Are Food Supplements Safe?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Health Current Events, Supplements and Health

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

are food supplements safeIf you saw the recent headlines proclaiming that dietary supplements were responsible for 23,000 emergency room visits and 2,100 hospitalizations every year, you are probably wondering are food supplements safe to use at all. The study behind these headlines (Geller et al, New England Journal of Medicine, 373: 1531-1540, 2015) was based on an extrapolation from 63 hospitals to every hospital in the United States.

Some experts consider this to be an overestimation since it is almost 8 times higher than the 3,200 cases/year in the official FDA’s Serious Adverse Event Reporting database. However, for the purposes of this article I will accept the 23,000 numbers.

Let me start by putting the 23,000 number into perspective.

  • It represents about 0.015% of the 150 million people in the US who use supplements.
  • It represents about 1% of the emergency room admissions caused by side effects of properly prescribed medications.

In short, the headlines are over-dramatizing the dangers of dietary supplements. Dietary supplements are actually quite safe. However, even one emergency room visit due to a dietary supplement is too many – especially if it were to happen to you or a loved one. Consequently, I will analyze the study in more detail so that I can show you how to recognize and avoid those few supplements that are truly dangerous.

Are Supplements Dangerous?

Here is a breakdown of the data:

  • 13% of the ER visits were due to allergic reactions. These were seldom serious enough to require hospitalization. This is also a type of problem that is probably unavoidable. Since many food supplements use natural ingredients, some degree of food allergies are to be expected.
  • 13% of the ER visits were due to swallowing problems, primarily in people over the age of 65. The preventative measure here is also pretty simple. If you or a loved one has difficulty swallowing, choose pills that are small and slick, chewable, powder or liquid supplements.
  • 20% of the ER visits were due to adverse effects caused by unsupervised ingestion of the supplements by children. The preventative measure here is pretty simple. Keep your supplements out of reach of small children – especially if they are chewable or have attractive colors. While the supplements may be perfectly safe when taken as recommended, the unsupervised ingestion of a whole bottle of almost any supplement by a small child is problematic.
  • 41% of the ER visits were due to weight loss products (25.5%), energy products (10%), sexual enhancement products (3.4%) and bodybuilding products (2.2%). The most common adverse effect for these products were heart palpitations, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat. These are the kinds of supplements you really need to be most careful about.

Why Are Dangerous Supplements Even On The Market?

are supplements dangerousLet’s start with the obvious question: Why are weight loss, energy, sexual enhancement and bodybuilding products the ones most likely to be dangerous? To quote Pogo (now I’m really dating myself): “We have met the enemy, and he is us”

  • Weight Loss Products: We can listen all day long to experts tell us that we need to make lifestyle changes, and we should aim for no more than one or two pounds of weight loss per week. However, for most of us that advice goes in one ear and out the other. We want to lose weight fast, and we want it to be easy.
  • Energy Products: Many of us are just plain exhausted because our diets are terrible; we are under stress; and we are burning the candle at both ends. We don’t want to eat better and change our lifestyle. We want high octane energy, and we want it now.
  • Body Building Products: The story is similar, especially for males in the 20-34 age range. We want big muscles, and we don’t want to wait for the years of workouts it will take to build that kind of physique naturally. We want it now.
  • Sexual Enhancement Products: ER admissions for sexual enhancement products were 100% male. What does that say about us guys? I won’t even go there.

Most supplement manufacturers are ethical and don’t make supplements that could harm us. However, there are a few unscrupulous sports supplements companies that misleadmanufacturers who are only too happy to exploit our human weaknesses if they can make a buck in the process. They will give us exactly what we want, even if it kills us in the process.

I’ve warned about these unscrupulous manufacturers in the past. The easiest way to create products that will burn off weight effortlessly, build muscle rapidly, and give you energy are to add chemically synthesized stimulants in the amphetamine family. For example, I’ve warned you about products containing stimulants such as DMAA and  DEPEA  in Are Dietary Supplements Safe and BMPEA in Are Sports Supplements Safe. They all work, but they also cause heart palpitations, chest pain, and irregular heartbeat. They can land you in the emergency room, and sometimes they can kill you.

In addition to stimulants, some weight loss products use diuretics, and some energy products use dangerous levels of caffeine, both of which can cause problems. Sexual enhancement products often use herbal ingredients like yohimbe bark that can be quite dangerous

Don’t Count On The FDA To Protect You

Unfortunately, you can’t count on the FDA to protect you. For example, in the case of the DMAA scandal, the FDA did not act until the day before a big expose was to air on 60 Minutes about the deaths caused by DMAA. They were shamed into taking strong action and removing DMAA from the shelves of retailers.

Case closed, you might think, but the truth is a bit scarier. That action was back in 2013. Since then, the FDA has ignored DMAA-containing products. The Human Performance Resource Center, an initiative of the Department of Defense, recently listed 39 products containing DMAA  that are readily available, either online or from retail stores. Even though the FDA has classified DMAA as an illegal ingredient, it is still readily available, and they don’t act.

This is just one of many examples I could cite. It’s not clear whether the FDA is unwilling to protect us, or if it is overwhelmed. However, it is clear that if we want to avoid dangerous supplements, it is up to us.

How Can You Protect Yourself From Dangerous Supplements?

protect yourself against dangerous supplementsIf the FDA isn’t going to protect you, what can you do to protect yourself from dangerous supplements? There are threesimple things that you can do to protect yourself;

#1: Use common sense.

  • Don’t even consider those weight loss supplements that promise you’ll lose 5-10 pounds/week, or that they will make the fat melt away effortlessly.
  • Walk away from those bodybuilding supplements that promise to make your muscles “explode” or give you “insane energy”.
  • Put those energy supplements that promise a jolt of energy back on the shelf.
  • As for sexual enhancement products, consult your doctor before you reach for a magic pill. Your problems in the bedroom may be caused by a treatable medical condition.

#2: Make the Commitment. A holistic lifestyle change that includes weight control, exercise, diet and supplementation may be more work, but it is so much safer and more beneficial in the long run.

#3: Choose wisely. Look for a supplement company with integrity.

  • A company that is committed to only making products that are both safe and effective.
  • A company that does clinical studies to make sure their products are safe and effective and publishes those studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

Are food supplements safe?

The Bottom Line

  • A recent study reported that 23,000 emergency visits and 2,100 hospital admissions each year were caused by dietary supplements. Some experts consider this to be an overestimate. It is an extrapolation from 63 hospitals to every hospital in the United States, and it is approximately 8-fold higher than the FDAs Adverse Events database.
  • While the headlines sound scary, when you put the data into perspective it is clear that dietary supplements are actually quite safe. Even if we accept the 23,000 ER visits/year as accurate, this represents:
  • 015% of the supplement users in the US.
  • Approximately 1% of the annual ER admissions due to side effects of properly prescribed medications.
  • The main value of this study is that it allows us to identify what the dangers are and what strategies can help us avoid those dangers.
  • 13% of the ER visits were due to allergic reactions. This is probably unavoidable. Since many food supplements use natural ingredients, some degree of food allergies are to be expected.
  • 13% of the ER visits were due to swallowing problems, primarily in people over the age of 65. If you or a loved one has difficulty swallowing, the solution is pretty simple. Choose pills that are small and slick, chewable, powder or liquid supplements.
  • 20% of the ER visits were due to adverse effects caused by unsupervised ingestion of the supplements by children. The preventative measure here is also pretty simple. Keep your supplements out of reach of small children.
  • 41% of the ER visits were due to weight loss products (25.5%), energy products (10%), sexual enhancement products (3.4%) and bodybuilding products (2.2%). These are the kinds of supplements you really need to be most careful about. Some supplements in this category are truly dangerous.
  • If we ask why these dangerous supplements exist, the answers are pretty simple.
  • Many Americans are looking for quick and easy solutions. They want a magic pill or powder.
  • A few unscrupulous supplement companies are only too happy to give them exactly what they want, even if it kills them in the process.
  • Unfortunately, the FDA is not doing a good enough job of protecting us from the truly dangerous supplements on the market, so we need to protect ourselves.
  • To protect ourselves from the dangerous supplements on the market we need to take 3 simple steps:
  • Use common sense. Don’t fall for the advertising hype promising quick and easy solutions.
  • Commit to true lifestyle change. Adopt a holistic lifestyle that includes weight control, diet, exercise, and supplementation.
  • Choose your supplement manufacturer wisely. Choose one with integrity – one that is committed to making supplements that are both safe and effective.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Can Plant-based Diets Be Unhealthy?

Posted September 10, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

plant-based diets vegetablesPlant-based diets have become the “Golden Boys” of the diet world. They are the diets most often recommended by knowledgeable health and nutrition professionals. I’m not talking about all the “Dr. Strangeloves” who pitch weird diets in books and the internet. I am talking legitimate experts who have spent their life studying the impact of nutrition on our health.

Certainly, there is an overwhelming body of evidence supporting the claim that plant-based diets are healthy. Going on a plant-based diet can help you lower blood pressure, inflammation, cholesterol and triglycerides. People who consume a plant-based diet for a lifetime weigh less and have decreased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.

But, can a plant-based diet be unhealthy? Some people consider a plant-based diet to simply be the absence of meat and other animal foods. Is just replacing animal foods with plant-based foods enough to make a diet healthy?

Maybe not. After all, sugar and white flour are plant-based food ingredients. Fake meats of all kinds abound in our grocery stores. Some are very wholesome, but others are little more than vegetarian junk food. If you replace animal foods with plant-based sweets, desserts, and junk food, is your diet really healthier?

While the answer to that question seems obvious, very few studies have asked that question. Most studies on the benefits of plant-based diets have compared population groups that eat a strictly plant-based diet (Seventh-Day Adventists, vegans, or vegetarians) with the general public. They have not looked at variations in plant food consumption within the general public. Nor have they compared people who consume healthy and unhealthy plant foods.

This study (H Kim et al, Journal of the American Heart Association, 8:e012865, 2019) was designed to fill that void.

 

How Was The Study Done?

plant-based diets studyThis study used data collected from 12,168 middle aged adults in the ARIC (Atherosclerosis Risk in Communities) study between 1987 and 2016.

The participant’s usual intake of foods and beverages was assessed by trained interviewers using a food frequency questionnaire at the time of entry into the study and again 6 years later.

Participants were asked to indicate the frequency with which they consumed 66 foods and beverages of a defined serving size in the previous year. Visual guides were provided to help participants estimate portion sizes.

The participant’s adherence to a plant-based diet was assessed using four different well-established plant-based diet scores. For the sake of simplicity, I will include 3 of them in this review.

  • The PDI (Plant-Based Diet Index) categorizes foods as either plant foods or animal foods. A high PDI score means that the participant’s diet contains more plant foods than animal foods. A low PDI score means the participant’s diet contains more animal foods than plant foods.
  • The hPDI (healthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “healthy” plant foods. A high hPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) and low in animal foods.
  • The uPDI (unhealthy plant-based diet index) is based on the PDI but emphasizes “unhealthy” plant foods. A high uPDI score means that the participant’s diet is high in unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) and low in animal foods.

For statistical analysis the scores from the various plant-based diet indices were divided into 5 equal groups. In each case, the group with the highest score consumed the most plant foods and least animal foods. The group with the lowest score consumed the least plant foods and the most animal foods.

The health outcomes measured in this study were heart disease events, heart disease deaths, and all-cause deaths. Again, for the sake of simplicity, I will only include 2 of these outcomes (heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths) in this review. The data on deaths were obtained from state death records and the National Death Index. (Yes, your personal information is available on the web even after you die.)

 

Do Plant-Based Diets Reduce Heart Disease Deaths?

plant-based diets reduce heart deathsThe participants in this study were followed for an average of 25 years.

The investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years and compared people with the highest intake of plant foods to people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods. The results were:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods (whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea) had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods (refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts) had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

What Else Did The Study Show?

The investigators made a couple of other interesting observations:

  • The association of the overall diet with heart disease and all-cause deaths was stronger than the association of individual food components. This underscores the importance of looking at the effect of the whole diet on health outcomes rather than the “magic” foods you hear about on Dr. Strangelove’s Health Blog.
  • Diets with the highest amount of healthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of carbohydrates, plant protein, fiber, and micronutrients, including potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, folate, and lower intake of saturated fat and cholesterol.
  • Diets with the highest amount of unhealthy plant foods were associated with higher intake of calories and carbohydrates and lower intake of fiber and micronutrients.

The last two observations may help explain some of the health benefits of plant-based diets.

 

Can Plant-Based Diets Be Unhealthy?

plant-based diets unhealthy cookiesNow, let’s return to the question I asked at the beginning of this article: “Can plant-based diets be unhealthy?” Although some previous studies have suggested that unhealthy plant-based diets might increase the risk of heart disease, this study did not show that.

What this study did show was that an unhealthy plant-based diet was no better for you than a diet containing lots of red meat and other animal foods.

If this were the only conclusion from this study, it might be considered a neutral result. However, this result clearly contrasts with the data from this study and many others showing that both plant-based diets in general and healthy plant-based diets reduce the risk of heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths compared to animal-based diets.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

There is one other subtle message from this study. This study did not compare vegans with the general public. Everyone in the study was the general public. Nobody in the study was consuming a 100% plant-based diet.

For example:

  • The group with the highest intake of plant foods consumed 9 servings per day of plant foods and 3.6 servings per day of animal foods.
  • The group with the lowest intake of plant foods consumed 5.4 servings per day of plant foods and 5.6 servings per day of animal foods.

In other words, you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet.

 

The Bottom Line

A recent study analyzed the effect of consuming plant foods on heart disease deaths and all-cause deaths over a 25-year period.

When the investigators looked at heart disease deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had a 19-32% lower risk of dying from heart disease than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

When the investigators looked at all-cause deaths over the 25 years:

  • People with the highest intake of plant foods and the highest intake of healthy plant foods had an 11-25% lower risk of dying from any cause than people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.
  • People with the highest intake of unhealthy plant foods had the same risk of dying from heart disease as people with the highest intake of red meat and other animal foods.

The main message from this study is clear.

  • Replacing red meat and other animal foods with plant foods can be a healthier choice, but only if they are whole, minimally processed plant foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, coffee and tea.
  • If the plant foods are refined grains, fruit juices, French fries and chips, sugar sweetened and artificially sweetened beverages, sweets and desserts, all bets are off. You may be just as unhealthy as if you kept eating a diet high in red meat and other animal foods.

A more subtle message from the study is that you don’t need to be a vegan purist to experience health benefits from adding more whole, minimally processed plant foods to your diet. The people in this study were not following some special diet. The only difference was that some of the people in this study ate more plant foods and others more animal foods.

For more details on the study, read the article above.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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