.) and have never endorsed, sold or distributed a supplement and I abhor multi-level marketing. Recommending supplementation was prohibited in my personal training certification’s code of ethics; it was and continues to be beyond the scope of knowledge and credentials of the average personal trainer. Second, my personal view is that nothing can replace real food and that everything the average American needs from a nutritional standpoint is available in a supermarket or on a farm. The U.S. is blessed to have an abundant supply of food, nutrient rich and all, so where is the deficit?

We are all free to put whatever it is we want in our system, particularly if we think there is a benefit, so I’m not against personal choices that do nothing to harm me or another. But as a personal trainer I have a responsibility to my clients to know what they are putting in their system and refer them to a qualified practitioner who has the knowledge to educate them.

I also have issue with how supplementation is marketed, sold and distributed and how anyone can claim to be an authority from Joe Schmoe to a highly credentialed medical doctor. And again, my standpoint is much in alignment with the top personal training industries certification programs.  Personal trainers are not Registered Dietitians and anyone can dub themselves a nutritionist (in Washington) and in most states, personal trainers alike.

Despite what many may believe, the supplementation industry is not regulated by the government, however they are monitored, a big difference. The FTC regulates false labeling claims.  There are no safety testing standards in place prior to a supplement hitting the shelves. No over-the-counter supplement requires FDA approval. The FDA will swoop in only if and when there is a problem or in a 1995 landmark New York case, someone dies as an alleged result of taking an ephedrine-based supplement. In this case, the personal trainer, gym and supplement manufacturing company were sued for hundreds of millions of dollars. While the case is public knowledge, it was settled out of court, which seals the outcome.

Granted this is but one example of what could happen, but it speaks to the inherent risks and issues within the supplementation industry.

With the proliferation and inundation of information available doesn’t this mean there is conclusive evidence to support the safety and efficacy of a supplement? Absolutely not. Volume does not mean valid. One must look at the source, who financed the study and what type of study was conducted. The gold standard is independent, double-blind, randomized, controlled and conclusively in support of claims being made. Where are these studies? They don’t exist.

But I only take herbal and “natural” remedies, doesn’t this mean they are safe and effective?  Hemlock and poisonous mushrooms are natural — would you take either of those? Enough said.

Where does one go to get the most accurate information on dietary supplementation? Not sure the Internet is the best place to start unless you know what you’re looking for. An dietician would be a good start and then confirm with your doctor and pharmacist.

Also, the FDA and the National Institute of Health office of the National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine both offer comprehensive information.

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