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Dietary supplements and protein powders aren’t regulated the same way drugs are — here’s what experts say to watch out for

HEALTHWATCH: DIET AND NUTRITION

The Conversation – Dietary supplements are a big business. The industry made almost $39 billion in revenue in 2022, and with very little regulation and oversight, it stands to keep growing.

The marketing of dietary supplements has been quite effective, with 77% of Americans reporting feeling that the supplement industry is trustworthy.

The idea of taking your health into your own hands is appealing, and supplements are popular with athletes, parents and people trying to recover more quickly from a cold or flu, just to name a few.

A 2024 study found that approximately 1 in 10 adolescents have used nonprescribed weight loss and weight control products, including dietary supplements.

Notably, that systematic review found that nonprescribed diet pill use was significantly higher than the use of nonprescribed laxatives and diuretics for weight management.

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These types of unhealthy weight control behaviors are associated with both worsened mental health and physical health outcomes.

As a licensed clinical social worker specializing in treating anxiety disorders and eating disorders and a biomedical research director, we’ve seen firsthand the harm that these supplements can do based on unfounded beliefs.

The unregulated market of dietary supplements is setting consumers up to be misled and potentially seriously harmed by these products.

The Wild West

The Food and Drug Administration specifies that supplements must contain a “dietary ingredient” such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, enzymes, live microbials, concentrates and extracts, among others.

Unfortunately, manufacturers can claim that a product is a supplement even when it doesn’t meet those criteria, such as products containing the drug tianeptine, a highly addictive drug that can mimic the biological action of opioids …

“Many dietary supplements contain ingredients that have strong biological effects which may conflict with a medicine you are taking or a medical condition you may have. Products containing hidden drugs are also sometimes falsely marketed as dietary supplements, putting consumers at even greater risk.” – FDA 

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