Nutritional Supplements that Help--and Hurt--Your Health

Question: Are nutritional supplements (like Boost® and Ensure®) good for you?

Answer: Americans spend millions of dollars each year on liquid nutritional supplements in an effort to improve their health. But these supplements can also be harmful, so it’s important to make sure that you are using them only under the guidance and recommendation of your healthcare provider.

Nutritional supplements can be extremely beneficial for someone who is unable to consume enough calories, protein, vitamins, and minerals on a daily basis. Some indications for daily supplement use include loss of appetite (due to a chronic medical condition), difficulty chewing and swallowing, illness or post-surgical recovery, or when caloric needs are dramatically increased, such as during cancer treatment.

Nutritional supplements in the form of shakes can be purchased in your local grocery store, pharmacy, or wholesale club. They contain a balance of calories, protein, and fat and are fortified with vitamins and minerals. They are intended to serve as a meal replacement or as a supplement to meals if a person cannot eat enough to maintain their caloric needs (or if rapid weight gain is desired due to malnutrition).

But for the average person with no medical conditions that put a person at risk for malnutrition, these drinks can have harmful side effects if consumed in excess. Most of these commercial shakes are high in sugar, which can lead to excessive weight gain if consumed daily. More importantly, the vitamins and minerals in these supplements can quickly exceed recommended daily amounts if ingested in conjunction with regular food. Some vitamins and minerals can also cause side effects when taken with prescription medications, so it’s important to check with your healthcare provider to make sure that there are no potential harmful interactions.

If your goal is simply to add more calories into your diet, think about creating your own nutritional supplement through whole foods. Juicing your favorite fruits or making a smoothie with fruit and yogurt can add extra calories to your diet without adding excessive amounts of vitamins, minerals, or added sugar. If you suffer from a condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or chronic kidney disease, there are specialized formulas that your healthcare provider can recommend that will help you meet your unique nutritional needs.

Bottom Line

Nutritional supplements can be beneficial for someone who is unable to meet their nutritional needs through food alone. To improve your nutritional health, seek the advice of a registered dietitian who can customize a plan for you that is unique to your own nutritional needs. Your dietitian can also advise you on how nutritional supplements can be used as part of a healthy eating plan.

You should know: The answer above provides general health information that is not intended to replace medical advice or treatment recommendations from a qualified healthcare professional.

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