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Supplements: Know what you're taking

Whole foods, when compared to nutritional supplements, are cheaper and more readily available. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Philip Carter)

Whole foods, when compared to nutritional supplements, are cheaper and more readily available. (U.S. Air Force graphic/Philip Carter)

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- In the early 1980s Eli Lilly and Company, a pharmaceutical production company, removed dimethylamylamine, better known as DMAA, from their products because it was linked to headaches and increased blood pressure when used as a sinus drug, according to a 2013 Department of Defense study. In 2006 the same ingredient, now marketed as a supplement, was reintroduced to retail shelves in several products. Under such supplement names as OxyElite and Jack3d, products with DMAA promised weight loss and muscle mass.

Several years later, the product was linked to several fatalities and many injuries. In addition to fatalities, DMAA was also linked to liver failure in some patients and cardiac issues in others. Most patients required hospitalization to recover. More than 230 recalls for similar products have been issued in the past eight years by the Food and Drug Administration due to potential for injury.

The FDA describes supplements as, "a dietary ingredient intended to further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet", but does not regulate them to the same strict standards used for drugs and food.

"Supplements are not reviewed by the FDA for efficacy or safety," said E. Lindsay Buckalew, 21st Aerospace Medicine Squadron health promotion flight commander. "Where people get into trouble is when supplements are 'stacked' -- a term used to describe supplements used in combination such as DMAA with caffeine -- or when synthetic versions of natural ingredients are used in products. You don't know what you're getting when you use these products because they are not regulated."

Although many supplements have been removed from the market by the FDA, Buckalew said there are always more synthetic drugs being created and reformulated; which often find their way into common dietary products.

"Some people have competing priorities and are under pressure to lose weight or perform better; some turn to supplements to help," said Buckalew. "There are many examples of supplements that have been proven harmful."

An example of using a supplement incorrectly to enhance performance is drinking an energy drink before going for a run, said Buckalew. The energy drink will increase heart rate, but performance will not improve since the heart is already working harder.

To help service members learn how to appropriately use supplements, the DOD launched Operation Supplement Safety in November 2011.

The OPSS website and app are a consolidated database of more than 86,000 supplements where service members can access information on a particular supplement or a supplement's ingredients for safety, benefits, side effects, and potential drug interactions. The site and app are updated daily with the most current information.

One of the main messages from Operation Supplement Safety is that dietary supplements should not be a substitute for a healthy diet.

"Eating a balanced diet made up of grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables, dairy and fats is crucial to healthy weight loss and performance," said Melody Vicari-Warner, 21st AMDS clinical installation dietitian. "Many common supplements, protein for example, can be much cheaper when consumed as a whole food."

Several studies have shown that a glass of chocolate milk can be just as effective as supplements for post-workout recovery. When compared to other post-workout recovery drinks, chocolate milk is cheaper.

From a readiness perspective, an Airman will be healthier "by eating a colorful plate of whole foods, getting a good night's sleep and exercising," said Buckalew.

For more information on supplements see For information on nutrition go to

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