Should you supplement?
I know what you’re wondering. Do you really need to take any supplements? “My grandpa didn’t take any supplements, and he almost reached 100 years of age!” Or maybe you already eat relatively healthy, and you exercise so surely you’re getting all that you need right? Ideally yes, we would obtain all our micro and macronutrient requirements through whole foods. But the truth is that in today’s world, that may not be so simple.
For one, the soil from which our crops come from is simply not as nutrient-rich as it once was. Modern agricultural practices such mono-culture farming has depleted our soil of nutrients, and subsequently decreased the nutrient density of the food that grows out of it. We overuse pesticides, which leads to pesticide-resistance, which in turn leads to an increase in pesticide use. These pesticides remain on our food. Even if we shop organic, some of the pesticides get into our water due to run-off. Speaking of water, clean water? Forget about it. Chemicals like chlorine, lead, mercury, arsenic, nitrates, and even compounds found in birth control have routinely been found in tap water . But since they are in such “low-concentrations” it is allowed. However, the long-term effects of consuming these chemicals is not known, and probably is not ideal..
We overconsume processed foods with artificial ingredients aiming to increase shelf-life or palatability which causes us to get hooked on them. And as we know, overconsumption and chronic inflammation leads can lead to diseases like obesity, and have even been linked to alzheimers, depression, and cancer.
So what can we do? Awareness is the first step. But let’s face it, our environment is not optimal for health. This is where supplements come in. I still am an advocate of consuming high-quality, well-sourced whole foods, but in certain instances, looking to supplements is not a bad idea.
What supplements to take?
The supplement industry is a billion dollar industry, and can be hard to navigate without the right information. Since supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), many companies can get away with making unsubstantiated claims.
As such, there are constantly new supplements hitting the market boasting of one thing or another. If you buy into all the claims, you may end up wasting money on ineffective products. Trust me, I’ve been there. Your best assurance is to see if there is quality research done, such double-blind clinical trials to back up the claims.
Once you know if a supplement is potentially effective, you need to know if it’s right for you. Getting bloodwork done, and consulting a health professional is the best way to know what deficiencies you have, if any. This will prevent you from wasting money on a supplement that you may not need. It is also possible to build up toxicity by overconsuming certain products so make sure to ascertain the extent of your deficiency, and what dose to take.
That said, there are some common nutrients that most people are deficient in, or that can aid in optimizing your health. So without further ado, here is a simple list of the 5 most beneficial supplements to take.
Magnesium is also responsible for a plethora of actions in the body. It’s a cofactor in over 300 metabolic reactions in the body. It energizes your brain, improves digestion, aids in calcium absorption, decreases blood pressure, strengthens bones, and can even improve sleep.
Foods High in Magnesium:
- Dark chocolate
- Brazil nuts
- Leafy greens
In case you’re not able to consume those foods regularly a magnesium supplement may be appropriate. It is important to note what kind of magnesium you’re taking though. Not all forms are created equally. Magnesium is often bound to compounds to increase its absorbability. Magnesium glycinate, magnesium threonate, magnesium citrate, and magnesium lysinate all have slightly different properties but are good forms of magnesium. However, magnesium oxide or magnesium carbonate are lower quality forms that are not as bioavailable. If you have trouble sleeping, try taking a magnesium supplement prior to bed to help with relaxation.
Aim for 200-400 mg/day.
2. Fish Oil
Fish oil is another supplement that boasts a wide array of health benefits. This is due to its omega-3 content. Omega-3 fatty acids include both docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA). These nutrients are “essential” not only because of their health benefits, but specifically because we cannot produce them on our own. They must be obtained through diet or supplementation.
Omega-3 fatty acids support a healthy cardiovascular system, cognition, joints, and vision. They’re integral parts of cell membranes, affecting communication between cells and helping to regulate hormone production, and they have been shown to reduce blood pressure, atherosclerosis, and arthritis. .
DHA and EPA have been linked to improved cognition, regulation of inflammation, and are found mostly in fatty fish, as well as algae (primarily DHA).
ALA is found in many plant sources, such as flax, leafy vegetables, walnuts, as well as some animal fat, and is primarily used in the body as an energy source. It’s conversion to DHA and EPA in the body is very limited.
Omega-6 fatty acids are also important, however, in the typical American diet we overconsume them. Optimal ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 in our diet are 4/3:1, however, it is not uncommon to see up to a 20:1 ratio with all the processed foods we consume. This can lead to inflammation, and an increased risk of heart disease, and even obesity .
Omega-3 fatty acids are known to benefit cardiovascular health, support healthy brain function and cognition, and have also been proven to maintain a healthy inflammatory response, achieving the proper balance of omega-3s has become an important health strategy, requiring supplementation for most people,
If you eat high-quality fatty fish 3-4 times a week, you most likely don’t need a fish oil supplement. If not, your omega-3 levels are probably low.
Foods High in Omega-3s (DHA & EPA):
- Wild salmon
*Although tuna is high in omega-3s, it can also be high in Mercury.
2-3 grams/day of fish oil is optimal for most people. Make sure it is sourced sustainably, and from deep-water fatty fish, in triglyceride form and not Ethyl Ester form. The latter is cheaper to produce, but is less bioavailable, and can oxidize more readily which can cause an increase in inflammation rather than decrease it. To obtain all the health benefits, look for a product that is pharmaceutical grade, as well as molecularly-distilled to filter out toxins such as Mercury, or other heavy metals. .
3. Vitamin D3 w/K2
Vitamin D deficiency very common in the US. Even more so in places where it’s not sunny, because we need direct sun on skin contact to produce vitamin D in our body. A minimum of 15 minutes/day is ideal, but those with darker skin, more time may be required.
Vitamin D is important for various different processes in the body. As a matter of fact, vitamin D isn’t even a vitamin, it’s a hormone. And as we know, hormone dysregulation can have unfavorable effects on the body. Vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption, as well as bone growth. It also helps regulate the immune, and neuromuscular systems. Research has even shown a link between Vitamin D levels and reduced incidence of colon cancer .
Foods High in Vitamin D:
- Cod Liver Oil
- Egg Yolks
(Mushrooms are the only plant source that contains vitamin D, in the form of vitamin D2. The D3 form has been shown to sustain levels of vitamin D in body better than D2)
In case you’re not exposed to enough sunlight, a Vitamin D supplement may be appropriate. Look for a product that also contains Vitamin K2, which increases the absorbability of Vitamin D. If you want to make absolutely sure that you need to supplement with vitamin D, get blood work done. A concentration of 30nm/mL in the blood is common, but 50-80ng/mL is the optimal range.
As mentioned before, even if you’re consuming organic natural whole foods, it’s possible that you aren’t meeting all your nutrient needs. According to a report from Oregon State University, a survey of over 16,000 people 4 years and older reported “a high prevalence of inadequacies for multiple micronutrients. Specifically, 94.3% of the US population do not meet the daily requirement for vitamin D, 88.5% for vitamin E, 52.2% for magnesium, 44.1% for calcium, 43.0% for vitamin A, and 38.9% for vitamin C. For the nutrients in which a requirement has not been set, 100% of the population had intakes lower than the AI for potassium, 91.7% for choline, and 66.9% for vitamin K. The prevalence of inadequacies was low for all of the B vitamins and several minerals, including copper, iron, phosphorus, selenium, sodium, and zinc.” .
A multi-vitamin can help you cover all the bases. But as always, you want to make sure what you’re putting inside your body is increasing your health, and not harming it.
You also want nutrients that your body can actually absorb! Many companies will pack their supplements with a long list of ingredients, but use cheap versions that don’t do your body much good.
Look for minerals that are chelated. This means they are bound to certain amino acids to increase absorbability. But just like with magnesium, avoid ones bound to carbonates or oxides. Other nuances to look for are:
- Vitamin B12 as Methylcobalamin, and not Cyanocobalamin
- Vitamin B6 as Pyridoxal 5’-Phosphate, and not Pyridoxine HCl
- Vitamin B2 as Riboflavin 5’-Phosphate, and not Riboflavin HCl
- Folate (B9) as L-5-MTHF, and not Folic acid
- Trace minerals such Selenium, Chromium, Iodine, Zinc, etc. included
- Zinc and Copper in optimal ratios (8:1 or 12:1) as too much Zinc can inhibit Copper absorption
- Too much Iron acts as an unhealthy oxidant, so take only if you’re deficient
- Be cautious of Fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) in high doses, as they can lead to toxicity
There is a misconception that you don’t need protein if you’re not trying to “bulk” up. I hear it all the time from clients. “I don’t wanna get too bulky.” Well guess what? If you want to lose weight, you also need protein. Yes you need protein to build muscle, but guess what your hair and skin and nails and organs are all made of? Yep you guessed it, protein. So even if you don’t want to build muscle, you need to at least maintain it. Not to mention as we age, our muscle mass declines, as will our metabolic rate since there’s a direct correlation between the two.
Now I don’t necessarily believe that everyone needs a protein supplement. If you can get it from your food all the better.
Foods High in Protein:
- Cow Milk
- Goat Milk
- Pea Protein
Note, rice, beans, and most other plant sources can also contain protein but they are not complete proteins. meaning they will not provide you all the amino acids necessary. Consuming them together, however, is a useful strategy since they complement each other’s amino acid profile.
Aim for 0.8 grams of protein/kilogram of bodyweight daily. If you’re highly active, dieting, or performing exercise multiple times a day, 1-1.2 g/kg of b.w may be appropriate.
I advocate for real foods, that are minimally processed, and sourced responsibly. And if you really want to go down a rabbit hole, eating foods that are local and in season are two other good criteria. Supplements should SUPPLEMENT your diet. But even so, eating exclusively nutrient-dense foods is not always feasible for everyone.
And in case you missed it, QUALITY > quantity. What you put in your body will make a difference in your health. Inferior products filled with unnatural chemicals, can wreak havoc on your body causing inflammation and additional stress.
Look for a product that is NSF certified (manufactured in a National Sanitation Foundation facility), or CGMP certified (manufactured in a certified good manufacturing practices facility to ensure purity). The website labdoor.com is another great resource for reviewing supplement quality.
If you’re taking a supplement, it’s because you are trying to increase your health and/or performance. If that’s the case, it’s counterintuitive to use low-quality ingredients. A little investment goes a long way.
So should you take supplements? It depends, but most likely yes. And if you do decide to take a supplement, make sure to consult a doctor or health professional, especially if you’re taking other medications. Do your homework and get bloodwork done to figure out where you’re lacking. And lastly, make sure the source of the product is ethical, sustainable, and that the ingredients are effective.
. Simopoulos, Artemis P. “An Increase in the Omega-6/Omega-3 Fatty Acid Ratio Increases the Risk for Obesity” Nutrients vol. 8,3 128. 2 Mar. 2016, doi:10.3390/nu8030128
. Klampfer, Lidija. “Vitamin D and colon cancer” World journal of gastrointestinal oncology vol. 6,11 (2014): 430-7.