Dietary Supplements- Probably Not Harming You, Likely Not Helping You

Did you know that Americans have the most expensive urine in the world? I have some serious respect for great food marketers. It’s an art taking an unnecessary product and twisting it to make it appear like you absolutely need it and will become healthier from consuming it. We as consumers are lazy. As a culture, we want a quick and easy fix to all of our problems; when said problems come to our health, that usually means popping a pill or mixing a powder. Hence the development of dietary supplements.

I’m not big into gambling, but if I had to guess you probably have some type of dietary supplement in your home. A dietary supplement can be a vitamin, mineral, herb, amino acid, concentrate, metabolite, or extract that you ingest with the intentions of adding nutritional value to your diet. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements like food rather than drugs. Therefore, manufacturers of dietary supplements are NOT required to show that their products are safe or effective before they hit the market but the FDA has the authority to remove an item from the market if it can be proven unsafe. (1)

So, that begs the questions- are dietary supplements safe for consumption and are they necessary to improve health? The simple answers- unless your physician or dietitian has alerted you to a deficiency in your diet, the majority of Americans do not benefit from dietary supplements. It is known that the consumption of whole foods are better metabolized, more nutritive, and more gastronomically pleasurable than supplements. For example, eating a balanced diet of fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, and dairy offers more to your diet than a multivitamin pill does; one of the biggest components being fiber, which protects against certain diseases and helps to keep you regular. I joke that we as Americans have expensive urine; this is because many of the supplements you are consuming are likely unnecessary because when eating a balanced diet you are sufficient in the amounts of most, if not all of the essential nutrients, and therefore any excess gets excreted out of your body as urine. So, if you are an individual who eats a balanced diet full of fruits, veggies, lean proteins, whole grains, and dairy you can probably put down the multivitamin supplements.

If you reach for a protein shake after a workout, you are not alone. Approximately 44% of gym members consume either whey protein or another type of protein shake post exercise, all which are self-prescribed. (2) As stated above it is better to consume whole foods such as yogurt and granola, chocolate milk, or a smoothie after a workout. If you are someone who is in a rush and finds it easier to add a scoop of powder to water on your way out the door, your protein shake probably isn’t hurting you but planning a whole food snack likely has more added value. Protein shakes are often full of added, unnecessary ingredients such as added sugars and ingredients you can’t pronounce, which means you probably don’t know what they are. You might want to sit down for this one… the average male consumes 102 grams of protein and the average female 70 grams of protein per day, which is about double what our needs are! (3) Men need 56 and women 46 grams of protein per day, which equals out to be 10-15% of total caloric intake. So what happens to all of that extra protein you are consuming in expensive protein shakes? Protein has a couple metabolic fates- 1. Protein can be stored as protein to help build muscle (yay!) 2. Excess protein can be stored as fat (meh…) 3. Excess protein gets excreted as urine by the urea cycle. I would recommend tracking what you eat for a couple of days and see how much protein you are actually consuming and maybe rethink that shake of yours. As with the multivitamin supplements I mentioned above, you are likely receiving more than enough protein from your regular diet and can achieve an optimal 4:1 carbohydrate to protein ratio for optimal post exercise recovery from your diet.

Meal replacement shakes are an interesting type of nutritional supplement. The purpose of these are to replace a meal comprised of whole foods (you should know my opinion of this already) and swap it with a liquid shake that supposedly has more nutrients and fewer calories. There are many problems with these types of shakes- The first is you are removing the pleasure out of eating; eating a colorful meal full of varying textures, colors, and flavors is very gastronomically delightful and nutritive. When drinking a shake in place of chewing your food your food is digested at a faster rate, which can lead you to consuming more calories over time because it takes longer to reach a point of satiety. Next, meal replacement programs are extremely unsustainable; they promote yo-yo dieting where you lose weight rapidly because you are restricting calories and then when you reintroduce appropriate amounts of whole foods back into the diet you gain back all of the weight and then some. As stated previously, supplements are not regulated by the FDA prior to entering the market so the effectiveness and safety is poorly understood.

Eating an adequate and balanced diet that is high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and dairy will provide you with all the nutrients that you need. According to the American Dietetic Association, dietary supplements can help some people meet their nutrition needs as specified by science-based nutrition standards such as the Dietary Reference Intakes. (4) If you have had blood work done at the hospital and your physician says you are deficient in something, you should first try to make a correction in your diet and if that isn’t possible or you are unsuccessful you should seek guidance from your physician and dietitian regarding a safe and effective supplement that can compliment your diet.

Until next week.



  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration
  2. Attlee A et al. Dietary Supplement Intake and Associated Factors Among Gym Users in a University Community Journal of Dietary Supplements 2017.
  3. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2008. Nutrient Intakes from Food: Mean Amounts and Percentages of Calories from Protein, Carbohydrate, Fat, and Alcohol, One Day, 2005-2006.
  4. Position of the American Dietetic Association: Nutrient Supplementation. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2009.

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