Dietary Supplements

Suggested Citation: Garko, M.G. (2011, November). Dietary supplements: What they are why it is a good idea to take them. Healthful Hints. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from


Dietary Supplements: What They Are and Why It Is A Good Idea To Take Them  


Michael Garko, Ph.D.

Host of Let’s Talk Nutrition



If you are a regular listener to Let’s Talk Nutrition (LTN), then you have heard me say each and every broadcast, “Your health is your wealth. And your health is the wealth of those that care about and love you.” It makes good intuitive and logical sense to embrace this principle and invest in one’s health.


Yet, it is surprising the number of people who expend an extraordinary amount of time, effort, money and other personal resources making financial investments with an eye toward retirement, all the while forgetting to invest in one of their most valuable assets, their health. Many of these well-intentioned people become too ill before they can enjoy the fruits of their investments. They too often end-up in their retirement years faced with investment-draining doctor and hospital bills or having to pay the costs for a nursing home or assisted living facility.


Furthermore, not a few people believe that purchasing health insurance is the best investment they can make in their health. It is certainly prudent to have health insurance. In this day and age of sky rocketing medical costs, not having it can be financially catastrophic. However, health insurance does not necessarily promote good health, especially if it is not used for regular medical check-ups to help detect and short-circuit debilitating illnesses or diseases. Health insurance should really be called sickness insurance because more often than not it is used after people become sick. Of course, the challenge is to stay healthy and disease-free so that the sickness insurance does not need to be used or at least not until later in life.


Learning about and taking dietary supplements are among the best investments that can be made to counteract the potential ravages of aging and disease and increase the chances of living with health and vitality through the lifespan.


This November, 2011 issue of Health and Wellbeing Monthly focuses on dietary supplements, what they are and why they are important to take to fill in nutritional gaps created by unhealthy, nutritionally incomplete diets and health threatening farming practices and food manufacturing methods, improve the overall functioning of the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the human body, counteract or at least moderate the effects of the aging process, protect the body against disease, assist the body in healing itself and modulate the harmful effects of such lifestyle factors as tobacco and alcohol use, physical inactivity and stress, all of which helps promote health and wellbeing. This article is an updated/revised, retitled issue of an earlier article I published in Healthful Hints back in 2006. Given the recent provocative, fear-promoting media reports on and flawed, and in some cases biased scientific studies on dietary supplements, which I have discussed on Let’s Talk Nutrition (LTN) (see LTN archives at, I thought it would be helpful to provide health consumers with information on what dietary supplements are and the good reasons to take them, at least from my perspective as a researcher, journalist, consumer advocate and health talk show host.


While it is beyond the scope of this month’s newsletter, the reader is also encouraged to learn about dietary supplements in terms of their mechanism of action (i.e., how they work), physiological and psychological effects and role in creating, repairing and sustaining one’s health. The references cited at the article can serve to help learn about these other important aspects of dietary supplements.


Supplements Are Supplemental


It is important to emphasize that dietary supplements are supplemental. They are not intended to be used as meal replacements or substitutes for a healthy, nutrient rich diet. Dietary supplements are best used and most effective when tailored to fit the dietary, bio-chemical and health related needs of the individual taking them. In short, dietary supplements need to be taken strategically and responsibly. This is why it is important to make the investment in learning about dietary supplements before they are made part of a nutritional regimen. It is also recommended that when taking dietary supplements a person consult with his/her physician or a health care professional who is expert in nutrition and the use of dietary supplements.


Definition and Description of Dietary Supplements


In 1994 Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). The purpose of DSHEA was to “improve the health status of the people of the United States and help constrain runaway health care spending by ensuring that the Federal Government erects no regulatory barriers that impede the ability of consumers to improve their nutrition through the free choice of safe dietary supplements” (DSHEA, 1994, p.5).


Although broad in nature and not intended to be some sort of in-depth resource to learn about health and nutrition, DSHEA does provide consumers with a starting point to understand the conceptual and nutritional parameters of dietary supplements and their important role in maintaining health and preventing disease.


DSHEA (1994) makes it clear that dietary supplements are not drugs or food additives. Rather, it considers them to be food products but in a form different from conventional food. As outlined in Section 3 of DSHEA, a dietary supplement is:


(1)   a product intended to supplement  the diet by increasing the total

dietary intake that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients (emphasis added):


(A) a vitamin;

(B) a mineral;

(C) an herb or other botanical;

(D) an amino acid

(E) another dietary substance for use by man (sic) to supplement

the diet by increasing the total dietary intake; or

(F) a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combination

of any ingredient described in clause (A), (B), (C), (D), (E) or

F (p.8).

In terms of their delivery systems, dietary supplements come in a variety of forms such as tablets, capsules, softgels, gelcaps, liquids, powders or bars. If a dietary supplement is packaged in the form of a bar, the label information cannot represent it as either a conventional food or as a sole item serving as a meal or diet.


Good Reasons To Take Dietary Supplements

There are those who believe that taking dietary supplements is a waste of time and money, that dietary supplements neither serve no real nutritional purpose nor provide any real health benefit. Contrary to this anti-supplement belief, there are at least five good reasons to take dietary supplements.


Established Effectiveness, Benefits and Safety

Based on scientific research in the form of clinical trials, case studies, epidemiological studies, intervention studies, laboratory studies and large sample survey studies conducted world-wide during the 20th and 21st centuries, there is now a considerable body of convincing and credible scientific evidence establishing that dietary supplements are safe and effective and provide real nutritional and health benefits throughout the lifespan to help create, sustain and reclaim a person’s health and wellbeing. In addition, there is a wealth of anecdotal and documented evidence (i.e., traditional use data) compiled over thousands of years across cultures providing compelling support for the modern-day use of dietary supplements and their nutritional and health benefits.

It has been demonstrated that dietary supplements can contribute to improving the functioning of the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the human body, while protecting them against various diseases. Specifically, there is scientific and anecdotal evidence to show that dietary supplements can help improve and protect bones and joints, protect against serious birth defects, protect against heart disease and stroke, improve and protect the immune system, protect against some auto-immune diseases, protect against some cancers, improve and protect the eye, improve and protect brain function, improve and protect mental health, improve and protect the gastrointestinal tract, kidneys, liver and lungs, enhance sexual function and protect sexual organs in women and men and enhance exercise performance, to mention just some of the health benefits of including dietary supplements in one’s day-to-day diet.

Even the U.S. Congress in Section 2 of DSHEA recognized the importance and benefits of taking dietary supplements to promote good health and prevent disease. It also observed how science and clinical research have established the efficacy of dietary supplements.

Congress concluded that:

(1)   improving the health status of United States citizens ranks at the top of the nutritional priorities of the Federal Government;

(2)   the importance of nutrition and the benefits of dietary supplements to health promotion and disease prevention have been documented   increasingly in scientific studies;

(3)   (A) there is a definitive link between the ingestion of certain nutrients or dietary supplements and the prevention of chronic diseases such as   cancer, heart disease, and osteoporosis; and  (B) clinical research has shown that several chronic diseases can be prevented simply with a healthful diet, such as a diet that is low in  fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium, with a high proportion of plant-based foods; (DSHEA, 1994, p.2).

Since it is beyond the scope of this article to provide an all-encompassing review of the literature on the safety, benefits and efficacy of nutritional supplements, the reader is directed to the following sources found in the reference section of this article to learn more about dietary supplements, generally, and how they can help prevent various human diseases and health disorders, specifically: Balch (2006), Cornah (2005), Dickson (2002), Van de Weyer (2005) & Zacahiras et al. (2005).

Also, the reader is encouraged to visit the website for PubMed at to gain a grasp of the depth and breadth of the scientific literature on the use, safety and efficacy of and health benefits derived from dietary supplements. “PubMed comprises more than 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites” (National Center for Biotechnology Information, 2011, p.1). The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), a division of the National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is responsible for creating and maintaining the biomedical databases of PubMed.


Harmful Farming Methods

Industrialized farming in the U.S. and other developed farming countries spawned a set of practices and techniques that increased agricultural output but not without nutritional and health consequences. More specifically, the methods of industrialized farming have altered the composition of food, decreased the diversity of foods, depleted the soil of vital minerals (e.g., calcium, chromium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum & zinc) and contaminated the soil with pesticides and other toxic chemicals (see Anderson & Jensen, 1993; Cornah, 2005; Eck & Wilson, 1989; Hall, 1974; Van de Weyer, 2005). Taking supplements (e.g., calcium, chlorella, kelp, selenium, aged garlic & zinc) can help eliminate and counteract the absorption of toxic chemicals and fill in nutritional gaps caused by industrialized farming.

Harmful Food Manufacturing Methods

Beginning with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and throughout the 20th century, manufacturing methods were invented that changed the way food was produced. Among the more “revolutionizing” manufacturing methods were: 1. Refining techniques (e.g., grinding of wheat into white flour & modifying sugar cane into white sugar), 2. preservation methods (e.g., canning, freezing & using chemical additives in the form of artificial colors, flavorings, stabilizers & preservatives), 3. chemical alteration techniques (e.g., hydrogenation process creating trans-fats) and 6. pressing techniques to extract vegetable oils (see Cornah, 2005;Van de Weyer, 2005; Zacahiras et al., 2005).


The Food Manufacturing Revolution, as I refer to it and which is still in progress, established food production practices that on the one hand allowed for food to be made more cheaply and quickly but on the other hand created new nutrient deficient foods and changed “traditional foods into unrecognizable new versions of themselves – often missing the very elements which made them nourishing” (Van de Weyer, 2005, p. 73.) Van de Weyer (2005) points to two examples of the nutritional deficiencies and dangers of foods produced with the new processing techniques. She writes:


Although it was unknown at the time, this method of grinding wheat into fine white flour was changing its micronutrient and fiber composition. Vitamins normally found in wheat were being discarded in the new process, with white flour containing less than a quarter of the zinc, magnesium, vitamin B6 and vitamin E found in wholegrain flour. Another new factor in food processing was the development of pressing to extract vegetable oils for use in processed foods. As the consumption of these processed foods began to rise, so too did the consumption of omega-6 fats, further tipping the balance against omega-3 fatty acids (Van de Weyer, 2005, p.73).


These two and other manufacturing techniques have resulted in an alarming abundance of packaged-processed foods, which typically contain chemical preservatives, saturated fats, trans-fats, sodium, refined white flour and white sugar. They also are chock full of “empty” calories, the most conspicuous of the usual suspects responsible for weight gain and obesity. That is the bad news. The worse news is that packaged-processed foods dominant the U.S. food culture and in a detrimental way are influencing what Americans eat, why they eat and how they eat.


Unhealthy processed foods are one of the major causes of disease. This is not to say that packaged-processed food is the only factor related to human disease.  Other factors such as tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, a sedentary lifestyle and stress also help create disease. However, nutrient deficient packaged-processed foods are having a significant, negative impact by creating nutritional gaps in the daily diet of Americans and contributing to an undermining of the nation’s health as evidenced by the prevalence of cancer, heart disease, obesity, diabetes and other diseases. All of which underscores the importance of taking dietary supplements to fill the nutritional gaps and counteract the deleterious effects of packaged-processed foods.


Deficient, Unhealthy Diets

According to surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control (1996) and United States Department of Agriculture (1999), the average American diet is inadequate in terms of meeting the recommended minimum of five daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Moreover, as it was pointed out above, industrialized farming techniques and food manufacturing methods have also contributed to deficient, unhealthy diets by creating nutritional gaps in what Americans need to maintain their physical and mental health. Thus, “dietary supplements can play an important role in assisting Americans in bringing their nutritional intake at least up to minimum standards” ( Zacharias et al., 2005, p. 4).


Harmful Lifestyle Factors

In addition to a nutrient deficient diet, tobacco use, excessive alcohol consumption, a lack of physical activity or exercise and high levels of stress are lifestyle factors that contribute to disease and ill-health. Any one or a combination of these factors puts a person at risk of experiencing ill health and accelerating the aging process. While it is not being claimed that they can neutralize their deleterious effects, dietary supplements can help to modulate the impact of lifestyle factors harmful to one’s health. Taking dietary supplements is a far better insurance option than having to use health insurance/sickness insurance.



Two of the best health investments that can be made are to learn about dietary supplements and take them as part of your daily nutrition. Dietary supplements can increase the chances of improving and protecting one’s health. The research makes it clear that dietary supplements make a significant contribution to the promotion of physical and mental health. However, it is not recommended that they be used as a replacement for eating nutrient rich whole foods. Good health begins with nutritious food and a well balanced diet.


There is a substantial body of scientific research and anecdotal evidence to show that dietary supplements are beneficial and safe in that they can improve the overall functioning of the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the human body, while counteracting or at least moderating the effects of the aging process, protecting the body against disease and assisting the body in healing itself. Dietary supplements can assist in filling in the nutritional gaps created by health threatening farming practices and food manufacturing methods. They can also help fortify nutrient deficient diets and modulate the harmful effects of such lifestyle factors as tobacco and alcohol use, physical inactivity and stress.


Your health is your wealth. And your health is the wealth of those that care about and love you. Improve and protect it by learning about and taking nutritional supplements.



Anderson, M & Jensen, B. (1993). Empty harvest: Understanding the link between

our food, our immunity and our planet. New York: Avery Penguin Putnam.

Balach, P.A. (2011). Prescription for nutritional healing (4th ed.). New York. Avery.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (1996). Third national health and  nutrition examination survey (NHANES), 1988-94.

Cornah, D. (2005). Feeding minds: The impact of food on mental health. London: The Mental Health Foundation.

Dickinson, A. (2002). The benefits of nutritional supplements. Council For Responsible Nutrition.

Eck, P. & Wilson, L. (1989). Toxic metals in human health and disease. Arizona: Eck Institute of Applied Nutrition and Bioenergetics, Ltd.

Hall, R. H. (1974). Food for naught: The decline in nutrition. New York: Vintage Books.

National Center for Biotechnology Information (2011). Pubmed. Retrieved October 1, 2011, from

One Hundred Third Congress (1994). Dietary supplement and education act of 1994. Washington: United States Congress.

United States Department of Agriculture – Agriculture Research Service (1999). Pyramid servings data for 1994-96.

Van de Weyer, C. (2005). Changing diets, changing minds: How food affects mental well being and behaviour. London: Sustain.

Zacharias, M.G., Bland, J., Schauss, A.G., Conant, R. & Israelson (2005). Benefits and safety of dietary supplements.


Suggested Citation: Garko, M.G. (2011, November). Dietary supplements: What they are why it is a good idea to take them. Healthful Hints. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from