Supplements are everywhere. You can find them on the shelves at the grocery store, or stores like GNC and Vitamin Shoppe. You can get supplements as vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, enzymes and so on. They are usually marketed as the missing puzzle piece to complete health, peak exercise performance, and optimal recovery. But, do you need them? Are they worth the money? Are they safe? Here are 4 things to ask yourself before you start taking a supplement.
#1 “Am I getting enough nutrients from my diet?”
A simple way to find out if you are getting enough nutrients from your diet is to use a food tracking app for a week. A food tracking app will first ask you about your age and your sex. Then, based on your food log, the app can tell you if you are short of any nutrients. My personal favorite food tracking app is Cronometer. It is free! And, unlike many of the other food trackers out there, Cronometer tracks the micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals), which are one of the most commonly available form of supplements. A doctor can also perform some labs and blood work to find nutrient deficiencies.
#2 “Can I adjust my diet to improve my nutrient intake?”
If you find that you’re consistently getting low amounts of a certain nutrient, see if there is a way you can alter your diet to get more of that nutrient. Getting nutrients from food over supplements is ideal. Food gives us things that a pill, powder, or gummy supplement can’t. The nutrients that naturally occur in foods are balanced and work in synergy with one another. So, if you’re short on something like calcium, are you able (and willing) to eat more foods with calcium? For some people, this might be easy to do by eating more yogurt, ice cream, dairy, spinach, broccoli, and salmon. For someone with lactose intolerance, or an aversion to dark leafy vegetables, this might be a no go. Or, if you’re a strict vegetarian who wants collagen or creatine, you aren’t going to be able to get those from your diet. Also, people who are vegans, people with autoimmune diseases (i.e. Crohn’s, celiac disease), people with alcoholism, and people who eat less than 1600 Calories a day might have a hard time meeting their nutrient recommendations through food alone.
So, if you are consistently short on a nutrient and have decided that the best way for you to get it is through a supplement, keep reading.
#3 “Do I understand the ingredients in this supplement and how they affect my health?“
Some nutrients interact with medications (i.e. antibiotics, cholesterol medication, antidepressants, and more). Many nutrients interact with other nutrients, and some will compete for absorption in your body. These effects are a concern for people with certain health conditions, people getting surgery, or women who are pregnant/trying to get pregnant/nursing. Disclaimer: you should discuss supplement use with your doctor or dietitian beforehand.
Once you have decided to try a supplement the first things to look at are the ingredients and the dosage. These are usually written on the back of the package under “Supplement Facts”. The amounts may be expressed in different units (i.e. grams, milligrams, International Units (IUs), or percentage daily value (DV) (if there is an established recommended intake). Keep in mind that when it comes to choosing a high-quality supplement, more isn’t better. Moderate dosage matters, for nutrients like calcium, where there is a dose-response relationship. Supplements sometimes contain more than 100% of the DV and can exceed a person’s tolerable upper intake level. At best, this can be a waste of money. At worst, this can lead to nutrient toxicities.
#4 “Was this supplement manufactured with good practices?”
Unlike the food you eat and the medicine you take, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not review or approve any dietary supplement products before they are for sale. This raises concerns about the purity and safety of the products. When you take a supplement, you take the risk of consuming unintentional ingredients (i.e. fillers or banned illegal substances) and contaminants (i.e. heavy metals, arsenic, bacteria) in that product. Luckily, organizations like the FDA Good Manufacturing Processes (GMFP), United States Pharmacopeia Convention, Consumer Lab, and National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) evaluate some supplement companies to make sure their factories, procedures, and products measure up to very high standards for purity and composition. But, the majority of supplement companies do not go through these certification tests and could be selling you a phony product in a pretty package (Progenex, anyone?). When choosing a supplement, look for these seals on the label to make sure that the product you are buying complies with the standards for good manufacturing practices. These seals do not guarantee that the product will give you results. But their seals are a good indication that the product contains the amount of the ingredient advertised on the label and that it isn’t contaminated with dangerous substances.
Dunford, M., & Doyle, JA., (2019). Nutrition for Sport and Exercise (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning Inc.
Forbes. (2015). Lawsuits Say Protein Powders Lack Protein, Ripping Off Athletes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexmorrell/2015/03/12/lawsuits-say-protein-powders-lack-protein-ripping-off-athletes/#116b3c8c7729
Jacobs, D. R., Jr, Gross, M. D., & Tapsell, L. C. (2009). Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1543S–1548S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736B
National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health [NIH NCCIH]. (2019). Using Dietary Supplements Wisely. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements [NIH ODS]. (2013). Dietary Supplement Label Database for Researchers. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/ODS_Frequently_Asked_Questions.aspx