Skip to main content

Wellness Insights blog

Back to blog

Dietary Supplements: The Good, The Bad, and The Poorly Regulated

According to the CDC, as many as 57.6% of US adults typically use dietary supplements. This is no surprise - vitamins and herbal supplements are marketed as low-risk alternatives to prescription medication for many conditions. They also make up a substantial portion of a $4.2 trillion global wellness industry. But are these magic pills all they are cracked up to be?

The Good

There are a few reasons why our doctors might tell us to take a dietary supplement. Supplementation can be important for people in certain life stages or those at risk for a deficiency. This includes expectant mothers, who benefit from taking prenatal vitamins, or people with pernicious anemia who may require regular vitamin B12 shots to maintain their blood levels of the vitamin. However, one study reports that many of our supplement choices are not based on the recommendation of a health provider.

The Bad

So why do so many of us bother with supplements? According to a 2013 study, the two most common reasons people take supplements are to improve and maintain their overall health. People also reported using supplements to support their bones and heart and boost immunity. But many supplements claim to do things beyond what the research can substantiate. Currently, there is insufficient data to say that calcium pills reduce bone fracture risk, heart health supplements decrease cardiovascular disease risk, or that additional vitamin C will prevent you from catching a cold. And as for overall health, a 2019 study found that supplement use did not impact mortality.

The Poorly Regulated

Dietary supplements in the US have surprisingly little oversight. Supplements are regulated by the FDA, which is not able to test supplements for safety before they are marketed or validate the health claims made by manufacturers. They also do not test the ingredients of supplements to ensure that they contain the compounds listed on the bottle. This means that supplements may contain additives not listed on the ingredients label, may not contain the active ingredient in the amounts listed, or may not even contain the active ingredient listed on the label.

While alluring advertisements may lead us to believe that we need extra help to be at our best, simply consuming a varied and healthful diet is enough for most of us to maintain our health.