top of page

Five Steps To Quality Dietary Supplementing

Written by: Matthew Kostek, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.


Are you often tired and looking for a quick way to increase your energy levels? Are you looking to increase muscle mass faster or without training? Have you self-diagnosed yourself with an illness and are looking for an easy “natural” cure? Chances are there is a dietary supplement that will fulfill your exact need. Dietary supplements remain a hot topic. A Harris poll conducted in 2019 reported 4 of 5 Americans had taken a dietary supplement in the previous year. Industry-funded research confirms this.

In the now times, supplements purported to boost immunity, as well as those for stress relief, cognitive function, and weight management are of interest to a lot of folks. There is a lot of noise surrounding their safety and efficacy though. Who should be taking a dietary supplement? How does one even decide if they should? In this article, I will answer those questions and provide some tools you can use to evaluate those supplements you are interested in. By the end of this article you will know:

  • What dietary supplements are,

  • How to decide if you should take one, and

  • How to evaluate its safety and efficacy

Firstly, what exactly is a dietary supplement?

You can read up on the official definition of a supplement, from the Institute of Medicine and the US National Research Council here. Broadly, we can place all dietary supplements into one of six categories:

  • a vitamin (such as vitamin C or D),

  • a mineral (calcium, potassium),

  • an amino acid (organic compounds that make up proteins),

  • a herb or botanical (garlic, turmeric, echinacea, for example)

  • a substance you take specifically to increase the dietary amount above what you would normally eat (protein for instance),

  • an extract of any of these.

Regulation of dietary supplements

Prepare for a shock. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not evaluate, check, or otherwise assure the safety and purity of a dietary supplement prior to its appearance on store shelves. Unlike prescription and over-the-counter medications, which are tested for safety and effectiveness before they can be sold, dietary supplements are considered “food” and generally presumed safe. The manufacturers (those who produce them and get them in front of you) are responsible for assuring safety and efficacy. They are not required to provide evidence of this. It is only after enough adverse events accumulate from consumers does the FDA limit or remove the product from the market, such as the 2004 banning of ephedra. So, in effect, drugs are tested before being sold to consumers, dietary supplements are in effect being tested by the consumers.

The problem with this type of regulation

The consumers, being the final litmus test of the safety of a dietary supplement can be problematic. While it is true that most supplements are indeed “safe” for most folks, in low amounts, many are toxic at higher ones. For instance, overdosing on vitamin A may lead to vision, hair, or skin changes. Extremely high levels increase the chances for birth defects and even hip fractures. Overdoses of vitamin D affect kidney and heart function, enough of an overdose can be fatal. Health complications occur with extremely high doses of vitamin K and E. Vitamin C in too high doses interferes with the absorption of certain minerals, too much phosphorus (a mineral) can interfere with calcium absorption (a more popular mineral). The list goes on…

Who should use dietary supplements?

There are basically three reasons to consider taking a dietary supplement

  • You have a diagnosed disease or health condition or are undergoing treatment for one resulting, directly or indirectly, in a nutritional deficiency.

  • You are on a specific diet that limits certain foods. For instance, if you do not eat meat, some nutrients are going to be challenging to obtain in healthy amounts, such as iron or vitamin B12.

  • To enhance physical and/or mental performance. This includes anything from improving body composition or quality of sleep, to passing an exam.

The first two are (and should be) done under the care of a doctor or qualified healthcare professional. The last one, probably should as well but often isn’t (and perhaps, in some cases, shouldn’t be done at all).

If you find yourself in the last category (or the first two but are not under the care of a qualified health professional) I recommend reviewing the five steps below to see if you are ready to take on a dietary supplement.

The five-step dietary supplement safety gauntlet

Step one: Question reality

Ask yourself these questions three:

  1. Why do you think you need a dietary supplement?

  2. What benefit do you think it will give you that you cannot get with your regular diet and or exercise training?

  3. Where did you hear about such benefits?

If your answers to the above questions originate from an unreliable source (a diet/supplement company, a “buddy” who is really fit, or not, an internet ad), then you are not serving yourself. First, educate yourself, then decide (keep reading for some educational sources). Consequently, if you are simply copying someone else who you think you should look/perform like, you are ignoring the principle of individuality, and likely setting yourself up to fail.

Step two: Consider whole foods first

Whole foods are minimally processed, easily recognizable, mostly intact, foods. No pill or food-like product can emulate the perfect marriage of whole foods to the human digestive system. A healthy digestive system will pull the necessary nutrients from food at the optimal rate and amount. Your diet, regardless of your situation should consist of mostly whole and/or minimally processed foods. Your nutrition will get a boost from a few simple swaps of refined white bread to whole wheat, the same with cereal, a baked potato instead of potato chips, or even real apples from apple sauce. Granted, making these swaps may seem like too much work, however, just think of the amount of energy and money wasted taking an unnecessary supplement (or worse, the risk it entails). Give yourself a chance to get what you need from real food before taking on a nutritional supplement, after all why supplement a lousy diet? Here’s a better analogy, you can’t fix a crumbling foundation with duct tape (for long).

Step three: Make it clear

Check the amount of soda, juice, alcohol, sports drinks, or sweetened tea or coffee you are drinking each week. If you are trying to manage your weight, improve lipid profiles or general health, turning all of these drinks to water, seltzer, or unsweetened tea will do more for you and cost less than any weight loss or nutritional supplement. If you are trying to improve performance, most juices and sports drinks are fortified with excessive amounts of vitamins and minerals, in either case, taking a dietary supplement on top of some of these drinks could be redundant or even detrimental. I am not addressing the wisdom of energy drinks in this piece, treat them exactly as a dietary supplement.

Step four: Choose goals and principles over brick walls

If you are looking to improve performance, first check your training routine. Do you consistently follow a properly periodized exercise plan? This means you have adequate time for rest and recovery, as well as variety, overload, and progression baked into your routine. Above all, your routine is designed to meet your goals (you have goals right?). If the above isn’t true, hold off on the supplements. When done properly, supplements can enhance what is already working. If your training isn’t where it needs to be, what exactly are you supplementing for? Just like a lousy diet, enhancing an ineffective exercise plan is probably worse than not. If you are driving towards a brick wall, why accelerate? Set your goals, dial into your routine and recovery, progress as far as you can before turning to supplements.

Step five: Harmony beats competition

Do you use exercise to “burn-off” bad eating choices? Do you forgo sleep to either eat, work, or exercise more? If you answer yes to any of these, I’d recommend holding off, see the brick wall statement. The three pillars of a healthy lifestyle (eating, moving, recovering) need to be in harmony with each other, not in competition. Realize that, fulfill it, then go back through the above steps before supplementing.

If you passed the above “gauntlet” and you still want to take a supplement, below are some sources to help you find the safest product.

Tools to promote safe supplementing

As mentioned earlier, manufacturers of dietary supplements are not required to provide evidence or proof that their product is safe and effective. Independent analyses of dietary supplements have discovered disturbingly high amounts of additional ingredients not listed on the package, including heavy metals, hormones, and even banned substances. Fortunately, there are reliable and trustworthy organizations that do independent testing of supplements. Look for brands that have one or more of the following marks (click on any for more info) on their packaging:

The Department of Defense (DoD) through their educational campaign Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS), created a handy dandy dietary supplement screening tool. Use this to score your product before buying, if it scores well, it’s probably safe.

You can also educate yourself by reading the National Institute of Health Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) fact sheet, specific to the supplement you are interested in. Each fact sheet provides a description of the supplement, risks, and other ingredients commonly found with it. All information is based on current research.

Finally, the National Institute of Health has put together a page specific to Covid-19 research. This is helpful to those interested in the most current research involving supplements and the treatment and/or prevention of Covid-19.

Wrap up

While dietary supplements are readily available, they are not necessarily safe, pure, or effective. In some cases, they can be harmful. Dietary supplements do have a place and can be beneficial if used properly. Supplements can enhance performance when all three pillars are in harmony (eating, moving, recovering). They can be used to fill in nutritional gaps or treat conditions that cannot be treated solely with a healthy diet (and lifestyle). In any case, it’s a good idea to check in with your doc before starting. When you do, be sure to educate yourself on the specific product for safety, as well as third party testing status. Finally, make sure you are closely monitoring results to see if it’s actually helping you with what you need helped. We need to avoid that brick wall.

Follow me on Facebook, LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Matthew Kostek, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Over the past 25 years as a Personal Trainer, Wellness Coach, Clinical Researcher, Professor, and Exercise Physiologist, Matt has helped hundreds of adults achieve their health and performance goals. Matt earned his PhD in Kinesiology from the University of Connecticut in 2010. Now, a sought-after exercise and nutrition Coach, he owns and operates Matt K Training, a company providing personal training and nutrition coaching services to those wishing to optimize the health and physical performance. Through his highly effective, holistic, “big picture” approach, Matt helps his clients live better by eating, moving, and recovering well.



  • linkedin-brainz
  • facebook-brainz
  • instagram-04


bottom of page