Assistance in the Vitamin Aisle

By: Kim Dalzell, PhD, RD, LD


Whether in good or ill health, many of us take dietary supplements in an attempt to feel better, have more energy and enhance our health potential. And even if you don’t take dietary supplements, as a caregiver, you may find yourself in the position of making important decisions about nutritional supplements for your loved one—a confusing and often daunting task given the vast amount of nutrition misinformation and cleverly formulated health claims. Friends, family members and other well-meaning individuals may be able to offer you some advice, but how can you be sure it is the right advice for your loved one?

The optimal solution is to seek the assistance of a licensed professional who is trained in the field of nutrition—someone who can thoroughly review your loved one’s medical history, lifestyle habits, current medication usage and other important health aspects in order to formulate a safe, therapeutically effective and individualized vitamin regimen. The American Dietetic Association at 800-877-1600 can help you locate someone in your area.

The unfortunate reality is that most people don’t seek professional advice about dietary supplements, choosing instead to “self-prescribe”. So, for all you do-it-yourselfers, here are some practical supplement-savvy suggestions to help you make sound decisions for your loved one’s health (and possibly your own!):

Don’t assume that supplements are safe just because they are sold over-the-counter. Dietary supplements can have pharmacological, or drug-like, actions that may interfere with prescription drugs or significantly affect how the body functions. Some supplements can cause side effects that a doctor may erroneously attribute to a prescription drug or medical therapy—leading to discontinued or delayed medical treatment for your loved one. For this reason, it is prudent to inform the doctor about which supplements your loved one is taking or intending to take.

Food should come first. The threat of malnutrition looms large in the chronically ill population, so it’s important to remember that supplements should not be used as a replacement to food. If your loved one can’t eat very much, it is more important to fill their stomach with nourishing food rather than herbal teas, liquid concoctions, pills and powders.

Don’t let your emotions drive your dietary supplement decisions. As you strive to help your loved one get better, you may become vulnerable to individuals who are offering the “miracle” health cure. A good rule of thumb regarding any health claims is: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Remember, also, that reliable nutrition advice usually comes from individuals who have nothing to gain by giving it.

Think cost-effective. Dietary supplements are expensive, so if you find your wallet is getting thin, invest in a professional opinion before you make another trip to the health food store. A nutrition consultation typically costs between $50 and $100—the same amount of money that many consumers usually spend per month on dietary supplements.

Quality does matter. Lower cost, “value-priced” dietary supplements may contain fillers, additives and coal tars that can cause stomach upset or allergic reactions. The purity of the product is one of the most important characteristics of a reputable vitamin brand and something you can readily check by contacting the manufacturer and asking for independent testing results. Be aware of companies that supply internal graphs or charts on their products that could be construed as evidence-based research.

Be respectful of your loved one’s decision to take nutritional supplements. Even if you don’t agree, reduce a potential stressful situation by gently encouraging them to seek professional guidance about their supplement choices. On the other hand, listen to and respect your loved one’s wishes not to take dietary supplements, even if you think they should.

The vitamin aisle should be no place for confusion! Use the above strategies to evaluate the safety and efficacy of dietary supplements so that you can feel confident that you are making responsible nutrition supplement decisions on behalf of your loved one.

Kim Dalzell is a nationally recognized expert on holistic nutrition, professional speaker, registered dietitian and award-winning author.

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