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Dietary supplements aren't the cure for poor eating habits (8/4/98)

If you have bad eating habits, want to live longer or want to improve your memory, you might be one of the millions who take dietary supplements. In fact, consumers have been gobbling up dietary supplements to cure their myriad health woes at such a rapid rate that it has become a multi-billion dollar industry but beware, supplements are not the magic solution.

"Dietary supplements are not fully regulated by the federal government," says dietitian Connie Mobley, PhD, associate professor of community dentistry at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. "When consumers buy supplements, they have no guarantee of the amount of active ingredients are in each capsule and no documented studies to spell out the side effects, nor do they even know if the supplements work."

Dietary supplement pills may be highly concentrated, she points out. The body may not be able to properly use all of the supplement taken. "Foods are our best source of nutrients because nature has packaged them for the best possible digestive and metabolic benefit," she says.

Within the past decade, dietary supplements have become more mainstream and easier to buy. They can be found at almost all grocery and drugstores, making the over- the-counter supplements alluring to the multitude looking to improve their health.

"Think about it, if you could just pop a pill into your mouth every day instead of making sure you eat a balanced diet full of fresh vegetables and fruits, wouldn’t you?" says Dr. Mobley. "Of course you would. We have become a society that wants the maximum result with the least effort, and dietary supplements offer that premise."

Dr. Mobley rates the more popular dietary supplements.

  • Ginseng, derived from the ginseng root, purports to reduce stress, help the immune system and energize the body. Some studies say ginseng does work and others say it doesn't, so the jury is still out, which is the case for most dietary supplements. "I don't recommend ginseng, especially for those who have high blood pressure, because it is a stimulant and can raise it," says Dr. Mobley.

  • DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) is a hormone made by the adrenal glands and is a precursor to the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone as well as the steroid hormones. Claims include energy and immunity boosts, heart disease prevention and body fat reduction but none of these have been proven. "This is one of the supplements that could do more harm than good if taken excessively," says Dr. Mobley.

  • Folic acid is a supplement found in vegetables such as broccoli. As a supplement it actually has some benefit, especially for pregnant women. Studies have found that folic acid reduces the risk of spina bifida (a neural tube birth defect) and the U. S. Food and Drug Administration will require manufacturers to add the supplement to rice, pasta and grains this year.

  • "Gingko Biloba, an extract from the ginkgo tree leaf, claims to improve memory but I don't fully believe all their claims," says Dr. Mobley. "Some studies have hinted that it might improve memory capability because it does appear to enhance circulation to the brain but effects on long term memory are questionable at this time. Also, digestive problems and allergic skin reactions have been reported as side effects experienced by some gingko supplement users have."
  • With all the claims made by dietary supplement makers, it may be tempting to try a few but save your money, says Dr. Mobley, "Because nothing replaces a well-balanced diet, routine exercise, adequate sleep and a positive attitude."

    Contact: Myong Covert (210) 567-2570