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The health benefits of dietary supplements: Some swear by it, others don’t believe in their purpose.
According to the National Institute of Health, more than half of all Americans take one or more dietary supplements daily or on occasion.
But to understand possible health benefits of dietary supplements, it is important to first understand what they are exactly.
Supplements, which are available without prescription, usually come in pill, powder or liquid form.
Baylor Scott & White Senior Clinical Dietician of Cardiology LeAnn Rychlik explained that common supplements include vitamins, minerals and herbal products, also known as botanicals.
All dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as foods, not as drugs. While the label may claim certain health benefits, they can’t promise to cure, treat or prevent diseases like medicine.
Ultimately, dietary supplements are meant to be used to — as their name already describes — supplement a person’s diet to achieve or maintain a healthy lifestyle.
While supplements can be used for various conditions and health goals, they are often connected with the ability to boost immune systems.
Especially during cold and flu season, supplement ads promise a quick and easy way to prevent getting sick. But according to health care professionals, there is no scientific evidence that dietary supplements actually influence the immune system.
One of the reasons for this is the complexity of the immune system itself. While a well-functioning immune system can limit the ability of bacteria, viruses and parasites to cause infection, a hyperactive immune system may cause problems like allergies or autoimmune disorders.
To stay healthy and prevent getting sick, Rychlik recommended a balanced diet including a variety of nutritious foods from all food groups including fruits, vegetables, proteins, fats, grains and starches.
The same is the case for the treatment of chronic disease. According to Rychlik, there is little evidence that suggest dietary supplements can prevent those diseases.
While many people don’t need to take supplements, some do benefit from their use. Dietary supplements can be beneficial for women during pregnancy, who need iron, and folic acid.
Individuals who are limited in food choices due to allergies, medical conditions of lifestyle choices like veganism also benefit from supplements to maintain vitamin levels. Vegans benefit from Vitamin B12 supplements that is naturally found in meat, fish and dairy, and helps to keep nerve and blood cells healthy.
According to Rychlik, also bariatric patients depend on supplements after their surgery for the rest of their lives.
“(They) have a greater risk of developing vitamin and mineral deficiencies, so it is important that bariatric surgery patients have lifelong follow-up with a registered dietitian on their bariatric team for guidance on what types of vitamins are needed,” she said.
But supplements can also affect a patient’s health negatively. Depending on underlying and chronic conditions, not every supplement is generally safe.
“As always, consult with your specialist care provider or registered dietitian nutritionist before beginning any supplement,” Rychlik said. “The need for nutrient supplementation should be made on an individual basis and with consideration of your current medications and health history.”
Rebecca Vicars, senior clinical dietician of Bariatric Surgery at Baylor Scott & White, seconds the opinion, that it depends on each individual, whether or not dietary supplements are necessary or can be beneficial.
“There is no short answer … and one recommendation does not fit all patients,” she said.
Therefore, professional medical assistance by a primary care provider or dietitian is important to find the optimal treatment plan.
“The dietitian evaluates each patient’s diet, medical history, lab values and medication list when determining if a supplement would be beneficial,” she said.
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