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The Truth Behind the Top 10 Dietary Supplements

What you need to know about the most popular dietary and nutritional supplements on the market.

Who Needs Dietary Supplements?

It's important to remember that dietary supplements are designed to supplement your diet, not to replace nutritious foods.

"Supplements can enhance a diet where there are shortfalls, but a handful of vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplements can never take the place of a healthy diet," says David Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

"Foods are so complex, offering not only vitamins and minerals, but fiber, nutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats), phytochemicals, and a whole host of nutritious substances that science has not fully identified that work together with other foods and provide the benefits of a healthy eating pattern."

Still, the ADA recognizes that some people may require supplements because the vitamins and/or minerals they need are hard to get in adequate amounts in the diet. These groups include:

  • Pregnant women
  • Nursing mothers
  • Strict vegetarians
  • People with food allergies or intolerances
  • Senior citizens

Those with diseases such as cancer, or kidney, cardiovascular, or bone disease

Top 10 Dietary Supplements

Whether they really need them or not, sales figures show that plenty of people are purchasing supplements. Here are some of the most popular supplement categories:

Multivitamins

Taking a daily multivitamin with minerals has long been considered nutritional "insurance" to cover dietary shortfalls.

"There is no harm in taking a once-daily multivitamin, as long as you select one based on your age and sex," says Grotto. "Take one daily or just on days when your diet is inadequate. But better than a multivitamin is to fill in the gaps with food that offers so much more than supplements." 

Meal Replacements

Powdered and liquid products like SlimFast and Ensure might not be what most of us think of as dietary supplements. But they're included in the list because they are designed to supplement the diet.

For people who can't eat regular food because of illnesses, these products are good alternatives. Still, "eating a wide variety of nutrient-rich foods is better, if tolerated," says Grotto.

And what about weight management? Using a meal replacement can help control calories and be beneficial, experts say -- as long as it's part of a lifestyle that includes exercise and a calorie-controlled diet.

Sports Nutrition Supplements

This is a broad category that includes both sports performance and weight loss supplements. It includes pills, powders, formulas and drinks formulated not just to hydrate but to enhance physical activity. Among them are creatine, amino acids, protein formulas, and fat burners.

"These products provide a subtle, incremental effect. You can't use a sports supplement for a week and expect to gain pounds of muscle, but if used properly, research shows they can provide a slight, not overwhelming, edge," says Andrew Shoa, PhD, vice president for regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association for the dietary supplement industry.

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