March 25, 2004

7 considerations before adding nutritional supplements to a diet

In an ideal world, we would all eat well-balanced meals made from fresh, whole foods grown organically in mineral-rich soil. Our lives would be low stress, we'd exercise moderately four times a week, and we would never suffer injuries.

Very few people enjoy such lives Dr. Jessica Seaton, a Los Angeles chiropractor and chair of the United States Masters Swimming (USMS) Sports Medicine Committee pointed out.

"Vitamin and mineral supplements will not make up for a marginal or poor diet, nor will they get rid of stress or make you live until you're 90," said Seaton. "Some nutritional supplements may enhance the quality of your life, or help reduce your risk for some degenerative diseases, but it's important to look at what you’re getting into before you start using supplements."

Here, Seaton presents three steps to informed supplementation.

  1. Consider the placebo effect: Classic studies on the effectiveness of a drug or any other treatment have shown that if a group of people with a particular problem are given a "sugar pill" and are led to believe it will help their condition, about one-third of them will get well.
  2. Ask who advocates a certain supplement: Is this person someone with a degree in nutrition (registered dietitian), a chiropractor (who has studied two semesters of biochemistry and three of nutrition), a naturopathic doctor (heavy emphasis on nutrition in schooling), a sales person in a health food store (questionable background, maybe self-taught), a medical doctor (maybe self-taught—nutrition is not a required subject in any medical school, although some schools offer it as an elective), or someone in the locker room?
  3. Read the label: Are the ingredients listed with quantities such as mg, mcg, IU or comparable measurements? Or are they listed with no particular amounts? Do you or someone you trust know what all of the ingredients really are?
Given these words of caution, Seaton offers four reasons that most of us could benefit from some basic nutritional supplements:
  1. Biochemical individuality: Vitamins and minerals are essentially micronutrients, Seaton said.
    "The average American is not going to suffer from gross vitamin deficiencies. However, some people may be suffering from sub-clinical (or not easily detected) deficiencies." Seaton advised that deficiencies may manifest in lack of energy, poor recovery from workouts, easy bruising, or other signs.
  2. Genetics: "Genetics are probably one of the most important determinants of one's health," Seaton said. However, many, if not most, diseases are multi-factorial in origin.
    "For example, if your father had a heart attack at age 40, you (especially if you are male) have an increased risk of having the same thing happen to you, though lifestyle remains a factor."

    Given a particular genetic background, you may be inclined to alter your diet somewhat and add some nutritional supplements.

  3. What will nutritional supplements do for you now? "If you have an abundance of energy, no health problems and recover rapidly from exercise, chances are you won’t notice a difference when you take supplements," Seaton said. "Your reason for taking them would be for the long-term effects."

    On the other hand, those who do not feel well may take specific supplements and notice changes, such as an increase in energy, less pain and inflammation, fewer food cravings, better recovery from exercise, or other changes, depending on their original problems.

  4. Why should you take nutritional supplements when you feel fine now? "You may take nutritional supplements as a form of insurance for later in life," Seaton pointed out. Fish oils and or flaxseed oils may not have a noticeable effect on your body now, but may protect you from cardiovascular disease later in life. Calcium, magnesium, and manganese supplementation now, along with weight-bearing exercise, may diminish the later effects of osteoporosis. A high-fiber diet's protective effect on your colon may stave off colon cancer.
Jessica Seaton, D.C., is a chiropractic orthopedist in private practice in West Los Angeles, Calif. She chairs the USMS Sports Medicine Committee, and she has been swimming with the West Hollywood Aquatics Masters group for more than 10 years. She can be reached at 310-470-0282 or

United States Masters Swimming ( programs are open to all adult swimmers (fitness, triathlete, competitive, non-competitive) age 18 and over who are dedicated to improving their fitness through swimming and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Founded in 1970, USMS is organized with more than 1,100 workout groups and teams throughout the nation.


EDITOR’S NOTE: United States Masters Swimming has access to thousands of health and fitness experts nationwide.