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What dietary supplements can and can't do

  • Story Highlights
  • FDA rules for supplements different from those for conventional meds, foods
  • Expert: Most people can benefit from taking a multivitamin
  • Read ingredient list carefully before taking a supplement
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By Linda Saether
CNN
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- You are what you eat -- and what you don't eat. And so if you are like many of us, not quite hitting the entire food pyramid, you might be trying to outwit your body by giving it nutritional supplements to make up for the sins of food-group omissions.

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The FDA does not require supplement makers to prove ingredient and benefits claims before manufacture.

I fall into that guilty group, trying to make healthy choices but still feeling the need to augment.

Unfortunately I am an erratic supplementer at best.

Each day seems to bring about a Campbell's alphabet soup-type encounter with the many bottles of nutrients I have in my house.

My approach to supplements is much like eating that soup, where each spoonful offered a new combination of A's, C's or E's. Today, vitamins C and E, complemented by some fish oil. Tomorrow, who knows? Maybe some more exotic fare such as echinacea and goldenseal, with just a hint of St. John's wort.

I suspect that whatever side of the supplement fence you fall on --they work versus they don't work -- my method probably won't find favor.

Sigh.

What's the opinion of someone in the know, certified fitness nutrition coach and personal trainer Alyte Piedra? "I don't really encourage supplements for my clients," she said. "Instead I try to get them to get their nutrients from their diet." But given today's busy lifestyles, she added, everyone could probably benefit from taking a multivitamin.

The sticky issue surrounding nutritional supplements is the way they are regulated. These pills, powders and potions fall under a different set of rules when being watched by the Food and Drug Administration. According to the FDA, dietary supplements are regulated under a "different set of regulations from those covering 'conventional' food and drug products."

While it is up to the manufacturer to make sure the product is safe before it hits the shelf, the FDA does watch over that product once it has become marketed. And last year the FDA put out a stricter standard for manufacturers in which the agency ordered all supplement manufacturers to ensure that "dietary supplements are produced in a quality manner, do not contain contaminants or impurities, and are accurately labeled."

Typically the FDA enters the mix and pulls a product only after a supplement has caused harm. But we're not talking just "ouch" and "yuck" side effects, but rather the dial-911, heart-grabbing, chest-heaving side effects.

The kind nobody really wants to experience.

What about the stuff that doesn't bring you to that level of distress, but is probably not really helping you either? Many nutritional supplements carry with them a host of non-healthy ingredients.

To make sure you know just exactly what you are getting along with the claim for more energy, less depression and certain weight loss, Piedra suggests using your eyes.

"Even things that a company claims are 100 percent natural and all whole grain, it doesn't really mean it actually is," she said. "I really strongly recommend for somebody to go and actually look at the back of the package and read the ingredients. The first ingredient should not be sugar, should not be high fructose corn syrup, no artificial colors or dyes. Nothing that you can't pronounce. If you can't pronounce it, it probably isn't very good for you."

There also are pronounceable foods that could cause some harm -- those linked to food allergies.

"I think there are some regulations [about] telling people if there are peanuts in certain products, but that hasn't gotten to the point with shellfish," Piedra said. (Shellfish is a common ingredient in many supplements.)

Given these concerns, the only safe way to use these products according to Piedra is to make sure you are well informed. "I tell my clients to read all the label information and if they need to look up more information, do so."

Keep in mind when buying supplements, the best and safest rule of thumb may be the sad but true adage: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. Drat. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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