All you need to know about dietary supplements

A dietary supplement might sound like a magic pill with unbelievable benefits, in reality a supplement might be something we really need, or sadly, just a waste one money.

What is a dietary supplement?

A dietary supplement is a substance we can use to add nutrients, lower the risk of health problems or  try to  improve an existing condition. We take these products by mouth, they come in pills, capsules, tablets, powders, gel tabs, extracts or liquids.  These might contain vitamins, minerals, herbs, plant extracts, amino acids or enzymes.

 These products are available for sale over the counter, we can get them at the local pharmacy or online without the need of a doctor’s prescription. It’s always advised to check with a medical professional before taking any supplement. In some cases, side effects might occur interaction with other over-the-counter medicines or supplements can also cause a side effect. 

Nutrients and supplements


A vitamin is an organic compound required by an organism as a vital nutrient in limited amounts. These compounds can’t be synthesized by our bodies we must get them from out diet. We require thirteen vitamins in our diets. Vitamins A, C, D, E, K, Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Vitamin B6, Biotin (B7), Folate (B9) and Vitamin B12.

Vitamin supplements are marketed and to those  with   symptoms of a vitamin deficiency. Consulting our symptoms with a health professional is always necessary.


Minerals are  exogenous chemical elements needed for life. 

As humans  we need 14 essential minerals:

  • chlorine
  • sodium
  • calcium
  • phosphorus
  • magnesium
  • iron
  • zinc
  • manganese
  • copper
  • iodine
  • chromium
  • molybdenum
  • selenium
  • cobalt (as a component of vitamin B12).

Essential  minerals are marketed as dietary supplements with individual presentations or  in combination with vitamins and other minerals.

Proteins and amino acids

Proteins are chains of amino acids. We need  9 of these amino acids in our diets, they are considered essential for humans because they cannot be produced from other compounds by our bodies.

Protein supplements are marketed to help:

  • people recovering from illness or injury,
  • athletes who believe that strenuous physical activity increases protein requirements
  • to people hoping to lose weight while minimizing muscle loss
  • to people who want to increase muscle size for performance and appearance.

Bodybuilding supplements

These are dietary supplements used to help  us gain and increase lean body mass.

The most widely used are:

  • high protein drinks
  • branched-chain amino acids (BCAA)
  • glutamine
  • arginine
  • essential fatty acids
  • creatine
  • HMB
  • whey protein
  • ZMA
  • weight loss products

Essential fatty acids

Only 2 fatty acids are considered essential to be obtained from  our diets. These essential fatty acids are:

Alpha-Linolenic Acid (ALA) -an omega-3 fatty acid. Omega-3s are important components of the membranes that surround each cell in our bodies.

Linoleic Acid (LA)- an omega-6 fatty acid. The Omega-6 fatty acid may be helpful  to maintaining skin health

Natural products

Natural dietary supplements come from intact sources or extracts from plants, animals, algae, fungi or lichens. A lot of these products have a long history of use in traditional medicine and herbalism. However, there have been concerns about their effectiveness and quality. These are sold without  a prescription and the range of possible benefits is wide and varied.


Probiotics are live bacteria that are good for us, especially for the digestive system.   The  probiotic dietary supplements might help to influence the large intestine microbiota and provide  health benefits such as:

lowering risk and severity of constipation

improving immune health and possibly lower the risk of  upper respiratory tract infections like the common cold.

Such claims are not all supported by sufficient clinical evidence

What kind of nutrients I’m supposed to be getting?

In the United States, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee is in charge of releasing a report that is used for guidance and advice by the federal government. It provides data and recommendations for a healthy diet. The report, Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, provides  the amounts of nutrients needed for different age groups and genders.

Supplements often show a Daily Value (DV), which represents how much of a nutrient a  supplement provides in regards to a total daily diet.  The DV contained in some supplements might be higher than the RDA for certain people. It is important to know what and how much of each nutrient we need before we get any supplements. 

Do I need a dietary supplement ?

Having a healthy and balanced diet is always the best way to get the nutrients that we require, yet, some of us don’t get the levels of nutrients that we need and in such cases a supplement might provide what’s missing from our diets.

We might feel like we need a dietary supplement, maybe we do, but  it’s always advised to consult with a doctor or a dietitian  before we make any purchases. We need to check if our expectations are in line with their professional opinions.  Sometimes the supplement we’re thinking of might be of little or no help , even worse, it may even be harmful

Is there something missing from my diet?

According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020, about ¾  of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy and oils. More than half of the population meets or exceeds the total grain and protein recommendation. The majority of the population exceeds the recommended amount of added sugars, saturated fats and sodium.

Are dietary supplements  safe?

Just because we see a dietary supplement in a store does not mean it is safe. Neither that it does what the label says it will, or that it contains what the label says it contains.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have authority over dietary supplements in the same way it does  with prescription medicines. It doesn’t  test what’s in dietary supplements, and companies are not required to share information to the FDA before they sell their supplements. The companies themselves are responsible for making sure the supplement is safe, but the FDA does not test the safety of the product before it’s sold.

If the FDA receives reports of possible problems , it will issue warnings about products and may also take these supplements off the market. The Federal Trade Commission looks into reports of ads that might misrepresent what dietary supplements do.

There are  private groups, such U.S. Pharmacopeia, NSF International,, and the Natural Products Association,  that have their own  seals of approval for dietary supplements. To get such approval,  the products must be made by following good manufacturing procedures, must contain what is listed on the label, and must not have harmful levels of ingredients that don’t belong there.

What’s on the Dietary Supplement Label?

Dietary supplements come with a Supplement Facts label that lists the active ingredients, the amount per serving (dose), as well as other ingredients, such as fillers, binders, and flavorings. 

Most of the time, the manufacturer  might suggest a serving size, but as we saw before, each individual has different nutritional requirements. It’s recommended  to always consult with a health professional to  see what amount  is appropriate for you.