If you’ve read many of my blog posts, then you know that I don’t often talk about supplements. And because you are smart, I know that you know this is because food is usually the best way to get the nutrients our bodies need. After all, real food is wonderfully complex and each type comes with a whole host of macro-, micro- and phytonutrients.
Since we know so much about the plethora of nutrients in food, it seems like we could pop a bunch of pills to get all the nutrients in the recommended doses. But this is where that theory breaks down… even with all the info we have already, I am certain scientists haven’t yet identified all the nutrients in food. I mean, did you know that phytonutrients were discovered in the 1990s and scientists estimate there are more than 25,000 different kinds of them?! That’s a lot of discovering in recent history… and I’m sure they aren’t done yet!
Plus, there is evidence that nutrients from supplements aren’t always absorbed and utilized as effectively as the nutrients in food; some nutrients need to be paired with other nutrients in order to be effective without being toxic and these partners aren’t always put together in supplements; and you don’t get any extraneous “fillers” when eating real food versus taking a supplement. For all these reasons, food is generally the best source of nutrients.
Now, with all of that said, there are some situations where supplements are incredibly helpful and may be necessary. For example, above 33˚N latitude and below 33˚S latitude, the angle of the sun is too low during the winter months to produce any vitamin D in people’s skin, regardless of duration of exposure. As such, supplementing with vitamin D is often necessary to maintain sufficient levels and ward off the problems associated with vitamin D deficiency. Another example is related to the MTHFR gene. With certain variations (i.e., SNPs), a person is not able to activate folic acid so that it is usable by the cells. For these people, taking a supplement with the active form of folate can help prevent the problems associated with this genetic SNP, including a variety of cancers, heart problems, depression, IBS, miscarriages and migraines.
As well, there is evidence that our food isn’t as nutritious as it used to be due to soil depletion. The result is that, even when eating an excellent diet of whole foods, we may not be able to get all of the nutrients we need from food in any kind of practical way. I mean, we could do nothing but eat vegetables all day in an attempt to get all we need, but that’s not reasonable… or perhaps even enough, depending on where those veggies came from.
Does it seem like I’m flip-flopping between my stance of real food vs. supplements?! I promise I’m not trying to!
I know that food is the best way to go. And I know there are some situations where supplements can supplement an already healthy diet to bring nutrition into the optimal realm. But this only works if the supplements do what you need them to do! (For more info about how to decide if you should take a supplement, check out part 2 of this series.)
Since there are approximately a bijillion supplement manufacturers out there and picking a good one is confusing for everybody. Here are my top 5 tips for ensuring you are making a good choice:
1. Avoid unnecessary (and sometimes ridiculous) ingredients.
As with food you buy in a box, bag or can, you want to be sure you are getting what you want and need in your supplement and nothing more. To do this, read the ingredients label and look for red flag ingredients like sugar (in all its forms), artificial color and flavor, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, talc, magnesium silicate, titanium dioxide, chlorine and other chemicals.
As well, look for ingredients that you are sensitive to, even if you don’t expect them to be included. When supplements (and medications for that matter) are manufactured, excipients (or supposedly inactive ingredients) are added for various purposes such as to bind the active ingredients together. These filler ingredients may be made from gluten, soy, corn, dairy or any number of other foods or chemicals to which you are sensitive or allergic.
Finally, remember that “natural” doesn’t always mean safe, and certainly doesn’t always mean healthy. So supplements that are “all natural” may still be giving you something you don’t want!
2. Get the right dosage of what you need.
Don’t be fooled by catchy call-outs on the bottle or box! A manufacturer’s goal is to get you to buy their product, and they may lull you into a false sense of security by using advertising that looks good. A recent example was a client who told me she was taking a probiotic (which I’ve said is generally a good thing). When I asked to see a picture of the bottle, I noticed a big call out inside a bright blue star on the front that said “100 million CFUs!” Looks good doesn’t it? Until you realize that a good probiotic has at least 10 billion CFUs.
Again, read the ingredients label and be sure you are getting the amount of the nutrient (or good gut bugs) that you need… and that you know how many pills / capsules / drops it will take to achieve that. For example, if you are looking for 5,000 IU of vitamin D, you can take 5 capsules of one brand or 5 drops of another.
This also ensures you don’t get too much of a nutrient, which could lead to toxicity and negative consequences. The goal is to get the right amount of the right thing for your needs.
3. Buy from a quality manufacturer.
There are lots of super-reputable supplement manufacturers and distributors out there… and there are plenty that are making crappy products. A few ways to tell a good manufacturer are:
- A Certificate of Analysis (COA) for each ingredient,
- Compliance to pharmaceutical Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP),
- Voluntary quality certification by appropriate authorities (in case you didn’t know, the FDA does not regulate supplements; manufacturers and distributors are responsible for proving the safety of the supplements they sell)
Reputable supplement companies make their products based on scientific research, from the best raw materials, without contaminants and pay independent labs to ensure their products do what they say they will do. These companies will have product specs, supporting research and laboratory assays regarding ingredients and dosage claims available. (For example, I mentioned that good probiotic companies will have viability studies available for their products.)
If you can’t find the info you need on the product’s box or bottle, then go to the company’s website and look around. If the website doesn’t have it, don’t be afraid to call them. Respectable supplement manufacturers will have no problems answering your questions and will want to be sure you are getting what you need from their product.
4. Be sure you are getting the form of the nutrient that you need.
The body is a wonderfully intricate machine that often transforms nutrients before use. These conversions are part of the checks and balances system that keeps your system humming along as efficiently as possible. However, as I mentioned above, everyone’s body isn’t as good at making these transformations as is required. So, it’s important to know that you are getting the right form of the nutrient so that your body can use it. Three examples that come to mind are the active forms of folate (5-methyltetrahydrofolate or 5-MTHF), B12 (methylcobalamin or adenosylcobalamin) and CoQ10 (ubiquinol).
As well, you want to be sure you are getting the form of the nutrient that is least likely to cause toxicity. For example, too much vitamin A is a bad thing, but too much beta-carotene (which is two vitamin As hooked together) will simply give your skin an orange hue. So, if you need more vitamin A than you can get from food, the right supplement might be one with beta-carotene rather than pre-formed vitamin A… or a mixture of carotenoids and pre-formed vitamin A.
Finally, different nutrient forms affect the body in different ways. The most obvious example here is magnesium. If you’ve ever tried to buy a magnesium supplement, then you know that it may show up as magnesium citrate, magnesium glycinate or magnesium aspartate (to name just a few). Depending on why you need the magnesium and what effect the “other” part will have determines which one you need. If you tend to be more acidic, then magnesium citrate may be a good option. If you have sleep or mood issues, then magnesium taurate could be the right choice… and far better than magnesium hydroxide if constipation isn’t also an issue for you.
5. Remember that price isn’t the only consideration.
Look, I know money doesn’t grow on trees. Few people in the world can buy anything they want without thinking about how much it costs. At the same time, I encourage you to keep in mind the quality vs cost consideration.
As with food or clothes or just about anything else, manufacturers of cheaper products have to save money somewhere. They may save money by using cheaper forms of a nutrient that might not be as absorbable or usable; they might reduce the dose of active ingredient per pill and use extra fillers; they could use cheap or artificial fillers that require your body to work harder to eliminate them. Or maybe they aren’t, but I seriously doubt they are reducing their own margin to give you a high quality product at a discount.
So, keep in mind that while more expensive doesn’t necessarily mean better (I’m sure there are plenty of costly supplements that don’t have sufficient quality standards), you may have to pay more to be sure you are getting the thing that you need in a form that you can use without any extraneous ingredients getting in the way!
And at the end of the day, this is the goal… to appropriately supplement your wonderfully healthy diet in a way that brings you closer to achieving optimal health and well-being. If you want to know how I apply this information, watch part 3 of this series in which I show you the supplements I take on at least a somewhat regular basis.
Note: This is education and is not a recommendation for supplementation, nor should it replace the input from a qualified healthcare practitioner. If you are looking for personalized supplementation recommendations, contact me and we can work together to determine if supplements are right to help you on your health journey.
— Allen S. IFMNT Mentor Training Series: Level II, Topic #2: Dietary Supplements. [Lecture] Attended October 10, 2015.
— ConsumerLab.com. Is it better to get vitamins from foods or supplements, and are natural vitamins better than synthetic vitamins? In ConsumerLab.com Answers. Accessed on February 23, 2016.
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— Holick MF, Binkley NC, Bischoff-Ferrari HA, et al. Evaluation, treatment, and prevention of vitamin D deficiency: an Endocrine Society clinical practice guideline. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2011;96(7):1911-1930.
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— Scheer R, Moss D. Dirt poor: Have fruits and vegetables become less nutritious? In Health. April 27, 2011. Accessed on February 23, 2016.
— STTM. MTHFR genetic defect – what it is and how it can affect you. Accessed on February 23, 2016.
— United States Department of Agriculture. Phytonutrients take center stage. AgResearch Magazine. Dec 1999. Accessed on February 23, 2016.
— U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Dietary supplements: What you need to know. In Food. Updated January 6, 2016. Accessed on February 23, 2016.
— Yigzaw E. 5 dangerous ingredients in your vitamins and dietary supplements. In ACHS Health and Wellness Blog. May 30, 2104. Accessed on February 23, 2016.