Dietary supplements are ingestible products such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, enzymes, plant-based ingredients, and amino acids, that are intended to provide some additional nutritional benefit should an individual’s diet be lacking in one area or another (FDA, 2017).

Dietary supplements are meant to do just that – supplement the diet, not replace a meal or necessary components of a healthy diet. In addition, supplements are not heavily regulated by the FDA; much of the responsibility to produce quality and pure products for retail is up to the individual manufacturers. This is a concern for the general public as it becomes difficult to select quality supplements if and when they might be needed.

When are Supplements Necessary?  

There are many situations in which a quality supplement or group of supplements can aid in improving someone’s health. Situations which may require the use of a supplement include pregnancy, injury, recovery from surgery, special dietary needs, or other identified nutritional deficiency.

As a general guideline, dietary supplements aren’t required for the majority of clients if they are eating a balanced diet and are not taking any medications that may interfere with nutrient absorption.

What are the Major Red Flags?  

As previously mentioned, the dietary supplement industry is not as heavily regulated as the pharmaceutical industry and this poses issues for consumers. Some red flags to be wary of are:

  • Tricky terminology. Many supplements contain the word “natural”, but that should not be interpreted as safe.
  • A lack of efficacy. Many supplements on the market are not effective and are not backed by quality scientific research. Proceed with caution and verify any questions you have with a Registered Dietitian (RD).
  • Possible interactions. There is always a potential for a dangerous interaction. Just because a product can be purchased over the counter doesn’t mean it is safe to use with other medications an individual may be taking.
  • Questionable quality. Without verification, you do not know what is in that product. If a product lacks a third-party seal of approval or hasn’t undergone unbiased testing and review, be cautious as the contents on the label have not been verified by anyone but the manufacturer (who would have a financial interest in stating that the product is high quality).

Maintaining Your Scope of Practice

  • Never make a supplement recommendation to any client.
  • Operate in accordance with the laws that govern nutrition practices in your respective state.
  • Always check your certifying agency’s position stand on supplement use and recommendations.
  • Refer clients to appropriate licensed professionals who are equipped and trained to evaluate dietary practices and make dietary recommendations.
  • Help clients build knowledge of supplements by providing them with quality sources (FDA, Office of Dietary Supplements, org., Federal Trade Commission, etc.).