Vitamins, calcium, and omega-3 are some of the food supplements that Americans consume the most. 70% frequently use these types of products, which are also presented in the form of probiotics, plant extracts, such as bran, ginseng, and brewer’s yeast, as well as in energy bars and preparations to replace some food.
Most use these products with the main objective of improving their general state of health (70.9%), but also to have more energy (35%), improve the functioning of bones and muscles (34%), treat diseases such as osteoporosis and gastrointestinal discomfort (28%), as well as reducing weight, among other reasons.
In addition, a large part uses them without sufficient health justification, without beneficial results in many cases and even with health risk in some cases. This is because, currently, the studies that analyze the safety of this type of supplements are scarce and most provide little or no information that clearly demonstrates that they have healthy properties and that they are effective and without risks.
According to a recently published report, currently, foresees high growth in the coming years due to the rise of sport, the so-called ‘personalized nutrition’ and the aging of the population, especially among millennials, women and those over 60 years.
The study has also made it possible to know the potentially positive and negative impact of these substances based on scientific evidence from numerous national and international reports and has conducted surveys of 2,630 adults to find out the frequency of use of this type of products and to know if they have perceived beneficial or adverse effects.
Young women: more vitamins and minerals
Of all the supplements available on the market, the most consumed (63.4%) are those that provide vitamins, minerals, and oils rich in omega-3 (63%).
Specifically, about 4 out of 10 (39.4%), especially women between 26 and 35 years old, with university studies, who perform physical activity and consider having an adequate weight, consume vitamins and complexes, especially those of vitamin D and C, which are generally prescribed by health professionals other than dietitians-nutritionists.
Regarding minerals, the intake of magnesium (13%) and calcium (12%) stands out, especially among people between 26 and 35 years old; and omega-3 from plant sources, such as evening primrose oil, flax or nuts, which consume 21%, especially between 18 to 35 years.
The multivitamin with minerals is the complex that is most consumed, specifically, 18% of the population, who do so on a monthly, weekly, or daily basis. A similar proportion of those surveyed also take probiotics (27.3%), especially women and the age group between 26 and 45 years old, and 28.6%, also mostly women, consume some supplement without a prescription with plant extract or phytotherapy, such as pollen, royal jelly, and fiber, which are often purchased from herbalists.
Gain energy (men) and lose weight (women)
Men consume more energy bars and women, more prepared to reduce size. This is indicated by the report, which shows that 2 out of 10 people (19.9%), especially men between 18 and 45 years old with a feeling of good health, take products for athletes, such as energy bars (15%), protein preparations, serums and shakes (14%), specialty drinks (13%) and hydration gels (9%), which are usually self-administered (without a prescription) and are generally purchased online.
It also indicates that 13.8% have taken specific products to lose weight in the last year, among which the preparations that replace some meals of the day (11%) or all (6%) stand out. The most frequent consumers of this type of product, which are prescribed in most cases by dietitians-nutritionists, are women, between 18 and 45 years old, who consider their weight little or not adequate.
The report also shows that 30.2% of those surveyed recognize that they have taken products for special medical uses in order to treat a disease or the effects of treatment, being more common among women, in ranges of age 56 and over and in people with university studies. The shakes to reinforce the normal diet in case of malnutrition or risk of malnutrition (9%) and the preparations to treat metabolic diseases, such as phenylketonuria (7%), are the most consumed.
Half believe they get results
Half of those surveyed consider that they have obtained the expected results from the use of these products, albeit in a mild or transitory way. Supplements and herbal products are those that, in general, respondents perceive as safer (60%), a percentage that decreases when it comes to products for athletes (53%) and products to reduce weight (45 %), among others. The most frequently perceived adverse effect after consumption is gastrointestinal, followed by tachycardia, although most of this effect is mild or transitory.
The report also highlights that the majority of people consume some type of supplement, mainly nutritional, first because they consider them safe, and second because they believe that this can improve their general health.
Supplements with proven effectiveness
- Folic acid: the most proven nutritional supplement for the prevention of neural tube defects (spina bifida) in pregnancy.
- Caffeine: undoubtedly one of those that has more positive evaluations and is shown to produce an improvement in sports performance.
- Vitamin D improves the treatment of respiratory infections in people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- The use of calcium supplements can also have positive effects for the prevention of hypertension, especially in men and under 35 years of age, and iron can be effective in deficiency states, for example in case of anemia.
- The products of special medical use for weight loss in very-low-calorie diets are also effective, although experts advise always use them under medical supervision.
With doubtful effectiveness
- Probiotics: they are only beneficial in the event of rehydration in the event of acute diarrhea or due to the consumption of antibiotics, but there is little evidence to indicate that they are beneficial against respiratory infections, increased defenses or weight loss.
- Compounds rich in omega-3: in most of them there is not enough quality evidence to draw definitive conclusions, although positive effects have been observed in preventing cardiovascular diseases, treating gastrointestinal diseases and improving cognition, among others.
- Plant extracts: complexes of herbal extracts (in general), as well as glucosamine, ginseng, and garlic extract, are the most studied products, while the evaluations related to echinacea, blueberry extracts, and artichoke they are minor, and there is no clear evidence of effectiveness for any of those supplements.
With adverse effects
- The perception that by taking more vitamins or minerals we will have better health is false. In fact, an excess of these nutrients can be harmful, as could be the case with calcium or iron, and have very serious consequences, as would happen with vitamin A during pregnancy, which can lead to birth defects.
- Plant extracts: there have been cases of acute liver toxicity, and there have even been deaths from overdose of some supplements, such as the recent one from the consumption of lipoic acid for weight loss.
Specialists believe that not all supplements follow good manufacturing practices and may not include the amounts of active ingredient that they claim to have on their labeling, as well as promise unproven health benefits and even contain substances not declared on the label or pollutants that can impact health, such as cases of unintentional doping in athletes.
What to do before taking a supplement
The authors of the study warn that before taking any dietary supplement “it is essential to consult with a competent health professional, to assess the need for the use of that supplement, and if so indicating the appropriate formulation and consumption pattern.”
It also points to the need to make the population aware that, just as it is not advisable to self-medicate, it is not recommended to self-supplement either.
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