Not all supplements have negative side effects, and some can be helpful if taken correctly. However, no strict regulations protect consumers from potentially harmful supplements. So that leaves it up to you, the consumer, to beware. The first step in deciding whether to take a supplement, or in deciding whether a claim made by a certain product has any value, is to do your homework. Here are some things to look into before taking anything.

Think about your total diet. The concept of “too much of a good thing” certainly applies when it comes to supplements. Before you decide to take a vitamin, mineral, or other supplement, consider everything in your diet. This is important, because it all adds up. For example, if you eat foods that are fortified, such as cereal, you are getting added vitamins and minerals. Then, in addition to that fortified cereal, suppose you have a smoothie made with a supplement that contains added vitamins. You might take a daily multivitamin and then, of course, you eat food with nutrients in it. As you can see, you can easily consume an excessive amount of vitamins and minerals without even realizing it.

Check with your health care practitioner. Many supplements that are safe under normal conditions may not be advisable for children; teenagers; or those who are ill, pregnant, having surgery, or taking certain medications. Therefore, always check with your physician before taking a new supplement. Furthermore, be sure to tell your doctor what you are taking before any medications are prescribed, as some supplements interfere with the action of some medications.

Ask yourself, does it sound too good to be true? If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Therefore, be cautious of any claims that promise quick and easy solutions in a pill. Always question the source of the information regarding a product.

Learn to recognize a fraudulent claim. The FDA and FTC provide the following guidelines to help consumers recognize fraudulent claims by supplements manufacturers and retailers.

To supplement or not to supplement1. Statements that the product is a quick and effective “cure-all” or diagnostic tool for a wide variety of ailments—for example, “Extremely beneficial in the treatment of rheumatism, arthritis, infections, prostate problems, ulcers, cancer, heart trouble, hardening of the arteries, and more.” What exactly does “extremely beneficial” mean anyway? If it meant that symptoms were alleviated or a disease was cured, wouldn’t they say that instead of using such a vague statement? Furthermore, drugs that are effective are rarely effective for such a wide variety of conditions; they are usually very specific. So the fact that a supplement says it is effective for so many different conditions should be a warning sign.

2. Statements that suggest the product can treat or cure diseases—for example, “Shrinks tumors” or “Cures impotence.”

3. Promotions that use words such as “scientific breakthrough,” “miraculous cure,” “exclusive product,” “secret ingredient,” or “ancient remedy”—for example, “A revolutionary innovation formulated by using proven principles of natural health based medical science.”

4. Advertising that uses impressive-sounding terms, such as these for a weight-loss product: “hunger stimulation point” and “thermogenesis.”

5. Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results—for example, “My husband has Alzheimer’s disease. He began taking a teaspoonful of this product each day. And now, in just twenty-two days, he is mowing the grass, cleaning out the garage, weeding the flower beds, and taking his morning walk again.”

6. Limited availability and advance-payment requirements—for example, “Hurry. This offer will not last. Send us a check now to reserve your supply.”

7. Promises of no-risk “money-back guarantees”—for example, “If after thirty days you have not lost at least 4 lb. each week, your uncashed check will be returned to you.”

Be skeptical. Research any health claims about the benefits of a product; don’t take the word of a friend, co-worker, or personal trainer at the gym. Ask yourself, what is his training? Is she just telling me this because she thinks it worked for her? Then do some research of your own. Search for scientific studies done on the product and reported in the medical literature on pubmed.gov or by consulting your doctor.

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