Dietary supplement use has significantly increased in recent years, bringing with it much controversy over the risks and benefits. The need for safe and research-based decisions in dietary supplement management brings to light the following questions.

The following is a Q and A with Kim Mossburg, MS, RD, LDN, ATC. Kim is a certified athletic trainer with Replay Physical Therapy and a licensed dietitian.

What are the best indicators that a person may need to take supplements?

The decision to use a dietary supplement needs to be established from concrete evidence, such as current diet composition and laboratory tests. Some supplements may be used for acute conditions for short periods of time as long as the research is available to back them up without laboratory tests. It is important to pay close attention to the brand and label as all supplements are not produced according to evidence-based guidelines. This means that one supplement could provide too high of a dose or contain unsafe ingredients or contaminants. Some supplements may also cause harm for those with certain types of diseases or react negatively to other medications a person may be taking.

What is the current status of dietary supplement safety?

It has been estimated that 23,000 emergency room visits each year are related to the improper use of dietary supplements. While some supplements are safe and beneficial, many are not. Safety issues range from improper labeling to pharmaceutical drug contamination. The Food and Drug Administration is not required to approve or safety test any supplement unless there are complaints of hospitalization or death. There have been several literature reports of multiple supplements causing liver failure or disease. The most frequently implicating harmful supplements are those in the categories of weight loss, sexual enhancement, and sports performance. 

How is supplement safety verified?

Third party testing (independent lab testing the supplement for safety) is the best guarantee for safety in regard to purity. Several companies perform third party testing, such as USP, NSF, and Informed Choice. Supplements that have undergone third party testing will have the company’s symbol on the supplement label.

Are there any evidence-based weight loss supplements that work?

According to current research, most of the weight loss supplements either have safety hazards or very little evidence of success. A much safer approach to weight loss is to follow the whole foods diet which supports the microbiome (pathogen balance in the body). This type of diet is high in antioxidants, fermented foods, and fiber and aids in weight maintenance. Research continues to show that the standard American diet promotes inflammation and thus obesity and disease promotion. The Mediterranean and well-planned vegetarian diets incorporate whole foods and are helpful in health promotion and weight management.

Haley Cawthon can be reached at or on Twitter @HaleyCawthon.

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