Supplements: Miracle Workers or Money Wasters?
Okay so let’s talk supplements, shall we? I think it is pretty important to discuss considering I feel like I can’t go anywhere without hearing of someone’s new protein powder, vitamin or mineral supplement they are taking. Not to mention that we have entire chain supplement stores dedicated to selling any type of supplement you could think of and advertisements from fitness instagrammers or random radio commercials trying to convince us to buy a supplement you don’t need. In fact, as of 2010, American’s are spending $21 billion dollars on vitamin, mineral and herb supplements (1). That’s a lot of money period, but especially when there’s a possibility it might not even work for you!
It’s hard to know which ones you need or if you need them at all. And unless you spend hours upon hours trying to research what are the “good” supplements, do they work and so on, it is practically impossible to know the facts.
I frequently get questions like:
Are supplements necessary?
Which supplements should I be taking?
Are they worth the money or am I just going to pee them out?
(awkwardly enough, that last one is the most frequent question I get..)
Those are all totally valid questions and I think I might be able to help answer them. Not that I know everything, but I have had a whole lot of education on supplements, plus a few too many personal nerd-out sessions about supplementation of my own.
So first, what are they? Well, in short, a supplement is any manufactured product intended to supplement the diet when taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid. Did you catch that? Only intended to supplement your diet. A.k.a only to be used when your diet alone cannot provide the nutrients you need. Supplements are needed to boost health during times of stress, illness, or to treat deficient vitamin/mineral states.
Other than that, I say limit supplement use and stick to whole, real foods.
The American Dietary Guidelines (basically the peeps that research nutrition for Americans and suggest the best, scientific answer) agrees with me, they stated in 2015 that,
“Nutritional needs should be met primarily from foods. Individuals should aim to meet their nutrient needs through healthy eating patterns that include nutrient-dense foods that contain essential vitamins and minerals and also dietary fiber and other naturally occurring substances that may have positive health effects”(2).
"But Kait, what if I really am deficient in something?"
It’s definitely possible, just not as common as some would think. In this modern world, almost any type of vitamin or mineral you might need can be found in the food at your local grocery store. We have the optimal diet at our finger-tips… if we want it that is. That’s the issue though. Instead of trying to incorporate some sort of fruit or vegetable into one’s diet to provide all the micronutrients they need, people often substitute that by popping a supplement pill instead. Remember, real food contains healthy things a pill can't give us. When we take a nutrient out of a food and concentrate it in a pill, it's not really the same. Just like cherry concentrate found in fruit juice is not the same as eating a cherry.
Before you decide if a certain supplement is right for you, ask a doctor. Have them test you. They can consider your individual situation and see if supplementation is necessary. Taking a supplement that you don’t need is just as bad, if not worse, than not consuming one at all.
However, national nutrition surveys do show that the average American falls short in consumption of several vitamins and minerals, including calcium, zinc, magnesium, iron, vitamins A and D, vitamins C and E, and vitamin B-6 through their diet (3). Which can be off-set by improving one’s diet, butttttttt if that’s not possible, dietary supplements can help you reach those goals.
I understand that some individuals are limited in their food choices due to allergies, a medical condition or because they may follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. For example, animal foods are the main source of vitamin B12, so people who follow a vegan diet need to eat fortified foods or take a supplement. Also, woman who are pregnant or are child-bearing years should be taking folic acid to prevent birth defects in the baby. So again, talk to your doctor about your INDIVIDUAL situation to see if supplementing is right for you.
It's also worth mentioning that, unlike food and drinks, supplements do not have to be regulated by the FDA (U.S. Food and Drug Administration) (3). That means that companies can really put whatever they want in a supplement without telling you. So that means, even though it’s labeled “ginger root”, it could also have 12 other things in it. Slightly terrifying right? A good rule of thumb is to look for brands with the “USP” label or “NSF International” label on the bottle. These are third party organizations that conduct testing on supplements to determine if what is on the label is actually in the bottle, and that the product does not contain high levels of contaminants, such as heavy metals.
Personally, I take a multi-vitamin and an omega-3 fatty acid supplement every day. A vitamin D supplement seasonally. I also, on occasion, use protein powders and collagen peptides in my smoothies. That’s it.
The multi-vitamin is a reputable brand and provides a wide array of vitamins and minerals. I use this just to feel in any nutritional gaps I have. Because let's be honest, who can have a perfect diet every day... or really any day? Kudos if you can because I for sure can’t!
The other every day supplement, Omega-3, is an essential fatty acid in our diet. It supports our joints, brain health/ function, lowers cholesterol among a few other key benefits. It is not something everyone should take, but the food sources of most omega-3 fatty acids are mainly fish, walnuts and flaxseed. Both of these are things I lack in just due to accessibility and convenience. If you’re wondering if you might benefit from omega-3 supplements in support of your diet, to get adequate amount of Omega-3 in your diet, it's recommended to have fish at least 2 times a week.
Vitamin D. Best source we have is from the sun and next up would be fortified cow’s milk. Vit. D helps the body absorb calcium, which helps build bones and keep them strong and healthy. I use this seasonally because I don’t see the sun hardly at all in the winter… b/c it’s flippin’ cold and I don’t particularly enjoy freezing. Also, my dairy intake is sub-par at best, so I figure that considering over 3 million people in America are vitamin D deficient it wouldn’t hurt. However, in the other, sunnier seasons I usually rely on the absorption from sunlight. 15 minutes of bare skin, exposed to the sun is said to be enough though!
As for the protein and collagen powders, honestly those are only for a protein boost in my smoothies or after a workout when I need some protein for muscle recovery but don’t really feel like woofing down a chicken breast after a sweaty-heavy lifting session you know?
Anyway, the bottom line and most important message I want you to leave with is- FOOD FIRST. ALWAYS. Whole foods not only taste better but absorbs better in the body as well. Try to incorporate as much color and variety in your diet and I can assure you that most, if not all need for supplements won’t be necessary. When taking a supplement, do your research. Look for third-party opinions and reviews as well as asking your doctor’s medical advice.
Supplements aren’t the enemy, but not the cure either.
Lastly, just remember- if God wanted us to survive off of pills and powders He would have made a way to do that. There’s a reason we have apple trees and not pill trees. :)))
1. Guallar E, Stranges S, Mulrow C, Appel LJ, Miller ER. Enough Is Enough: Stop Wasting Money on Vitamin and Mineral Supplements. Ann Intern Med. 2013;159:850–851. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-159-12-201312170-00011
2. Dietary Guidelines. Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. https://www.cnpp.usda.gov/dietary-guidelines. Published 2015. Accessed June 22, 2018.
3. Dickinson A, Bonci L, Boyon N, Franco JC. Dietitians use and recommend dietary supplements: report of a survey. Nutrition Journal. 2012;11:14. doi:10.1186/1475-2891-11-14.