Buyer Beware: The Dangers of Confusing Food with Supplements


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Are you looking for the magic pill for weight loss, increased energy or anything else that ails you? You aren’t alone. While the draw of dietary supplements is strong and the claims compelling – don’t be fooled – these products are not the same as food.

For example, a recent study identified green tea extract as a potentially dangerous ingredient. While sipping on green tea can benefit health, the supplemental form commonly found in weight loss and bodybuilding supplements has been linked to many cases of liver damage. Here are 4 other supplements that are much more dangerous than their food-based counterparts.

Why Supplements Can Be So Dangerous

Unlike foods and medications, the dietary supplement industry has very little FDA oversight. For this reason, many products sold on store shelves and online can be manufactured without proper safety testing. These dangers may be the culprit for a dramatic uptick in liver disease over the last decade. Health conscious consumers are rightfully confused.

When a nutrient gets attention for its health benefits, it’s logical to look for more from a supplement, but this can do more harm than good. While there is a time and place for supplements when a true deficiency has been detected, some of the most popular nutrients out there can treat your body very differently when taken in supplement form. The good news is, however, it’s spectacularly hard to eat your way into toxicity if you stick to the whole food sources.

Red Yeast Rice

Touted for its cholesterol lowering properties, this supplement has made the Consumer Reports list of 15 Supplement Ingredients to Always Avoid. Not only can it negatively affect the action of cholesterol-lowering prescription drugs, it may also affect proper function of the muscles, kidneys and liver.

Your body relies heavily on iron for healthy blood. According to the National Institutes of Health, populations at risk for deficiency include infants, children, teen girls and both pregnant and pre-menopausal women. Eating iron rich foods like dried fruits, fortified cereals, dark-meat poultry and red meat can help you meet those daily needs, while supplements can be toxic to the liver.  For this reason, if you choose to take a supplement monitor blood levels regularly and work with your doctor and registered dietitian to establish a proper supplement dosage.

Vitamin A

This essential nutrient is found in red and orange fruits and veggies as well as milk, cheese and meat. The animal-based sources are known as retinol and high doses from supplements can cause skin changes, liver problems and birth defects in pregnant women.

Vitamin B6

Lots of folks reach for B vitamins like B6 to help boost energy and brain function, but the truth is only calories from food will truly give you energy and nutrients the body needs. Large doses of B6 can lead to nerve damage when taken for long periods of time. Since this nutrient may appear in many different supplements, it’s vitally important to take inventory of all the supplements you are taking. Vitamin B6 can be found in a wide variety of foods including chickpeas, chicken, potatoes, cottage cheese, nuts, raisins, tofu, rice and watermelon.

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Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner of Dana White Nutrition, Inc., which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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