The topic of nutritional supplements is complex and controversial. I could easily write one post for every dollar the world spends on them. So consider this Part 1 of a 32 Billion Part series on this critical subject. That’s right, the vitamin, mineral and supplement industry is a $32,000,000,000 business. Do supplements lead to better health? Or are they merely a way to upgrade the value of your urine? This long post consists of 9 brief suggestions (9 because I am too lazy to write an even 10) about how to get the most out of your supplement dollar and to avoid the dangers of money misspent. Some of these hints show that I have an excellent handle on the obvious. But the supplement industry does such a good job of spreading FUD (fear uncertainty doubt) that the obvious can quickly get murky.
#1 Get Your Nutrients from Food; Not Supplements
Real food beats pills, powders, and tinctures every time. Don’t assume you need to take a supplement just because the latest research tells you to. First of all the latest research is likely biased by the Healthcare Industrial Complex. Also, there is such a thing as “too much of a good thing.” You can overdose on this stuff and they can have nasty side effects. Finally, if you’re truly deficient, you should try to adjust your diet so that you’re supplementing with food instead of pills. Nature’s packaging of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals beats human manufactured packaging every time.
Yes, identifying nutritional deficiencies are often a hassle, but there are so many resources available to help you including websites, apps, doctors, and the all important Nutrition and Health Coach. 😉
#2 Take Supplements With a Purpose and That Have a Reasonable Chance of Working
For example, many supplements claim to build muscle through a variety of mechanisms. These include but are not limited to creatine, BCAAs, beta alanine, glutamine and everyone’s favorite, whey protein. Some of these have strong evidence of being effective (e.g. creatine, protein). Others do little more than make you feel tingly inside (I’m talking to you beta-alanine). But if you’re inactive or if your physical activity is mostly at the recreational level, even potentially effective supplements won’t do much. These are for the elite competitive athlete only.
Remember, that’s just an example. You may not need a Vitamin D supplement if you work outside in Florida. Men almost never need iron supplements. Calcium supplements are used by a lot of people who not only don’t need them but may be causing other issues because they take them. Know why you’re taking a supplement.
#3 Supplements Can’t Do the Impossible
There are certain laws of nature that just can’t be violated, not even by a brightly colored pill advertised by smoking hot models (DISCLAIMER: “smoking hot models” is a gender neutral term that is not intended to denigrate anyone as it applies equally to both cheesecake and beefcake).
Supplements CANNOT BURN FAT. You only lose fat by having a calorie deficit. Some supplements may help to increase your metabolism. Others have the potential of stimulating your GLUT-4 (don’t worry about what this is. It just makes me feel smart saying it). But the overall impact on your metabolism or glucose uptake is so small, these “benefits” hardly make a difference.
No, supplements probably can’t “cleanse” or “detox”, improve your memory, prevent the common cold, etc. I hedge and say “probably.” There is always the chance that a supplement has some minor desirable impact. But you’ll always get more for your money if you eat better, move more, and manage your stress.
#4 Your “Current Medications” Include Supplements
When you visit a doctor, you’re often asked for a list of your current medications. Regardless of whether you’re specifically asked, include any supplements that you take on that list. There are many unintended consequences when mixing supplements and certain conventional medicines. Supplements may enhance or suppress the intended effect of other drugs you take. Or, the interaction of supplements and other medications can cause negative side effects.
If you have a doctor who specifically asks you what supplements you are taking as part of a routine visit, you have found a gem. Hold onto that physician for as long as you can.
#5 The Supplement Industry is Out of Control
The US Food and Drug Administration is the government entity that “monitors the nutritional supplement industry”. In that role, they treat supplements like foods; not like drugs. This means they don’t test for safety, purity, or effectiveness. You’re on your own and there is a spate of horror stories that result. Recently, the State of New York tested products sold by four major retailers and found that four out of five of the herbal supplements they sold did not contain any of the contents claimed on the label. In yet another case, methamphetamine analogs were found in weight loss supplements. Walter White would be proud.
You can work around this supplement non-regulation goat rodeo by finding a trusted source for information on supplements. Resources include:
- NSF – Reliable supplement manufacturers will send their products to NSF for certification and testing that proves the products contain the good stuff they are supposed to contain and aren’t contaminated with nasty stuff. Manufacturers who submit their products for NSF testing proudly display the NSF logo on their packaging.
- Labdoor – Independently buys supplements from grocery store shelves and tests them against a variety of metrics. They then rank products by highest-to-lowest quality and highest-to-lowest value. Labdoor is a for-profit organization, but they are very transparent about their operations and funding. I trust them more than I trust the FDA.
- Examine.com – Examine is similar to Labdoor. I only started referring to them, but they seem legit, if not a little cheeky.
#6 Supplements are Not an All or Nothing Deal
You don’t necessarily need to take your supplements every day. Part of taking your supplements with a purpose (see #2 above) means recognizing when you may be in a deficit for a specific nutrient and when you may be OK. The clearest example of this is protein supplements. Daily protein requirements vary based on goals and activity level from as low as .8 grams per kilogram (kg) of body weight to as much as 2 grams per kg. Protein supplements should be used on those days when you know your protein intake through real food won’t meet your protein needs based on your weight and activity.
To complicate matters, other supplements need a longer view approach. Magnesium is a useful nutrient that many people don’t get enough of. But you shouldn’t worry about supplementing if the magnesium you consume via your diet is only low on the occasional day. But who has the time to think about how much magnesium you’re consuming at any given time? Get yourself tested. If your magnesium levels are low, supplement.
Then there’s vitamin D. For most people in the U.S., you’re consuming enough vitamin D if you’re outside for 15-20 minutes a day from late spring to early fall. However, in the winter, you may have to supplement.
The toughest part about all of this is that habit formation, such as taking supplements on a regular basis, requires repetition to wire it into your brain. If you have to make the special effort to think first, you might forget. Sorry about that. It wasn’t my idea.
#7 Fish Oil is Good for You Except it Might Kill You But it Won’t
SOURCE: Precision Nutrition
When I was growing up, fish was “brain food”. My own anecdotal evidence of this is my dad who I mentioned before lived a robust life well into his mid-90s and was sharp as a tack to the end. When he worked in Manhattan during the Mad Men era, he was eating fish and drinking tea for lunch while his colleagues were doing the steak and 3-martini thing. But I digress.
Towards the end of the 20th century, the benefits of Fish Oil became well publicized and the demand this created for fish is a contributor to the tenuous state of the world’s fisheries. Fish oil, or more specifically Omega-3 fatty acids (or even more specifically eicosapentaenoic acid [EPA] and docosahexaenoic acid [DHA]) are credited as being good for your brain, eyes, skin, mood, heart, immune system, weight, and hormonal balance. All of these benefits have the research to back it up. Recommending that a client take fish oil as an initial step to better health became an easy slam dunk
However, as with all things tied to the Healthcare Industrial Complex, there is as much money to be made debunking the health benefits of some substance as there is in promoting the health benefits. Last year a paper was published that “proved” consumption of fish oil was unnecessary and even dangerous. This paper got big headlines. Several months later, the author and the associated research was discredited. The journal retracted the paper. The media did not retract. They let the sensational headlines stand.
Most experts agree that if you take any single supplement, fish oil should be tops on your list. But as with all supplements, the previous hints apply. That is:
- Focus on food as your primary source for omega-3s.
- Consult with your health professional because there are some cases in which taking fish oil leads to problems.
- Find a reputable supplier that offers fish oil supplements that actually contain fish oil, doesn’t contain other stuff, and won’t break the bank.
There is a lot more I can say about fish oil including proper storage, solutions for vegetarians and why some plant-based sources of omega-3s are less than ideal. I’ll save all that for a future post.
#8 Vitamin D is the “Marilyn Munster” of the Vitamin Family
Vitamin D doesn’t really fit into the vitamin family but like Marilyn Munster, it’s beautiful. Vitamin D is a precursor to the hormone calcitriol which is critical to healthy, strong bones. If you’re downing calcium for bone health but aren’t getting enough Vitamin D, that calcium is going to waste. Vitamin D appears to have other critical health benefits including many of the same benefits of fish oil listed in #7 above.
For most vitamins, the only way to get your daily dose is by swallowing them. Vitamin D is different in that, given the right conditions, your body can make its own. Those “conditions” are exposure to sunlight. Yes, the very same sunlight that can give you skin cancer. To make matters worse, it’s difficult to get enough Vitamin D from food. Here are some practical hints to make sure you have enough Vitamin D.
- Get tested. If you’re in the right range, keep doing what you’re doing.
- If you’re not in the right range and you’re not overly sensitive to the sun, make sure you get 15 to 20 minutes of exposure to the sun a day. Exposing only your hands and face is enough.
- If the mere mention of the word “sun” gives you sunburn or you live in a climate with any definitive winter season (and it is currently that season), you should supplement.
Make sure you supplement using Vitamin D-3. This is the natural form of the vitamin that is most similar to what your body makes on its own.
#9 Stop Taking Calcium Supplements Now!!!
There are so many whole food sources for calcium, there is almost no excuse for taking calcium supplements. Lactose intolerant? Vegan? Paleo eater? You can be true to your lifestyle and still get plenty of calcium through food. Good non-dairy calcium sources include beans, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, almonds, turnips, and certain fish.
If you get tested and find you are low in calcium, more than likely there is some other issue besides calcium intake. For example, it may be because you’re low in some other nutrient that calcium needs in order to be absorbed. These include Vitamin D (see #8 above), Vitamin K and Magnesium. But even if it is a true calcium deficiency, just eat a balanced diet that includes calcium-containing whole foods. If you’re not doing that, low calcium is probably not the only place your diet is falling short.
Furthermore, too much calcium can cause oodles of health issues including Alzheimer’s Disease, heart disease and kidney stones.
OK. I’ve done enough damage for one post. and it barely covers the topic of supplements. If you have questions on any specific supplement, let me know and I’ll cover it in a future post. If you don’t suggest a topic, then I’ll have to make up my own. And no one wants that.