When it comes to life, I believe that our main objective should be to live the healthiest, longest and most vibrant life possible while looking and feeling good in the process. Within that context, strictly speaking, most of us don’t need supplements in order to accomplish this. In fact, in a perfect world, you should be able to get all the nutrients your body needs from your diet. And for many of us, it’s perfectly possible to receive proper nutrition through diet by adhering closely to a diet rich in unprocessed meats and other complete protein sources, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and good fats.
In fact, we as a species are adapted to getting our nutrients from food, and –unlike supplements- foods contain the right co-factors required to help our bodies thoroughly and efficiently absorb those nutrients. The problem is, the average American diet is filled with so many unhealthy, nutrient deficient, processed foods that it leaves a lot to be desired. Research finds our plates lacking in a number of essential nutrients, so it’s no wonder why more than half of our population open a supplement bottle to try to get the nutrition they need.
The truth is most of us have no idea just how powerful the food/body relationship is and the incredible ability healthful, nutrient rich foods have to automatically manage our body weight and protect us against disease. Because of this, many of us take supplements not just to make up for what we believe we’re lacking in, but also because we hope to give ourselves that extra health boost or a “so called” preventative buffer.
Although getting our nutrients straight from a supplement bottle may seem easy and straight forward, most supplements don’t necessarily deliver on their promise of better health. In fact, way too many supplements are grossly over-pushed and widely overused. Many of the products you see on the shelves are probably pretty useless and some -specifically minerals- can become downright toxic in high doses.
As we are literally plagued with an overwhelming supply of choices thousands of these products have more smoke and mirror hype behind them than research to back them up. The fact is a supplement is only as good as the sum of its whole (Real food + Supplement = Benefit). Even the ones that might seem sensible are still only – exactly what the word implies – a “supplement” and not to be mistaken as a replacement for real food, but rather used in conjunction with.
Additionally, what I have found, in many cases, is people who use supplements do so with a false sense that it can make up for a poor diet. In many respects, people believe that by supplementing they will pick up the slack for their unhealthy choices. Well, I have some not so good news for these folks – that’s not the way things work! You see, many supplements are only active in the presence of real food. Without the presence of real food these supplements will pass through your body literally untouched, only to be excreted. In reality, it’s like putting your hard earned dollars in the toilet and flushing them.
With all that being said, there are four categories of supplements that have shown great promise in giving that extra health boost they claim. Here are the ones I personally use and also recommend to my clients.
1. Omega-3 Fish Oil
If I had to pick one supplement that I believe everyone in the Western culture should take it would definitely be an Omega-3 supplement. Unfortunately, because of the highly industrialized Western diet (which is now making its way around the world) far too many of us are getting way too much Omega-6 fatty acids and way too little Omega-3’s. Because of this, many of us are left in a constant state of systemic inflammation.
Although both Omega-6 fatty acids and Omega-3 fatty acids are essential (which means the body cannot make them so they must be obtained from an outside source), they must be consumed in the proper ratios in order to reap their benefits. While in a perfect world the optimal ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 would be 1:1, today the average ratio resides around 15:1 or higher.
It is undisputed by nearly every nutrition guru that the research on fish oils is pretty remarkable, showing benefits across the board from decreased risk for heart disease and cancer to lowering triglycerides, improving joint mobility, decreasing insulin resistance and improving brain function and mood. In fact, drug companies are even starting to take notice of its extraordinary power. Even as healthy as my own diet is, I never go a day without taking 3 to 4 grams of an Omega-3 Fish Oil supplement.
When choosing an Omega-3 supplement look for a product that supports a 1.5:1 EPA to DHA ratio (E.g. 450mg EPA to 300mg DHA respectively). These are the long chain active ingredients in fish oil. Also make sure a single capsule contains at least 800mg and preferable 1000mg of “omega-3 fatty acids”. I recommend my clients take between 2000mg to 4000mg of “omega 3 fatty acids” per/day in conjunction with meals (depending on their body size).
2. Pro and Pre-biotics
Better nutrition science is now starting to help us understand the mechanisms behind probiotics (the microorganism introduced into the body for beneficial qualities). As we continue to learn, it appears that our gut bacteria has a much deeper influence on our health than originally thought.
The fact is the bacteria in your body outnumber your body’s cells by 10 to 1 and most of them reside in your gut. This is why taking care of your gut, and the friendly bacteria that reside there, may be one of the single most important things you can do for your health.
Our friendly bacteria actually help us digest our food and absorb nutrients more effectively. In fact, “we” don’t actually digest many components of the foods we consume — our bacteria digest it.
In our gut, one of the functions of our good bacteria is to displace bad bacteria. So having the right bacteria will have a major influence on our metabolism, digestion processes, and skin and body composition.
Our gut bacteria also plays a major role in our immunity and help to ensure our immune system doesn’t weaken, thus cause an attack on organisms and substances that invade body systems and cause issues or disease. (One such example quite common today is food sensitivities)
Scientists now estimate that we have over 50 types of bacteria which provide over 500 different species. And because the metabolic activities performed by these bacteria resemble those of an organ some researchers now refer to them as a micro organ or the forgotten organ, claiming that it’s nearly as important (if not more) as the liver.
So, given the extent of bacteria’s roles and the importance of these good bacteria to proper physical functioning, it’s important for us to help keep a healthy bacterial environment – which is where probiotics come in.
Probiotics are foods or supplements that contain these friendly bacteria, and are supposed to help colonize our guts with health-boosting microorganisms.
You can obtain probiotics from foods that are prepared by bacterial fermentation which include yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi and bacterially cultured cheese.
On the supplement side, the most common groups include Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium. Many probiotic supplements combine these different species together in the same supplement known as broad-spectrum probiotics, or multi-probiotics.
Look for brands containing Bacillus coagulans (BC-30) or Lactobacillus GG in liquid or capsule form. Supplemental doses are typically expressed in billions of live organisms. Between 3 and 5 billion would be a fair starting dose. This could be increased to roughly 10 billion if you are hoping to alleviate a specific health concern.
Additionally, you can stay on probiotics indefinitely. The only reason to avoid them is if you have had an allergic reaction to them.
Like other organisms, bacteria need to eat. They need to get energy from somewhere in order to survive, function and thrive. This is where prebiotics come in. Prebiotics mainly come from oligosaccharides, a dietary fiber which humans are unable to digest. This dietary fiber is the vary food our good bacteria feed and multiple on.
Some of the best sources of this fiber include carrots, winter squash, summer squash, tubers, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, beets and plantains. Green bananas and unripe plantains (which you can dehydrate into chips) are good whole-food sources of this fiber which is also known as resistant starch.
Inulin and oligosaccharides are common prebiotic supplements that you can find on the market if you feel you’re not getting a sufficient supply of prebiotics through your natural food intake.
3. Protein Powder
Protein is so incredibly important when it come to our bodies. In fact, except for water, protein is the most abundant substance used by the body. And while more advanced nutrition studies are now showing a compelling advantage of higher protein diets being linked to better over-all body composition and metabolic health many of us are still well below an optimal amount needed to support this.
While adding more protein to your diet can be greatly advantageous, many of us are so pressed for time -juggling kids, work, appointments and all the other curveballs life throws our way- that making that omelet for breakfast, chicken salad for lunch and steak for dinner sometimes seems literally impossible.
In those instances a good protein powder can come to the rescue to take up the slack. Mixing a protein shake is a convenient way to add 25 to 50 grams of quality protein to your daily intake. This can be important for gym enthusiasts, people who are on a weight loss journey or anyone simply lacking protein in their diet.
Whey protein is what I personally use and recommend to my clients and there are three different types available. The main difference between the different types of whey protein is simply the way they have been processed.
Whey Concentrate is 80 percent protein, which means 80 percent of the total weight is protein. As an example, 100 grams of whey concentrate contains about 400 calories, 82 grams of protein along with about 9 grams of carbohydrates (half from lactose), 6 grams of fat and 150mg of cholesterol.
Whey Isolate is typically 92 percent protein or higher, meaning you get more protein per equivalent dose. The same 100 grams of whey isolate delivers less calories (about 370 calories), but with more protein (92 grams or more) and considerably less total carbohydrate, fat, cholesterol and nearly no lactose.
Whey Hydrolysate, also known as hydrolyzed whey has been partially broken down or in other words pre-digested. This extra process actually makes it taste quite bitter, but also allows it to absorb more rapidly than a concentrate or isolate. Due to the more harsh taste and the extra cost, its rapid digestion (in my opinion) isn’t justifiable.
Whey protein concentrate is the cheapest because it retains most of the fat, carbohydrates and cholesterol. Many people also prefer the taste, which is probably because of its lactose and fat content.
However, my recommendation (for the general population) is to use a whey isolate. It has a higher concentration of pure protein, high bioavailability, smooth taste, couples well with any weight loss program and it’s functional for those struggling from lactose intolerance.
Multivitamins are the most popular nutritional supplement sold in the United States. In fact, experts estimate that nearly half of all adults take them on a regular basis. Again, I hate being repetitive but it’s important to keep in mind that taking any nutrition supplement is never a substitute for nutritious, real, whole foods. Fruits, vegetables, unprocessed meats, whole grains, and good fats are always the best sources of the vitamins and minerals our bodies need and most of us (if eating right) should be able to supply our bodies what it needs through food.
However, for some, a multivitamin can provide that extra assurance that nutritional needs are being met. People who benefit most include adults who do not eat at least four to six servings of vegetables and one to three servings of fruit each day, individuals following vegan diets, growing children and older adults whose appetites diminish and whose ability to assimilate nutrients becomes less efficient due to age.
Just to clarify, multivitamins are not standardized, meaning different products contain different combinations and concentrations of vitamins and minerals. Therefore, people with special nutritional needs should always consult a health professional for recommendations to ensure they are getting exactly what their bodies require.
Multivitamins come in many forms including: tablets, chewable tablets, capsules, gel capsules, and liquids. Tablets can hold more ingredients but may also contain more fillers and binders to keep everything together. Some companies use animal-derived gelatin to encapsulate their formulas, so individuals avoiding animal products should seek supplements with cellulose capsules. For individuals with stomach issues, liquids and gel caps may be easier to digest and absorb. Liquids, however, usually need to be refrigerated and may have much shorter shelf-lives.
As a side note, in the United States dietary supplements are regarded as food, and therefore, are not required to have any outside testing done. What this means is the manufacturers themselves are responsible for determining if the ingredients they use are safe. Therefore, it is possible that unsafe ingredients may be used in the manufacturing process, like fillers and binders, or others added to improve flavor, appearance and palatability (especially in chewable and liquid products). So make sure to always read over the additional ingredients listed on the label and avoid supplements containing sweeteners, colors and artificial flavors. In addition, sensitive individuals should also check for gluten, dairy, yeast, corn and soy as well.
Because multivitamins contain nutrients that require fat for absorption, like calcium and vitamins A, D, E and K, they should always be taken with food. Food stimulates the secretion of stomach acids, so taking these supplements at mealtimes can also improve the digestion and absorption of the nutrients being provided. If you can, spread the dose throughout the day unless it’s a one-a-day, or directed otherwise.
How can you be sure that your multivitamin will break down and be absorbed by your body?
In order for a multivitamin to be useful it must first be digestible by the body. If the body can not properly dissolve the multivitamin tablet it will not be able to be absorbed into the blood stream, and will simply pass through your body unused. This is known as poor disintegration, which is fairly common with multivitamins. However, other products, including herbals, sold in tightly packed or heavily coated tablets may also have poor disintegration.
Test Your Product at Home:
So, how can you determine if your multivitamin meets the disintegration standards? Try the following test – it’s not completely foolproof, but it gives you at least some indication if the multivitamin you’re choosing is being absorbed by the body or just passing through untouched.
1. Heat a cup of water to 98 degree F or fairly close to normal body temperature. For a quick check of the temperature, use an instant-read thermometer.
2. Place your tablet in the cup of heated water, stirring periodically while trying to maintain a fairly constant 98 degree water temperature.
3. Regular tablets should disintegrate within 30 to 45 minutes. If your tablet does not disintegrate within that time-frame it’s probably worth looking into a new brand.
Take Home Message:
Unless you have been diagnosed with a “specific” vitamin or mineral deficiency by a certified health professional, the four categories of nutritional supplements introduced in this piece have shown the greatest promise in delivering that extra health benefit claimed outside the scope of your normal whole food eating regimen.
Let’s take a look at several important nutrients along with their recommended daily intake followed by some food sources to obtain these nutrients.
|Calcium||1,000–1,200 mg||2,000 mg|
|Folate||400 mcg||1,000 mcg|
|Iron||8 mg||45 mg|
|Vitamin A||700 mcg RAE*||3,000 mcg RAE|
|Vitamin B 6||1.5 mg||100 mg|
|Vitamin B 12||2.4 mcg||No established
|Vitamin C||75 mg||2,000 mg|
|Vitamin D||600–800 IU||4,000 IU|
|Vitamin E||15 mg||1,000 mg|
|Calcium||Milk, yogurt, sardines, tofu,|
|Folic acid||Spinach, lentils, beef liver|
|Iron||Oysters, chicken liver, turkey|
|Salmon, sardines, flaxseed,
|Vitamin A||Sweet potato, spinach, carrots,
|Vitamin B6||Chickpeas, salmon, chicken breast|
|Vitamin B12||Clams, beef liver, trout|
|Vitamin D||Salmon, tuna, yogurt, whole milk|
|Vitamin E||Wheat germ oil, almonds,
sunflower seeds, peanut butter