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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Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?

 

Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?

 

Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods

 

avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.

 

What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.

 

The Bottom Line

 

We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, 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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