Navigating the World of Dietary Supplements With Expert Insights

Key Takeaways:

1. Dietary supplements aim to promote wellness by providing nutrients that may be lacking in your diet.

2. A balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains should be the primary source of essential nutrients for most healthy individuals.

3. Some food and dietary supplements can be helpful in certain circumstances. Consulting with a physician or a nutritionist is highly recommended before starting any supplementation.

4. Many available dietary supplements lack testing for safety and efficacy, often containing undisclosed ingredients or inaccurate amounts, with potential risks including interactions with prescribed medications. 


In today's world, more and more people are turning to dietary supplements to improve their health. These supplements come in various forms like pills, gummies, powders, and liquids, and they promise to make us healthier and boost our immune systems. 

But did you know that not all of these supplements are as safe and effective as they claim to be? 

For example, a recent study conducted by the National Library of Medicine, US revealed that an irrational fixed dose combination of vitamins B1, B6, and B12 banned for sale in the US remains unrestricted in India. Since dietary supplements are considered food products rather than medicines, they're regulated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India and there are no clear rules for testing them. 

Similarly, another 2021 survey in India showed that many supplements make false claims or have dangerously high nutrient levels. For example, many vitamin D supplements were found to contain 5,000 International Units, exceeding the recommended limit by more than eightfold. This lack of regulation means we need to be careful about which supplements we choose to take. 

 Indian dietary supplements market survey analysis report.
Image credit: A dose of danger: Spurious supplements harm consumers (Deccan Herald) | Indian dietary supplements market survey analysis report.

So, let's dive into the world of dietary supplements together, learn when they might be helpful, and understand the risks and benefits they can bring.

 Spoonful of dietary supplements.
Dietary supplements

Dietary Supplements

Let us first understand what are dietary supplements. 

A dietary supplement is a product designed to be taken alongside your regular diet to meet your nutritional gap. Dietary supplements are also called food supplements or nutrition supplements. Supplements intended for mixing into foods or beverages and those providing calories to replace meals or parts of meals might be labelled as food supplements. Occasionally, the term "food supplements" is utilized for supplements containing ingredients sourced naturally rather than synthesized in a lab. 

  • Dietary supplements come in various forms such as tablets, powders, or liquids. 
  • It generally contains a higher concentration of a specific nutrient or a combination of several nutrients found in your day-to-day food sources. 
  • They are commonly available over-the-counter without needing a prescription from a doctor.
  • Dietary supplements may include various substances such as:
A list of various dietary supplements and their examples
Various dietary supplements

Dietary Supplements Benefits

A well-rounded diet usually provides all the essential nutrients your body requires, making additional vitamins or minerals unnecessary. It's important to note that dietary supplements are not intended to replace whole foods, which offer a variety of nutrients along with fibre and other beneficial compounds.

However, in cases of specific deficiencies, temporary supplementation may be beneficial. 

For example, factors like pregnancy, restricted diets, or difficulty absorbing nutrients may warrant supplementation.

Dietary supplements can play a vital role in enhancing overall health and reducing the risk of certain health conditions. For example,

  • Calcium and vitamin D support bone strength and minimize bone loss.
  • Folic acid lowers the risk of a birth defect, known as a neural tube defect.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oils may benefit individuals with heart disease.
  • A blend of vitamins C and E, zinc, copper, lutein, and zeaxanthin can potentially delay vision loss in those with age-related macular degeneration.

Doctors usually recommend dietary supplements when their patients:

  • Have a high risk of developing a health condition that can be mitigated with additional nutrients.
  • Require extra nutrients due to pregnancy or nursing.
  • Experience difficulty absorbing nutrients due to conditions like kidney failure.
  • Follow a specialized or restricted diet that lacks specific nutrients.
  • Suffer from malnutrition and don't obtain enough nutrients from their diet.
  • Receive lab results indicating a deficiency in a particular nutrient.
  • Are an older adult experiencing challenges in absorbing nutrients from foods.

Side Effects of Dietary Supplements

High doses of supplements or taking multiple supplements together can be ineffective or increase the risk of side effects. 

  • Certain supplements can interfere with medications, such as:
    • Vitamin K may reduce the effectiveness of the blood thinner warfarin.
    • St. John’s wort can decrease the effectiveness of antidepressants, birth control pills, and other medications.
    • Antioxidant supplements like vitamins C and E might interfere with certain cancer chemotherapy treatments.
  • Excessive intake of certain vitamins and minerals can be harmful, such as:
    • Vitamin A and iron can cause headaches, liver damage, nausea, and vomiting.
    • High doses of vitamin B6 can harm the nervous system.
    • High doses of vitamin E dietary supplements may increase the risk of bleeding.
    • Vitamin A, C, or E supplements during pregnancy can pose serious risks to the baby's health.
  • Some individuals may experience severe allergic reactions to herbal supplements.
  • Taking high-dose multivitamins does not show any significant benefit in reducing the risk of several chronic health conditions. For example,
    • An analysis of 450,000 participants found that multivitamins did not reduce the risk of heart disease or cancer.
    • A 12-year study revealed that multivitamin use did not decrease the risk of memory loss or slowed thinking.
    • Research on 1,708 heart attack survivors showed that high-dose multivitamin intake did not impact rates of subsequent heart attacks, surgeries, or mortality when compared to a placebo group.

Risks Associated With Using Dietary Supplements

Risks associated with supplementation include:

  • Over-reliance on dietary supplements over a balanced diet.
  • Variability in product quality due to lack of regulation can lead to health risks from impurities or contaminants.
  • Substituted ingredients in supplements can also pose health risks, ranging from mild to severe consequences.
Risks and benefits of dietary supplements.
Risks and benefits of dietary supplements

Functional Medicine's Take on Dietary Supplements

Functional medicine focuses on finding and fixing the root cause of illnesses rather than just treating symptoms. Here's how it relates to dietary supplements:

  • Instead of just masking symptoms, functional medicine aims to understand the root cause of the symptoms and tackle the underlying reasons behind health problems. Supplements can be part of this approach, along with changes to your diet, lifestyle, and other therapies.
  • Functional medicine sees dietary supplements as part of a personalized health plan. This means not everyone needs the same supplements. Your specific health issues, genes, and lifestyle help determine which ones are right for you.
  • Functional medicine emphasizes using high-quality supplements. This ensures you get the most benefit and reduces the risk of harmful additives often found in lower-quality products.

Doctors play a crucial role in identifying the right supplements for their patients by conducting comprehensive assessments tailored to individual health needs and guiding them towards evidence-based supplement choices aligned with their holistic health goals.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Why use supplements?

Supplements can help address specific health needs or deficiencies that may not be met through diet alone. However, you should always consult a doctor before starting any supplement to avoid the risk of overdosing and potential interactions with other medications.

2. Who needs supplements?

Individuals who may benefit from supplements include those at high risk of developing certain health conditions that can be improved with additional nutrients, pregnant or nursing women, those with difficulty absorbing nutrients due to conditions like kidney failure or old age, individuals following specialized or restricted diets, those experiencing malnutrition and those with lab-confirmed nutrient deficiencies.

3. What are the alternatives for dietary supplements?

The best alternative to dietary supplements is consuming a balanced diet rich in nutrient-dense foods such as fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains. Examples of nutrient-rich foods and their alternatives include:

  • Obtain iron from sources such as red meat, nuts, and legumes.
  • Consume folate-rich foods like green leafy vegetables, cereals, fruits, and nuts.
  • Incorporate iodine-rich foods into your diet such as seafood, milk, and various vegetables.

4. What do dietary supplements do to your body?

Dietary supplements provide additional nutrients that your body may need, supporting various bodily functions and promoting overall health. Depending on the supplement, they can help fill nutrient gaps, support specific bodily systems, enhance performance, or address deficiencies. However, it's essential to use them as directed and consult with a doctor to ensure they are safe and appropriate for your individual needs.

5. Do dietary supplements help you lose weight? 

The most reliable ways to lose weight involve eating nutritious foods, reducing calorie intake, and staying physically active. While many OTC weight-loss supplements are readily available in the market, scientific evidence supporting their effectiveness is limited. Additionally, many supplements may interact with medications and can pose health risks. Before considering a weight-loss supplement, consult a doctor or nutritionist, especially if you have high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, or liver disease. They can provide guidance tailored to your individual health needs and ensure your safety.

Also read: How to lose side belly fat easily the right way 

6. How long does it take for dietary supplements to work?

Some supplements may provide noticeable effects within a few days or weeks, while others may require more prolonged use before benefits are observed. It's essential to follow the recommended dosage and usage instructions provided by your doctor. If you have concerns about the timeline for seeing results, consult a doctor or nutritionist for personalized guidance.


As we conclude our exploration of dietary supplements, it's important to remember that while these products can offer potential benefits, they are not a substitute for a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. Prioritizing whole foods, regular physical activity, and mindful living form the cornerstone of optimal health.

To support your wellness journey, download our Aware app health tracker. With its comprehensive features, this app empowers you to stay fit, achieve weight loss goals, and prevent lifestyle conditions such as obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and high cholesterol. Monitor heart attack risk and optimize cardiovascular health. Embrace the opportunity to take control of your health and unlock your full potential for well-being.

Also read: Are Supplements for Heart Health Beneficial? Exploring the Facts Behind the Hype

About the Author

Dr. Satish Madiraju, a renowned cardiologist is passionate about consumer heart health and is on a mission to prevent a million heart attacks. He shares his expertise not only on heart health but also on leadership, digital health, and improving patient experience.
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