Health-conscious people want to do all they can to stay healthy. Some turn to supplements as a way to enhance their diet and lifestyle habits. Other folks see weight loss supplements as a shortcut to getting fit or losing weight without putting forth a lot of effort. When shopping for supplements, it’s easy to focus on the potential upsides and disregard potential risks. Yet, recent studies and reports show that supplements can be risky to your health, even if you take them properly.
How do we know this? A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2016 found that supplement side effects and reactions account for around 23,000 visits to emergency rooms each year. Some groups of people are at higher risk of side effects, including people who take multiple medications and supplements and pregnant women, but the potential is there for anyone to experience side effects.
Supplements run the gamut from multi-vitamin and mineral supplements to ones that are formulated with a variety of ingredients designed to accomplish a particular goal, for example, supplements for brain health or liver health usually contain multiple ingredients, some of which are proprietary formulations, meaning they can contain ingredients where the amounts aren’t listed on the label. The manufacturer doesn’t have to reveal the exact formulation as their competition could steal it.
What’s more, supplements are often mislabeled, according to independent testing, and some don’t contain enough of the active ingredient to offer benefits, despite what it says on the label. Others contain too much. Plus, there’s the potential for contamination during processing. For example, independent testing by firms like Consumer Lab shows some contain heavy metals and even prescription drugs.
These Classes of Supplements Are Most Problematic
Of the supplements that are currently available, some are more likely to cause problems than others. The classes of supplements that are the highest risk are those formulated for weight loss and bodybuilding, two of the top-selling categories in health food stores. Just recently, researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health looked at this issue. They scoured the literature and documented adverse events from supplements in young people under 25 over an 11-year period from 2004 to 2015. In total, they found around 1,000 reports of reactions related to weight loss or bodybuilding supplements and 4 out of 10 were either serious enough to require hospitalization or led to death.
It’s not surprising that bad reactions are more common in people who take bodybuilding or weight loss supplements as opposed to vitamins or minerals in supplement form. Vitamins and minerals are straightforward and, if they’re formulated with good quality control and no contamination, they’re components the body recognizes. That’s not always true of weight loss and bodybuilding supplements. Independent testing shows a surprising number contain ingredients not listed on the label. These include prescription medications in weight loss supplements and anabolic steroids in bodybuilding formulations. Anabolic steroid use is linked with liver damage, kidney disease, heart disease, mood changes, infertility, and high blood pressure. Contamination with heavy metals and other synthetic chemicals with the potential to harm is also a problem with weight loss and bodybuilding supplements.
When Consumer Lab, an independent testing firm analyzed a variety of weight loss supplements, they found some contained risky amounts of stimulants such as caffeine and synephrine. The quantities were listed incorrectly on the label. In the past, sibutramine, a stimulant in the weight loss drug Meridia, was found in some weight loss supplements. It is notable that the Food and Drug Administration removed sibutramine from the market due to a link with heart problems. If a supplement were to contain multiple stimulants, the effects would be additive and the risks higher. Researchers have also found stimulants, diuretics, laxatives, and antidepressants in weight loss supplements. What’s also disturbing is that companies often continue to sell these products even after the Food and Drug Administration issues safety warnings and orders them to take them off the market.
And They Aren’t Even Effective
Studies show that weight loss supplements don’t lead to lasting weight loss. Still, people like the idea of a “quick” fix” and the lure of losing weight fast. According to the National Institutes of Health, 15% of adults in the United States have used one or more weight loss supplements at some point in their lives. Furthermore, many weight loss supplements contain a mixture of ingredients and research hasn’t looked at potential interactions between these components. Even the primary ingredients in these supplements often aren’t thoroughly researched before they reach the market.
Bodybuilding supplements most commonly contain ingredients like amino acids, caffeine, and creatine. Although these ingredients aren’t unsafe in and of themselves, independent testing of bodybuilding supplements, including protein powders, shows surprisingly high levels of contamination with medications that block estrogen receptors, anabolic steroids, hormones, or hormone precursors. In one test of 634 bodybuilding supplements, 14.8% were contaminated with hormones or hormone precursors. Even legitimate ingredients in bodybuilding and weight loss supplements, like caffeine, may have an adverse effect on people with high blood pressure or cardiovascular disease. People who are slow metabolizers of caffeine are also at higher risk of risky side effects.
The Bottom Line
Do your research before taking a supplement, especially if it’s in the weight loss or bodybuilding category. You might get more than you bargained for! The best way to get slimmer, fitter, and healthier is through smarter dietary choices and regular exercise. Don’t be lulled in by the hype!
· Harvard Health Publishing. “Harmful effects of supplements can send you to the emergency department”
· Or F, et al. Taking Stock of Dietary Supplements’ Harmful Effects on Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults J Adolescent Health 5 June 2019. doi.org/10.1016.
· National Institutes of Health. “Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss”
· N Engl J Med 2015; 373:1531-1540. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa1504267.
· News-Medical.net. “Doing more harm than good: Scientists uncover the harmful effects of dietary supplements”
· Consumer Lab. “Weight Loss Supplement Reviews”
· Drugs.com. “Anabolic Steroids – Abuse, Side Effects, and Safety”
· J Am Diet Assoc. 2007 Mar;107(3):441-7.
· National Institutes of Health. “Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance”