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Do Diet Supplements Work? 

No one can say martha Cole isn’t a do-it-yourself type of gal. Back in February, Cole was leaving her Naples home, headed to a tee time at her golf club when she discovered she had a flat tire. Not wanting to waste time with her auto club, she dutifully pulled the jack out of her car, cranked it up, took off the lug nuts and yanked on the tire.

The next thing Cole knew, the car had fallen, pinning her hand. It was nearly 15 minutes before a neighbor was able to free her. An X-ray at the urgent care clinic determined nothing was broken. "The doctor said to me, ‘You have amazing bones. Do you take calcium?’ I said, ‘As a matter of fact, I do.’"

Cole is 69 and has been taking 500-milligram calcium supplements twice a day since she hit menopause in her 50s. "It’s kept my bones as strong as ever," Cole says. "Women’s bones apparently become weaker as they age, but mine don’t seem to have weakened at all."

Dietary supplements such as multivitamins and calcium have been popular for years, but there are now a tremendous variety of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, herbs and oils available. Reports show the dietary supplement industry has grown to the tune of $25 billion a year.

But for every supplement on store shelves, there seems to be yet another medical report that raises questions over the efficacy of these wonder pills. Does gingko really help your memory? Does vitamin D truly do anything for your heart? How does the omega-3 fatty acid in fish oil capsules compare to the real stuff in a delicious tuna steak?

"Among the general medical community, there is a huge amount of skepticism and lack of trust in the supplement industry," says Dr. Andrew Oakes-Lottridge, the physician-owner of Personalized Health Care, a concierge family medical practice in Southwest Florida that makes house calls. "I think there is a lack of really good scientific data on a large number of these supplements that are being sold."

Indeed, Oakes-Lottridge (Dr. Andy to his patients) says many of the so-called studies that promote various supplements were actually conducted by the supplement makers themselves, often on a very small scale—perhaps using only a few participants.

Add in that unlike pharmaceutical medicines, supplements don’t go through a federal approval process before they come to market, and you could be looking at trouble. Just consider the case of the weight-loss supplement commonly known as ephedra. Turns out, it was linked to heart attacks and strokes in some people. The Food and Drug Administration only stepped in after problems came to light, as is the agency’s policy with supplements.

Derik Fay is the owner of Around the Clock Fitness, a gym in Cape Coral. He used to be into bodybuilding. Still health-conscious, he’s been taking supplements for the better part of 15 years. His approach is to stick to the main products that he feels have lots of scientific support—multivitamins, calcium supplements and antioxidants.

"I really think those give you a good foundation that covers you across the board," says Fay, 30, who on rare occasions has stopped taking his daily doses and can quickly tell. "You feel more lethargic. It’s hard to get up in the morning. I think it’s worth the $20 or so a month."

So how do you separate the wheat from the chaff, the valuable supplements from the valueless? Short of reading every medical article and scientific study, there may not be a simple method—and you may not need one.

"My initial reaction is you can’t argue with results. If a patient is taking supplements and they feel that they are helping, then that’s marvelous, and I won’t necessarily discourage them," Oakes-Lottridge says. "I think there are a lot of supplements that can be useful. My goal is to make sure what they are taking is safe. Some patients are on multiple prescription medicines and multiple supplements … so I would run that through a drug database to make sure there are no interactions."

Here’s Oakes-Lottridge’s list of common dietary supplements he thinks are the most reliable or the most promising:

• Folic acid to prevent fetal spinal birth defects.

• Vitamin C to reduce the severity of the common cold.

• Vitamin D to fight cancers, heart disease and possibly diabetes.

• Calcium to build strong bones.

• Coenzyme Q10 to reduce high blood pressure and possibly migraines.

• Fish oil with omega-3 fatty acids to help lower cholesterol.

"Supplements only exist as an industry because people don’t eat well-balanced diets that are high in fruits and vegetables and whole grains," Oakes-Lottridge says. "If we all ate good diets, we wouldn’t need supplements."

So does the good doctor take any supplements himself? Indeed he does—calcium, vitamin D and vitamin C when he has a cold.

Cole may be living proof of the true benefits. Here’s a woman who has run triathlons, built homes for Habitat for Humanity, climbed mountains, swum with sharks and also fallen off a roof. She believes that her daily calcium tablets have helped protect her during her adventures—including her latest run-in with a two-ton car and a wobbly jack.

"I don’t know for sure … but I’ve never broken a bone in my life," Cole says. "Knock on wood."

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