Expert Opinion on Why You Should Take Supplements

Dr. Shawn Talbott
Dr. Shawn Talbott

Why take supplements? You eat a healthy diet, right? So why bother with adding supplements to your diet? That is a common question and you will find the answer in this interview with nutritional biochemist and author, Dr. Shawn Talbott.

Why Take Supplements: An Interview with Dr. Shawn Talbott

Dr. Shawn Talbott, author of several health related books including A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements, has done a great deal of research into the importance of supplements in our lives. In the following interview, he explains why supplements are important and also demystifies the process of selecting the right ones.

About the Book

LoveToKnow: Why did you feel a need to write the book A Guide to Understanding Dietary Supplements?

Shawn Talbott: I wrote the book because I was teaching a nutrition course about dietary supplements at the University of Utah and there was no existing textbook that covered supplements in a detailed way. The publisher felt that the book would have a much wider audience outside of nutrition students - and they were right - because confusion and misinformation about supplements is widespread among the general public who are using these products. Almost 70 percent of American adults use supplements and spend almost $25 billion in annual sales in the USA alone.

Why the Confusion?

LTK: What do you think people find most confusing about nutritional supplements?

ST: Perhaps the most confusing aspect of dietary supplements for most people is actually trying to find a product that matches up to the research on an ingredient that they have read about or heard about. For example, imagine that a consumer reads an article about the antioxidant benefits of acai berry or mangosteen fruit - and then tries to find a product that contains these ingredients. That consumer might find a dozen or more products that contain some amount of acai or mangosteen - but it is difficult for the consumer to determine which products contain the right type or the right amount or the right balance of the ingredient to actually deliver the benefits that they read about.

Herbal products can be even more confusing because they need to be processed in a specific way to maximize the active components - and their benefits. This is one of the reasons that I always recommend to consumers (and health professionals) to look for the specific products on which specific research has been conducted - not on the ingredients in isolation, but on the finished blend that is the actual product.

Why We Need Supplements

LTK: Does the average person really need to have dietary supplements? Isn't eating healthy good enough?

ST: The average person does not eat a very healthy diet. Even the very rare person who eats a "perfect" diet every day can still benefit from a dietary supplement regimen because we know that higher levels of certain nutrients are associated with superior health.

One good example is vitamin D - where we know that we absolutely cannot get an optimal amount (1,000-2,000IU/day) in our diets, nor can we produce enough in our skin during much of the year. Certain herbal supplements can be used as "metabolic enhancers" instead of more potent and dangerous prescription medications, to help restore energy levels, induce relaxation, improve mood, and other beneficial effects.

LTK: What are the primary reason that people take dietary supplements?

ST: Most people take supplements as "dietary insurance" - which is why we see multivitamins among the most-consumed types of supplements. This helps people to "get what they need" and what they might be missing from their diets - but another tier of supplement users are those who are trying to improve mental and physical performance (i.e. supplements for weight loss, energy boost, mental focus, and others).

LTK: How can people determine what supplements they need when many doctors don't believe that they are worth anything?

ST: People need to understand that most physicians know next to nothing about dietary supplements (and not much about nutrition in general) because it has simply not been part of their medical training. I like to say that "physicians know a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff - but not about nutrition or dietary supplements" - which is why consumers need to either educate themselves or find a health professional who is an expert in this area.

This lack of expertise about supplements among most healthcare professionals is why I also wrote another textbook called The Health Professionals Guide to Dietary Supplements (Lippincott Williams and Wilkins) - to educate health professionals about the scientific support behind some supplements and the lack of support for others.

The Right Choices

LTK: How can consumers be sure they are getting quality supplements?

ST: The easiest way to ensure high-quality, safe and effective supplements is to buy the specific products that are used in research studies. If you read about the benefits of a particular dietary supplement, try to find out which product was used in the study and then buy that product. In doing so, you might pay a few dollars more, but you will ensure that you are getting a higher-quality, higher-purity, safer, and more effective product instead of risking your health on a knock-off or copy-cat product.

LTK: How can people know if claims made on a supplement are true or just hype?

ST: Again, look to the products that have been subjected to specific research. The companies that fund such research are always happy to let consumers know that their products are the ones used in the research.

When evaluating product marketing claims, consumers should be "open-minded skeptics" by asking the companies selling the products to back up their claims. When those companies have specific research on their finished products, they are able to do so easily.

LTK: Which supplements do you think most adults should take and why?

ST: I have a short list of "must take" supplements that apply to most people - but then each individual needs to determine whether or not they need additional supplements to help support specific aspects of their metabolism (i.e. energy, mood, mental focus, etc). They are:

  • Multivitamin
  • Fish oil
  • Vitamin D most multivitamins will only contain 400IU - but we need 1,000-2,000IU/day as a total intake)
  • Special needs - these would be supplements that provide a unique benefit that are important for the individual - such as extra antioxidants or anti-inflammatory herbs for someone with arthritis, or a stamina enhancer for a marathoner, or a metabolism enhancer for a dieter.

LTK: Which ones should be avoided despite the hype?

ST: Any dietary supplements that openly claim to treat or cure any diseases should be avoided because these are products that are breaking the law (which states that dietary supplements cannot be promoted as treatments or cures for any diseases). Marketers of such products are clearly not trustworthy and should be avoided.

Likewise, there are a wide range of illegal products that are wrongly marketed as "sports supplements" but which contain steroids (which are not dietary supplements) - these should be avoided.

Final Notes

LTK: What else should people understand about supplements?

ST: People need to understand that the FDA has a great deal of regulatory oversight on the dietary supplement industry but supplements are regulated more like foods than like drugs. The FDA is able to remove a product from the market and is able to apply sanctions and fines against dietary supplement manufacturers and marketers.

But, the FDA can only do so much, and consumers really need to educate themselves, do their homework, remain an open-minded skeptic when it comes to product claims, and seek out specific products that have been subjected to human research trials.

LTK: What else would you like to share?

ST: There are a lot of good, worthwhile dietary supplements on the market, but there is even more garbage, so a consumer needs to be educated if they hope to be able to navigate through the garbage and find the best products for their own unique needs.


LoveToKnow would like to thank Dr. Shawn Talbott for answering the question, "Why take supplements?" To learn more about Dr. Talbott, visit his website, ShawnTalbott.com. You can also find his books on Amazon.com. Just type "Shawn Talbott" into the search box and you see a listing of his most popular books.

Expert Opinion on Why You Should Take Supplements