I’ve been hearing a lot about a supplement called DHEA. What is it?

PillsCreative Commons License DHEA is a steroid hormone produced in the adrenal glands and a building block for the sex hormones – estrogen and testosterone. Levels of  the hormone drop at a rate of about 3% a year; by the time people reach 70-years of age, they have only about 10% to 20% of the DHEA they had in their 20s. People take DHEA supplements in the hopes of improving mood and sleep patterns, increasing energy and libido, counteracting stress, preserving muscle, strengthening the immune system, and helping prevent heart disease and cancer. (Dosage? No one knows. Most studies used about 50mg daily.)

But, there are risks, including an increased risk for acne, prostate cancer, aggressiveness, and liver damage. Long-term consequences are unknown. In addition, the purity and strength of supplements are not regulated. Supplements made from wild Mexican yams claim to contain the building blocks for DHEA, but there is little or no evidence that the body converts these compounds into DHEA. Unless people are advised by their physicians to take DHEA, supplementing with this hormone is a buyer-beware decision. I recommend a natural alternative, which is: A few studies show that people who meditate have higher DHEA levels than nonmeditators. Photo credit:  Keith Ramsey via Compfight

What is your opinion of the product, Juice Plus?

Summer color Juice Plus may be touted as the “next best thing to fruits and vegetables,” but don’t be fooled. Dehydrating produce shrinks it by about 90%, but it still would take 15 capsules to supply the equivalent of a half cup serving of broccoli, while Juice Plus recommends 4 capsules a day. Hmmm, that’s about as much broccoli as you’d get in a small sprig. And, remember…you need 8 to 10 servings of colorful fruits and vegetables every day. That’s 15 capsules times 10. YIKES! Yes, the company adds some extra vitamin C, beta carotene, and other nutrients to make up the difference, but you’ll still be missing out on the fiber and 100s of 1,000s of health-enhancing phytochemicals identified so far in produce., not to mention the cost to your pocketbook. There is no short cut when it comes to vegetables. Just bite the bullet and make a pack with yourself to include at least 2 servings of real fruits and vegetables at every meal and at least 1 at every snack. Period.   Photo credit: Silke Gerstenkorn via Compfight

I just heard about a product called “Juice Plus.” Is this as good as eating fruits and vegetables?

Panier "bio" No! Save your money and buy real fruit, not dried-orange capsules or blueberry pills. Juice Plus+ comes in a variety of flavors, such as Orchard Blend capsules made by freeze-drying seven fruits. These products are typically sold through multi-level marketing programs. They claim to contain beneficial “live enzymes.” But enzymes are proteins produced by living cells and, when swallowed, are digested like any other protein. They don’t make it past the digestive tract to enter the bloodstream and body. These products also claim to boost immunity. There are no well-designed research studies (other than those conducted by the company, which of course has a vested interest that can bias results) to support these claims. If highly-processed fruit powders can boost immune function, imagine how much more effective real fruit would be! Granted, the capsules probably have some of the original antioxidants found in real fruit, but it’s difficult to say how much, since Juice Plus+ capsules have no nutritional labels. You can’t tell how much vitamin C or any of the 100s of 1000s of phytochemicals found in real fruit remains after the freeze-drying process. Keep in mind that it is impossible to cram 5 to 10 servings of fruits or vegetables into a fraction of an ounce of dried fruit powder, so it’s no wonder this product relies heavily on testimonials, not scientific studies published in peer-reviewed journals. Stick with Mother Nature’s real stuff and skip the hype of these capsules or any other processed product that promises to replace real food. Photo credit: jalb via Compfight

My friend tells me chromium supplements will help me lose weight. Is this true?

vitamin bottlesTheoretically, chromium should aid weight control, since this trace mineral enhances insulin activity, the hormone that regulates blood sugar and fat levels while stimulating protein synthesis in muscles. It made sense when preliminary research found that athletes lost more body fat and gained more lean tissue (i.e., muscle) when they took chromium supplements.  These initial studies were seriously flawed and subsequent studies did not support the chromium-weight loss connection. If there is any benefits of chromium to weight loss, they are minor at best. However, some people report some weight loss when they increase chromium intake, so there might be something to this issue; unfortunately, with so many pieces still missing in the puzzle, we just don’t know.

There is evidence that many Americans’ diets are low in chromium, so increasing your intake by eating more whole grains, bran breakfast cereals, canned vegetables such as green beans, broccoli, raisins, nuts, mushrooms, oysters, chicken, meat, seafood, and other chromium-rich foods is important for overall health. Boosting your chromium intake with better food choices or supplements (limit the dose to no more than 200 micrograms a day) will help manage blood sugar, which could help side-step diabetes later in life. Whether it will transform your body into that lean, muscular number in the supplement ads is highly unlikely. But then, I bet you already knew that!

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I am on a low-carb diet. Should I take a special supplement?

[067/365] PanaceaThere are no studies to support the claim that low-carb dieters need a specially formulated supplement. Granted, low-carb diets restrict or eliminate many nutritious foods, which can lead to poor intake of B vitamins (especially folic acid), fiber and magnesium because of few whole grains, calcium and vitamin D because of too few milk products, and beta carotene and vitamin C from too little produce. You easily can cover your nutrient basis with a less-expensive, moderate-dose multi, a calcium-magnesium supplement, and a fiber product (better yet, lose weight on a more sensible, healthy diet…but that’s another matter). No supplement can replace the thousands of health-enhancing phytochemicals lost when colorful fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and other real foods are restricted on a low-carb diet.  Also, don’t be fooled by claims that specially-tailored supplements contain extra nutrients designed to speed fat burning and aid weight loss on low-carb diets. Some products add carnitine, yet no research has found dieters to be deficient in this compound. Others add extra chromium to help build muscle, a benefit that turned out to be more hope than help.

That’s not saying you shouldn’t supplement. While you always should turn to food first for your nutritional needs, the reality is that when you drastically cut calories, restrict entire food groups, or go to any extreme to lose weight, your health suffers.  Even non-dieters often fall short of optimal when it comes to one or more nutrients, so it’s a good idea for any dieter to take an inexpensive, broad-range, moderate-dose multiple vitamin and mineral supplement, plus extra calcium and magnesium. Just don’t expect it to turn a high-fat menu into a healthy meal.

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