Supplements: Telling the Fact from the Fiction

When I was a kid, I used to occasionally watch infomercials if nothing else was on TV. It usually took between 2 to 5 minutes for me to be completely hooked on what was being advertised, and anywhere between 5-7 minutes to go running to my parents, begging that we buy the ab-master-203300 or the blender-that-makes-waffles-20140. I have always been easily convinced, and when it came time for me to make my own decisions on my health and diet, all it took was a single article to change my mind about how I should eat. I have actually considered writing a book called “From Paleo to Vegan in 60 Seconds”, detailing my ability to be convinced that anything is good for you.

This past year at university, I had the amazing opportunity to learn a lesson in skepticism. My classmates and I learned how to read between the lines of a perfectly worded article or advertisement and where to look for hints that the item in question is doing no more than providing false hope. You see, with the millions of studies out there on any topic you can imagine, it is easy for advertisement agencies to use the results of these studies to their advantage by taking the information that supports their product while leaving out the caveat. Unfortunately, this is a completely legal practise because no one is lying, they are simply not telling the whole truth.

English: Dietary supplement pills in four colo...

The dietary supplement industry is worth 68 BILLION dollars in the US alone.

Perhaps one of the worst offenders of this practise are dietary supplement companies. Here is a recipe for a top-selling supplement advertisement:

  • 1 perfectly worded journal article
  • 2-3 sentences that go like this “multiple studies conclude that such and such has been effective for weight loss and/or muscle growth”
  • an author with a fancy title or certification
  • a user testimonial (optional)

And viola. Hook, line, and sinker.

So, what do you do when you get pulled into the most tantalizing advertisement that almost seems too good to be true? You look for these simple clues that this miracle drug may actually be beneficial, or may be a complete waste of money:

  • The article says “studies show”. This is a blanket term that anyone can use. Even if the study involved 2 participants and no sound methodological action. If an article uses this and doesn’t back up this argument with a reference, be skeptical of the product.
  • Take a look at the advertisements on the page. If the article in question is supporting the use of this newfound herbal supplement, and the side-bar advertisement is for an online supplements store or herbal remedies store, chances are it’s not a happy coincidence.
  • The author is an internet ghost. Google your “miracle supplements” article author. If they have little information or google hits, chances are they are just a talented writer with not a lot of knowledge or experience to back their claims up.

And the ultimate test of validity: if it seems too good to be true, it is. 

English: better CLA

The chemical makeup of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), an extremely popular weight loss supplement. No human trials have proven that CLA promotes weight loss.

When it comes to weight loss, diet, exercise, or muscle building, there is no magic pill. No matter what anyone tells you. And I can guarantee that one will never be found. The minute you stop looking for something that will make this journey easy and quick, the less susceptible you will be to good advertising.

But, what happens if you find an article that has everything? References, a well-known author, a simple and scientific explanation of the proof behind the product. That’s when you do your own digging. Hop on over to google scholar, search your product in question, and look for articles that have been published within the last 5 years. You probably wont have access to the entire article, but the abstract is all you need. Here’s what you look for:

  • Subjects: humans are best, especially with weight loss and muscle building studies. Mice are second to humans. The more subjects the better  – it is typically best to go by the studies with at least 30 participants. Watch out for specific populations (cancer patients, people of specific races, overweight/obese people, etc.)
  • Type: randomized control trial (RCT) is the most sound experimental method – only use studies with this experiment design.
  • Results: look for terms like “clinically significant”. Weight loss is weight loss to the advertisement companies, but a 0.9kg loss in a month (as was found in clinical trials on ephedra) is not significant enough to conclude that the supplement aids weight loss.

So, when in doubt, do the research for yourself. If the product has been studied multiple times with consistent results, it is safe to conclude that it has some efficacy in its effect on the human body. If the only successful study was done on animals, while human studies came to inconsistent conclusions, don’t waste your money. The best thing to do when it comes to supplements or weight loss aids is to skip them altogether. Hard work, proper nutrition, and exercise are far more effective than any magic pill.

If you want to read about the negative aspects of the supplement industry, check out this great article here.


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