Happy Monday everyone! This week, I wanted to take a moment to talk about a $122 billion industry: supplements.
Almost everyone takes or has taken a supplement at some point in time. Maybe in college, you threw back 5 hour energy shots to help you stake away and study. Maybe during pregnancy, you took prenatal vitamins. And maybe, you were even recommended to take certain supplements under the care of your doctor. Today’s post is going to ultimately help you navigate the world of supplements. It’s obviously a condescend post, because there’s no way I could get into everything in a single blog post. But for the time being, keep reading to find out some of the most basic guidelines about supplement use.
What’s the Skinny on Supplements? What Do I Absolutely Need to Know?
I get questions from clients all the time about supplements and supplement use. Here’s the lowdown on some of the most basic information about supplements.
- What is a supplement? → According to the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS), supplements “include vitamins, minerals, herbals and botanicals, amino acids, enzymes, and many other products. Dietary supplements come in a variety of forms: traditional tablets, capsules, and powders, as well as drinks and energy bars.”
- A supplement is NOT a substitution→ It sounds oversimplified, but supplements are just that—a supplement. They are NOT intended to be used in place of a healthy diet. Many healthcare professionals might tell you that a supplement is an insurance policy for your body in case you didn’t get enough a certain nutrient in a given day. As tempting as it might be to pop a multivitamin then gorge on a plate of French fries, you’re not doing yourself any favors, nor are you improving your health.
- Supplements aren’t miracles or cure-alls, and you should be wary if a company says that→ Let’s make this clear. There is no supplement out there that can reverse heart disease, cure cancer, or make you 25 again. If there was, you’d be sure that some pharmaceutical company would have jumped on it by now. This isn’t to say that specific supplements don’t work or don’t promote health, but you’re truly kidding yourself if you’re placing all your marbles in one basket (or in this case, one supplement). A healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and educated use of specific supplements for your personal health needs are the key to longevity and overall wellness.
- Most supplements aren’t regulated by the FDA→ Didn’t know this? Well now you do! The FDA currently does not regulate any supplements on the market. This means that for all you know, that vitamin C supplement you’re buying doesn’t have a drop of vitamin C in it. Again, this isn’t to say that all supplements are basically sawdust packed into tiny capsules. The point here is you really need to do your research about the companies and products you buy. Ask your doctor about supplements, read the labels, and really try to figure out what you’re taking before blindly popping pills.
- Your doctor/healthcare professional should know what supplements you’re taking→ A lot of people are afraid to tell their doctors what supplements they take. They’re usually afraid their doctor won’t let them take the supplement anymore. On the contrary, most doctors don’t have a problem with supplement use. They’re more concerned about if you’re the right candidate for a specific supplement, and they want to make sure your supplement use doesn’t interact with any medications you’re taking. For instance, St. John’s Worth is notorious for interacting with a bunch of different medications, namely anti-depressants. If you’re on Prozac or Lexapro and don’t tell you’re doctor that you’re also taking St. John’s Worth, you could run into a potentially dangerous drug interaction.
Who Needs Supplements?
Are you a person who might benefit from supplementation use? Check out the top populations at risk for nutrient deficiency. These groups might need a little more help from the supplement aisle than most:
- Vegetarians→ Because this population doesn’t eat meat/dairy/animal products, they’re at risk for becoming deficient in iron, B12, and calcium. B12 is specifically only obtained through animal products, making it very difficult to get all the B12 you need from diet alone.
- Pregnant Women/Nursing Mothers→ Pregnant women and nursing mothers are undergoing MAJOR physiological processes when they’re expecting, giving birth, recovering postpartum, and nursing. Simply put, they just need more nutrients than non-pregnant women. Two of the most common supplements you hear about during pregnancy are folic acid and calcium. Insufficient folic acid intake is specifically linked to neural tube defects in utero. Increased nutrient needs combined with other pregnancy symptoms like nausea, food cravings, etc is why almost all doctors recommend taking prenatal vitamins.
- Older Adults→ Older adults are often good candidates for supplement use for multiple reasons. First, their bodies aren’t as efficient as absorbing nutrients as they were when they were younger. So these individuals might often need more vitamin C or calcium than they did 20-25 years ago. Second, as we age our appetite tends to diminish. I see this in my older adult clients all the time who often forget to eat or just aren’t as hungry as they used to be. Because this population doesn’t ingest as many calories, they need to be very diligent about following a nutrient-dense diet. And when that doesn’t happen, often they require supplementation for a variety of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
- Anyone who can’t follow a relatively healthy diet for medical reasons→ Here’s a great example for you. I have a client who has pretty severe digestive issues. She really can’t tolerate many fruits and vegetables. She can’t tolerate many whole grains or foods high in fiber, and a lot of dairy products also don’t make her feel great. Because her diet is so limited, she’s someone who definitely needs to supplement with a basic multivitamin/multi-mineral. This isn’t to say I’ve given up on her eating a whole foods diet or that her supplement is a substitute for eating right. But given her medical situation, supplements are needed to maintain her health.
If I Can Just Pop a Supplement, Why Bother Eating Healthy?
Photo Credit: The Sunshine Eatery
This is a question I get ALL the time. It would be great if nutrition was as simple as popping supplements all day. But unfortunately, things are a little more complicated:
- Bioavailability→ What exactly is bioavailability? It’s the ability your body has to extract nutrients out of foods. Sometimes, eating a food in its whole form can reap more health benefits than taking just the supplement of that food. This brings me to my next point…
- Foods vs. Nutrients→ Ever heard of lycopene? It’s an antioxidant found in tomatoes. When people first discovered lycopene, immediately you saw a ton of lycopene supplements out there and there was a ton of encouragement for consumers to reap the benefits of this nutrient. The question is, is it the lycopene that’s leading to these health benefits? Or is it something else in the tomato combining with the lycopene that is leading to these health benefits? Extracting the specific nutrient from the food and putting it in supplement form does not automatically mean you will reap the health benefits.
This is why you cannot just blindly take supplements and think your health will magically improve. Nutrition is still a very complicated field, and every day we’re making new discoveries. Supplement fads will come and go, but healthy eating is a trend that will always make you feel better.
What Supplements Should I Look Into Taking?
Personally, I take some of these supplements. Some I don’t bother with. But that’s just me. If you’re interested in adding supplement use as part of your healthy lifestyle, look into the following supplements. These are the products that have the most scientific and medical support:
- Multivitamin/multi-mineral (I personally take this)
- Fish Oil (I take this)
- Vitamin D (if it’s not already in your multi)
- Anti-inflammatory supplements (Curcumin, Zyflamend, etc.) (I take Zyflamend)
- CoQ10 (I take this)
What About Insert-Cool-Supplement-Here?
Photo Credit: The New York Times
Let me break it to you gently. There will ALWAYS be a hot, new supplement on the market that everyone seems to be talking about. While there might be some truth to this enthusiasm, it’s important to remember that a lot of the health gurus/supplement companies raving about a specific product do have a goal in mind: profit.
Even the best-intentioned healthcare professionals can fall into the trap when a hot supplement hits the market. It’s important to remember that the idea of new supplements coming into the market is the very nature of the supplement industry. To keep consumers excited and interested, companies need to put new products every 6-18 months. McDonald’s includes product expansion agenda as part of their marketing. Pepsi also participates in product expansion. And so do supplement companies. This is again why it’s so important to be a prudent and educated consumer. Do your research with each potential supplement that you want to add to your health routine.
Hopefully today’s post answers some of your questions about supplements. If you have additional inquiries, I’d be happy to answer them. Comment below or send me an email for all your supplement questions 🙂