Happy Friday! Since supplements are regulated as food by the FDA (fun fact!), I thought I could squeeze this post in to Foodie Friday. I’ve been taking a continuing education course on nutrition through Vanderbilt University, and we just covered a unit on supplements, so I’m excited to share a bit of what I learned here. I hope you find some helpful tips!
7 Tips for Choosing Supplements
- Consider your goals. A recent Gallup poll showed that 50% of Americans take a vitamin- or mineral-based supplement. However, many people do not know why they are taking the supplements (aside from “I saw it in a magazine/ on TV”), and most have not actually looked at the ingredient list. Like I mentioned in the first supplement post, there is conflicting information as to whether to not multivitamins and other supplements are actually beneficial (I explain why I take them anyway in that post as well). So, before you decide to take a supplement, I recommend that you know exactly why you want to take the supplement. Maybe you’re feeling tired or fatigued, maybe you keep getting painful leg cramps when you’re sleeping, maybe you suspect that your diet leaves some specific nutrient gaps. There are many, many reasons to take supplements, but you need at least one! (picture source)
- Examine your intake. I believe that whole food is always the best way to get your nutrients. There are several studies to show that concentrated supplements do not work as well as receiving the same quantity of nutrients from real food. (For example, lycopene is a powerful antioxidant touted to reduce risk of cancer, and it’s prevalent in tomatoes. However, taking a lycopene supplement will never work as well as eating a tomato, due to the interaction of the lycopene with the other nutrients in the tomato). So, if your regular dietary intake is already giving you enough of any particular nutrient, there is absolutely no need to take an additional supplement. If you eat tons of dairy and leafy greens, you likely don’t need a calcium supplement, but if you’re a vegan, you may benefit from a Vitamin B12 supplement. It’s also important to check on interactions with any other supplements or prescription medications that you’re taking. (picture source)
- Research the claim. As I mentioned, the FDA regulates supplements as food. This means that the FDA certifies that the substance is safe, uncontaminated, properly labeled, and produced with good manufacturing processes. The FDA does not check or confirm that claims made on the package are necessarily true, or show the effectiveness of the ingredients included. Claims called “Structure/ Function claims” are unregulated … so any product can claim something like “promotes healthy cholesterol level” even if that is unsubstantiated (they cannot, on the other hand, say “lowers cholesterol level”). This stuff is tricky and confusing, so do your research or talk to someone who can help. (picture source)
- Consider how much of the active ingredient is contained in each dose. “Megadosing” (or taking more than the recommended daily value of each nutrient) has become popularly advertised. However, in most cases, we cannot absorb more than the recommended daily value, and for some vitamins and minerals, taking too much can even be harmful. Aim to hit 100% DV for most nutrients. (There are some exceptions, such as Vitamin D, which is often given healthily in larger quantities). (picture source)
- Check the ingredients label. Yes, another thing to check up on. Unfortunately, labels like “pure,” “natural,” and “quality-assured” are also unregulated by the FDA. Some supplements on the market contain fillers such as hydrogenated oils, and others contain artificial colors or flavors that you’re better off avoiding. There’s been a lot of debate about magnesium stearate, which is often added to supplements but has been shown to block absorption in some cases. For now, I’m not worried about it, but in general, I like my supplements to contain ingredients I recognize. (picture source)
- Weigh any potential side effects. Some supplements have side effects – from fatigue to digestive issues to hair loss, and anything in between. While most people don’t actually experience any listed side effects, it can be helpful to weigh the potential effects, and consider whether or not the side effect is worth the benefit to you personally. (picture source)
- Consider your unique situation. Supplements are a huge part of my belief in bioindividuality: there is no one protocol that is right for everyone. So, the fact that your friend is loving her new supplement and seeing great results does not mean that it is right for you. Consider everything as a package: your goals, your diet, your other supplements and medications, your budget, and your unique body chemistry, and then consider whether the supplement makes sense.(picture source)
Figuring It All Out
If all of this seems overwhelming, that’s because it is a bit confusing, so have patience with yourself as you learn (and remember that in most cases, the biggest risk is only that you’ll waste money and the supplement won’t be absorbed). If you are new to the whole supplementation world and don’t have time to research but think that supplements could benefit you, I encourage you to talk to someone who can help you. (As a Health Coach, I’m happy to discuss vitamin and mineral supplements, but I do not prescribe medications or give you advice on your prescription drugs). There are also a few resources you can check out:
- Consumer Lab has some great supplement reports (some have a fee)
- The FTC publishes some consumer information on supplements
- The Mayo Clinic or WebMD can give preliminary information on many supplements, and
- The Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database can give you some advice on interactions
**Many of you have noticed the look of my blog evolving over the past couple of days. I wanted to give a huge shout-out to my friend and sorority sister, Bobbi-Jo of Ready to Blog Designs, who so generously donated her time to spruce up the site! I love what she did to The Lyons’ Share, so if you’re looking for a blog design expert, check her out!**
So tell me in the comments … Do you have any tips to add to the list, or any questions for me on supplements? What supplements work best for your body, or what are you currently taking?
Love the new look of your blog, Megan! It’s so important to be an informed consumer about supplements. I took an herbal mood supplement once that once gave me the opposite effect – it made me feel angry and agitated. I Googled it and sure enough, other people felt the same way when they took it. Kind of ironic that a supplement that works well for raising the spirits of some people has the opposite effect on others 😉 The symptoms went away within a week of not taking it, but it was scary to feel that way from a widely available, OTC herb. Wonderful post, thanks for sharing!
Thank you, Denise! Wow – so scary about the herbal supplement you took. You can never know 100% how something will react with your body, but it’s always good to research as much as possible before starting, just to be sure it’s worth the potential side effects. So glad you got it figured out!
I often wonder why there isn’t a chart on supplements that outlines proper dosage by weight/sex. I don’t see supplements as being any different than prescription meds in some cases. You would think they would make that info readily available.
Theresa, this may not be exactly what you’re looking for, but it’s a start. It’s the Dietary Reference Intake published by the Institute of Medicine. Hope it’s helpful! http://www.iom.edu/Activities/Nutrition/SummaryDRIs/~/media/Files/Activity%20Files/Nutrition/DRIs/5_Summary%20Table%20Tables%201-4.pdf
Thank you! This is great.
You should see my supplement stash! People think I have a pharmacy in my apartment! LOL! But I have to take them because my diet is VERY restrictive!
Like I mentioned to Michael, you are a perfect example for why some people absolutely need supplements! Those with restrictive diets often cannot get the nutrients they need from their diets. Thanks for sharing!
Finally got around to reading this after it has been poking at me from my inbox since this morning 🙂 I wanted to actually have time for all the great links.
You already know my basic thoughts on supplements – and so I just LOVED your #2 … it totally sums things up.
Two other thoughts:
– My recent mantra seems to be ‘follow the money’ – and since supplements are a multi-BILLION industry, you can be sure there is quite a push to keep as many people taking as many supplements as possible. What does this mean? That those making and marketing these things should be thought about no differently than those trying to sell you soda, fast food and beauty products. Your health is not their business … your purchase IS.
Poor Lisa, going to use her as an example again to contrast how/why supplements work or perhaps SHOULD work:
– I am an adherent to the ‘food is enough’ theory, and I work really hard to get everything I need through diet. And it works for me, and my doctors are very happy with the results.
– Lisa has issues with calcium, vitamin D, B vitamins, iron, and so on. She is on a multi-vitamin, a massive vitamin D supplement and a B complex supplement. For the winter months she is now taking a second vitamin D after talking to her doctor because with the temperature she isn’t getting it naturally with sun exposure.
So I definitely agree that everyone is different, supplements have a place, and you should do research and consult your doctor before taking them!
And I love this post. And continue to enjoy the new format.
Thank you for your complete thoughts, Michael! Lisa is a perfect example, you’re right. There are some things that our bodies really need (calcium, iron, Vitamin D are at the top of the list!) that many people (for whatever reason … allergies, intolerances, preferences, availability) cannot get into their diets, and for those people more than anyone, supplementation can be hugely helpful. Really good point about marketing … surprisingly, I’ve never considered it so directly (although some of the “fake” supplements make me want to sock someone in the face with their outlandish claims!). Thanks for making me think!
This is sooo helpful! Obviously since starting CrossFit, some of the coaches have suggested some supplements for me but (like you) I want to try and get my nutrients from real food. This is great in my research.
Yep … always go for whole foods FIRST. But once you explore what you may be missing based off of your individual needs and diet, supplements can be a helpful addition. I’ll be excited to hear what your Crossfit coaches recommend!
Can I just say how awesome it is that you seem to never stop learning!? Seriously inspirational for me. Which reminds me that I need to go the health shop and pick up my iron. My body actually feels like it’s low. Is that weird? This is despite the chicken I manhandled for that chicken soup! why won’t my body absorb iron wahhhhh. Actually that’s kind of a serious question. Any thoughts on why I need to take supplements in addition to the copious amounts of iron I consume in my diet?
Thank you! I really do love learning, so in all my nerdy glory I will continue to do so in any way possible. And actually, I think it’s an incredible sense of being in-tune with your body when you can feel that something is “off.” I certainly don’t claim to understand everything that’s going on in there, but I CAN tell when I need water, iron, greens, protein, and sugar (not just sugar cravings, which also happen!, but actually feeling hypoglycemic). It has taken me a long time to get so in-tune with my body and I know it will keep progressing as I keep learning more and more. This isn’t the answer you want, but sadly some people (especially women, but also happens with men) just tend to not be able to hold onto iron as well as others. Aside from things like having very heavy menstrual cycles, not consuming much iron in day-to-day life (which is not you), growing quickly, taking lots of antacids, etc., there are several other reasons, so without knowing the specifics of your body I really can’t give you a complete answer! Are you seeing a doctor or other practitioner for it? Hope you’re feeling better!
picked up my iron so feeling much better! and yup my doctor knows about it all and recommended the brand that I take. Unfortunately it messes with my stomach but it’s better than the dizziness and leg cramps I experience without it.
You’re fabulous, have I ever told you that??!
Supplement info boggles the mind! How do you know what, how much of if any at all? Great tips!
Love the new look 🙂
Thanks for sharing, Jill! You’re right – so much info out there, but hopefully this is a good start!
I remember your supplement post and what a great supplementary post to that (I’m so damn funny). But seriously, this is perfect timing because I’m currently dealing with some pretty hefty issues and not sure if a solid food intake might be enough…
Haha … you do make me laugh :). I hope your hefty issues are showing some signs of progress … feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions that I might be able to offer my 2 cents to!! Thinking about you!