Feeling confused about supplements? If so, there’s probably a good reason- estimates show that there are over 50,000 supplements on the market. With this many options, it can be difficult to choose the right ones.
So how do you choose which supplements to take? For some tips to decide if supplements are right for you- and which ones to choose- keep reading below!
WHAT ARE DIETARY SUPPLEMENTS ?
Dietary supplements are defined as “products taken by mouth that contain a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to supplement the diet”(1). The most popular types of supplements in the US include vitamins, minerals, proteins, fatty acids, probiotics, and botanicals (2).
Dietary supplements are considered “food” products rather than “drugs.” This means that supplements are not required to have FDA approval for safety and effectiveness (1). The FDA does require that supplement companies test to confirm their products are “safe,” and follow specific labeling practices. Therefore, it is essential to choose trustworthy companies when purchasing supplements.
DECIDING IF SUPPLEMENTS ARE RIGHT FOR YOU
Vitamins and Minerals
Vitamins and Minerals occur naturally in fruits, vegetables, and animal products. In most cases, we can obtain adequate vitamins and minerals through diet; however, deficiencies may occur. According to the CDC, the most common vitamin and mineral deficiencies in the U.S. include B-vitamins, Iron, Calcium, and Vitamins D, C, A, and E, (3).
While you should generally obtain vitamins and minerals through a well-balanced diet, this may not always be possible. Some people may have trouble absorbing adequate nutrients from whole food sources, due to a variety of factors. Alternatively, some fruits and vegetables may not be as potent in vitamins and minerals as they once were, due to changing agricultural practices (4).
In addition, some populations may have a specific need for supplemental vitamins and minerals. For example, a vegetarian or vegan may have trouble consuming adequate amounts of vitamin B12. Further, women may lose excess iron during their menstrual cycle or may require excess nutrients, such as folic acid, when pregnant.
If you think you are deficient in vitamins and minerals, despite following a healthy, well balanced diet, speak with your dietitian about supplement options.
Omega 3 and Omega 6 fatty acids are “essential,” which means our body does not produce them. Therefore, we must consume these fats through the foods we eat. Omega-6 fatty acids are primarily found in vegetable oils, while Omega-3 fatty acids are primarily found in fatty fish.
Most people are great at consuming adequate amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, but not omega-3s. This is important to consider, as high levels of omega-6 fatty acids may promote inflammation. On the contrary, omega-3 fatty acids improve heart health and reduce inflammation. Therefore, if you do not consume adequate amounts of omega-3 through diet, supplementation may be right for you.
When choosing omega-3 supplements, look for products that contain EPA and DHA, as these are two most essential forms of omega-3 fatty acids (5). As always, it is also recommended to discuss supplementation with your dietitian. For more information on omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, read our Guide to Healthy Fats!
Protein is an essential macronutrient. It is an important part of a healthy diet, required to keep our organs functioning and maintain lean body mass. Protein exists naturally in food sources such as animal products, beans, nuts and legumes. However, protein powders and supplements have also become increasingly popular in recent years.
Protein powders are especially popular in athletic communities. Many athletes believe protein intake will help them build muscle. However, research shows that eating adequate protein at meals and snacks every 3 hours throughout the day may be just as effective for muscle building (6).
In fact, generally speaking, most people obtain adequate protein throughout the day, and do not require supplementation in order to maintain adequate lean body mass. However, in some cases, protein powder can provide a quick and easy way to add protein into meals like smoothies, when no other options are available.
Therefore, if your goal is to maintain or build muscle, skip the supplement and consult with your dietitian to learn how to add more to your daily diet. If you are training for a specific athletic event, consider seeing a sports dietitian for more tailored nutrition advice on lean muscle building.
Experts believe that gut health may play a role in our overall, total body health. It’s estimated that our gut contains over 500 species of organisms, which contribute to nutrient digestion and absorption, and can help fight infection (7). Therefore, it is important to maintain a healthy “gut microbiome.” Enter probiotics.
Probiotics exist in the foods we eat, such as yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, and tempeh, and in supplement form. Certain strains of bacteria are thought to improve GI health and weight loss outcomes; however, the potential effective dose and preferred probiotic strain for other populations continues to be studied (8). Due to the developing research, this is an exciting area of research in the nutrition field.
Therefore, while probiotic supplementation may be beneficial if you are experiencing GI distress, we recommend speaking with your dietitian regarding possible supplementation options for your body. To learn more, see our article on Improving Gut Health with Diet.!
Botanicals are plants with perceived health benefits. One commonly supplemented botanical is turmeric.
Turmeric is popular for its anti-inflammatory benefits, due to its active ingredient, Curcumin. Research suggests that curcumin may improve inflammatory conditions, such as Rheumatoid Arthritis. However, it may also improve anxiety, heart health, and even muscle recovery (9)! Therefore, if you suffer from anxiety, high cholesterol, or perform exercise often, turmeric may be a good option for you. But beware- too much turmeric can have negative side effects. For this reason, be sure to consult your dietitian for specific recommendations!
Many other botanicals and adaptogens have recently gained popularity in the supplement industry. Many botanicals and adaptogens have been widely researched and are believed to exert health benefits. But, many are not. For this reason, it is especially important to consult your dietitian when considering botanical supplements.
CHOOSING A SUPPLEMENT BRAND
Ok, now that you know if supplements are right for you, let’s talk about brands!
With so many options on the market, it can be very difficult to choose the right supplement brands. Plus, the FDA regulations we discussed earlier aren’t making it any easier! Therefore, consumers should always evaluate research on any products they are thinking of taking.
You can start with an online search. Search for any complaints or recalls issued for the supplements you’re thinking of taking. You can also look for certifications by independent testing companies, such as NSF or USP. But beware, while these companies do confirm that products meet health standards and/or guidelines, they do not test to confirm the proposed benefits of each supplement.
In addition to brand, you should always consider dosing when choosing a supplement product. While supplements can be beneficial in certain amounts, overdosing can be very harmful. Supplements may also harmfully interact with medications you may be taking in different doses. For this reason, we recommend always discussing the appropriate dose for yourself with your doctor and dietitian, and choosing a brand that manufactures this dose.
WHATS THE BOTTOM LINE?
Supplements can be beneficial for certain populations. In particular, people who are deficient in certain vitamins, minerals and essential fats, or those who have GI distress, inflammation or people who have dietary restrictions/limited intake of nutrient dense foods, may benefit from specific supplements.
However, due to the FDA’s poor regulation of supplements, it is essential to choose trustworthy brands. You should also speak with your doctor and dietitian about dosing, and potential interactions.