The Sidestep of Supplements

Contributed by Lisa Larkin, MD, FACP, NCMP, IF Associate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology; Director, Division of Midlife Women’s Health & Primary Care, Director, UC Health Women’s Center

Seems like there is new evidence nearly every day that bolsters the decision to opt for prevention as a long-term wellness strategy. The benefits of a Mediterranean diet and a lifestyle that’s geared toward disease prevention have been shown to enhance quality of life over the long haul. It’s not only the healthiest choice but it’s also much less costly, in terms of medical care, than treating a disease that may be preventable in the first place.

This time the spotlight is on supplements, herbal compounds that are sold as substances to ward off certain diseases or make up for nutrients that are missing from a person’s diet. The industry markets its products as health-enhancing, but recent studies show that they’re simply not all they’re cracked up to be, even in the country’s top retail pharmacies. In fact, the New York State attorney general’s office commissioned special tests to find out exactly what’s in popular supplements at GNC, Target, Walgreens and Walmart. The findings are not good.

For starters, most of the pills tested contained inexpensive filler material – ingredients like powdered rice and houseplants not listed on labels. In some cases, wheat was discovered in products that were promoted as gluten – free, which could cause an allergic reaction. In others, no trace of the named substance was found in the sample. That’s right, things labeled ginkgo biloba and St. John’s wort for example, were completely devoid of the component that made consumers purchase it in the first place.

What’s most shocking about these findings is that anyone is surprised. The health supplement industry isn’t subject to the stringent testing and oversight that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires of other industries. Stringent testing and controls are in place for pharmaceuticals, but supplements can skirt these rules with the argument that they are plant-based. So not only do these substances avoid the necessary scrutiny mandated for most other manufactured products ingested by the public, they are promoted as a healthy way to take in valuable nutrients and minerals.

All of this underscores what medical professionals already know – that it’s better to stick to nutrient-dense foods, rich in elements of a Mediterranean-based diet, and regular exercise to prevent disease and maintain wellness. There is no shortcut to living a long, healthy life free of complicating sickness. Like anything else of value, it takes commitment to a lifestyle, which is a bit of work. But it is the only proven way to make a difference in wellness over the long haul. The magic pill simply doesn’t exist.

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