T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L.

On the first day of high school physics, our teacher chalked T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L. onto the blackboard. He then turned to us, pointed at what was obviously an acronym, and asked if anyone knew what the letters stood for. We were all clearly stumped, so he offered a hint. “It’s the first rule of physics.” When this pearl failed to be illuminating he smiled. “In physics,” he said, tapping each period for emphasis, “There. Ain’t. No. Such. Thing. As. A. Free. Lunch.”

I mention this now because the new year is, simultaneously, a time of reflection on the closing of one year and a projection of aspirations for the new. Thus the traditional resolutions. And the most traditional of these seem always to involve physical improvement: This year, I will finally lose weight; this year, I swear I will exercise regularly; this year, I will eat better…

Let’s all keep in mind, though, T.A.N.S.T.A.A.F.L.

According to a recent New York Times article, and this is a low estimate, dietary supplements are responsible for upwards of 20 percent of drug-related liver injuries. This is up from seven percent a decade ago. And the supplement industry is not well regulated. Americans spend roughly $32 billion per year–chiefly to melt fat or increase metabolism–while the 1994 Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act prohibits the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from approving or analyzing most supplements before they are purchased. The result is chaos. The FDA estimates that fully 70 percent of supplement manufacturers do not adhere to even basic quality controls. Of nearly 55,000 supplements sold each year to Americans, only 170 have been studied enough for their side effects to be understood. Since 2008, however, the FDA has been taking action against companies whose products have been found to contain prescription drugs and controlled substances.

It’s a step in the right direction, but here’s what you should know about these dietary aids: There’s no such thing as a magic pill. And because many of these supplements are concentrated, if taken too much they can be lethal. Imagine something so seemingly innocuous as green tea extract. Sounds harmless enough, right? Green tea contains catechins, antioxidants said to increase metabolism. But the extract is concentrated far more than the actual tea itself, and can be toxic to the liver if taken in a large enough dose. So you may burn fat, but you’ll certainly burn out your liver.

My advice–and this is not an advice column–is that there are no shortcuts in life.

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