Supplement or scam? 3 June 2022 By Charlotte Lentfer, Accredited Practising Dietitian Can supplements improve diabetes? If there is one thing that is for sure, there are plenty of supplements on the market. Supplements come in forms of pills, capsules, tablets, liquids and powders which are designed to provide nutrients that may be missing from your diet. Nutritional supplements can be a great way to maintain or improve health if there is a particular nutrient you struggle to eat enough of through your diet. People who are more likely to need supplements are those with higher nutritional needs (e.g. during pregnancy or lactation), people who cannot eat as much (e.g. elderly people, people who are unwell) and people who restrict whole food groups (e.g. vegetarians/vegans). The supplement industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and the industry continues to make money through selling supplements to both those in need, and through clever marketing to people who do not need supplements. In 2017, a large-scale study of Australian adults found that 24% of men and 47% of women reported taking a nutritional supplement (Burnett, Livingstone, Woods & McNaughton, 2017). Can supplements improve diabetes? There are many supplements on the market with claims around improving diabetes or blood glucose levels. It can be difficult to decide whether to try a new supplement; however, there are some key things to consider and look-out for when making this decision. Are supplements safe? The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) regulates all therapeutic goods, such as supplements and vitamins in Australia. The TGA checks whether products are safe, contain approved ingredients and are produced in a facility that meets quality standards. However, for low-risk medicines, such as supplements, the TGA does not undertake research to confirm the supplement does what it claims to do. This means that claims on the supplement label or website such as ‘supports healthy blood sugar’, ‘assists in glucose metabolism’ or ‘contains nutrients needed for blood sugar metabolism’ have not necessarily been tested or proven to be true. It also important to note, that the TGA does not regulate products outside of Australia. If you purchase a product online, you may be buying something that has not been confirmed to be safe by any regulatory body. This increases the risk of taking the product as it may contain unsafe ingredients and/or be manufactured on faulty or poorly cleaned equipment. Are supplements effective? In order to test the effectiveness and safety of medications, pharmaceuticals companies usually have to run clinical trials. This involves giving a large group of people a new medication or supplement to trial and closely monitoring them. Without large-scale clinical trials, it is impossible to know what intended and unintended effects a new medication or supplement may have on an individual. Some supplements, such as vitamin D, have gone through many clinical trials to test whether they lead to improved health. However, many other supplements have not gone through any clinical trials at all. This means that when you are taking a supplement, you could be taking something that is essentially an untested product. This makes it very difficult to predict what positive or negative impact it may have on your health. What to look out for When you read information about supplements, the positive claims regarding the products effectiveness will be in large, clear font. However, most labels also contain some disclaimers in fine-print. Many supplements usually contain the statement ‘vitamins and minerals can only be of assistance if dietary intake is inadequate’, which indicates that the product will only lead to health improvements if you were deficient in a vitamin or mineral that the supplement contains. Alternatively, if you are already consuming enough of that nutrient, there will be no benefit in you taking more of it. What to do if you want to try a new supplement If you are considering taking a new supplement, it is vital that you speak with your doctor or a medical professional first. In fact, almost all supplements will contain a warning or disclaimer that you should always speak to a medical professional before taking a new supplement. Even if a supplement is made with 100% natural ingredients, supplements can interact with other medications, cause side-effects and be dangerous in high doses. Questions to ask your doctor: Is this supplement safe for me?Will this supplement interact with my other medications?Are there any side effects I should watch out for?How much of this supplement is safe to take?What health outcomes can I expect to see by taking this supplement?When should we review whether this supplement is working for me? When it comes down to it, the proven methods to improve your diabetes is through taking your prescribed medications, making good food choices, being active every day and taking care of your mental health. If you are considering trying a supplement to help with your diabetes management, please speak to a medical professional first.