It’s time for another Q to your A’s!
One of the more common questions I’ve been getting from those of you who read the blog and follow me on Instagram is about the supplements I take. As we all know, supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry. With health and wellness not only being important, but also somewhat trendy at the moment, I doubt that’ll change any time soon. There are SO many different products on the market, studies (some high quality, others questionable), health claims and sources of information that it can be really hard to distinguish what’s really needed and what’s just a bunch of hype.
Disclaimer: This opinions I’m expressing in this post are based on personal experience and research, but are not intended to be a replacement for medical advice. Be sure to always check with your doc before taking a supplement of any kind to ensure it’s right for you.
It’s what I do for a living in my full-time career, so obviously it holds a special place in my heart. I’m all for marketing when done in a way that values our best interests as consumers trying to make good decisions, but one of the drawbacks is that it’s often done in shady ways – lots of unverified and unregulated claims that sound good, but aren’t fully validated. This doesn’t just apply to supplements, but the every day ‘foods’ on the shelves of our grocery stores. You know them…
- Breads, crackers and cookies that have the words ‘gluten free!’ screaming from their packages. If you take a second to read the ingredients, you notice things like refined flours, starches, sugar, salt, thickeners and vegetable oils.
- Yogurt, cheese and ice cream claiming to be ‘fat free!’ But how is that possible? It’s because the fat’s been replaced with stabilizers, starches, gelatin and sugar in many different forms.
- Baked goods and cereal that claims to be made with whole grains, ancient grains, or any other kind of wholesome food. Yes, they may be made with those things, but the further that ingredient is from the beginning of the ingredient list, the smaller the quantity used to make the product.
Things like labelling laws and regulating organizations help protect us by forcing companies to operate to certain standards, but there’s still an enormous amount of terms and claims left unregulated. That means marketers often say what they like and get away with it, and in my opinion, that’s not right. It’s no wonder that we’ve become so confused about food and supplements!
Can’t we just get the nutrients we need for optimal health from food?
Wouldn’t that be amazing? At one point way back in the day, our ancestors probably did. But there’s a few issues that (again) complicate things for us.
Going back to basics, we can think about nutrients in two groups:
- Macronutrients – protein, fats and carbohydrate
- Micronutrients – all the vitamins – A, B, C, D etc – plus minerals – zinc, copper, iron, selenium, calcium etc.
We consume larger quantities of macronutrients than micronutrients (think macro = big = we needs more), and while those exact quantities required depend on many things like gender, activity level and fitness goals, it’s totally possible to meet those requirements by eating whole foods.
Micronutrients on the other hand, are just as important as macronutrients, and even though our bodies need them in smaller quantities, we still really do need them! The problem is that over time, the nutrient density of our food has declined. There are lots of reasons for this, including poor-quality soil and an emphasis on mass food production that minimizes costs but also reduces quality.
As a result of this, the nourishment our ancestors were able to get out of food hundreds of years ago was greater (in terms of micronutrient density) than what we get today. Over time, that can lead to nutrient deficiencies and…. ta daaaaa – the topic of this post: the need for supplementation. But which ones? How much? How often?
Which supplements do we need?
You’re going to think ‘typical response’, but my answer and opinion is that it 100% depends on the person. Dudes vs women. Elite athletes vs the average Jane or Joe who works out a couple times per week. Someone living in Hawaii vs someone living in Iceland. Someone with a ton of gut inflammation vs someone whose digestion is in tip-top shape. A woman who’s just had a baby vs a woman who’s preparing to get pregnant. What your body needs depends on so many things – the stage you’re at in life, where you live, your individual goals, current state of health, lifestyle habits… etc etc. It all starts with actually being able to listen to it, because you’re your own best doctor
If I decide to take a supplement, what do I look for?
As I’m sure you’d agree, grabbing any bottle off the shelf without doing some research isn’t a very wise approach. Marketing and pretty branding can make anything look appealing, but we all want to be confident about what we put into our body. It’s scary to think that many supplements contain fillers and other ingredients that you’d never know about without doing some digging. That means you could be spending a lot of money swallowing powder-filled capsules that aren’t doing anything beneficial for your health.
This is what I’d recommend looking for:
I think one of the best things you can do here is look at how long a brand has been in the market for. It doesn’t take much for someone to start up a supplement company, outsource production operations, slap some labels on bottles and put them up for sale. The fact that a company has been around for a long time and continues to be successful speaks volumes about their reputation, and the more transparent they are when asked about what’s inside their supplements, the better.
One great resource I turn to when I’m unsure about the quality of a new supplement is to look them up on Labdoor, an independent third party supplement testing company that puts supplements of all kinds through trials in order to find out if they’re legit. They’ll tell you how close what’s on the label is to what’s really inside, and provide rankings based on quality and cost-efficiency. You can also talk to your doctor, alternative medicine practitioners, read reviews, email the companies directly, and check out consumer reports to find out about product quality. Bottom line: don’t just trust a single website or a pretty-looking bottle.
Just like food, I like to understand where my supplements came from. You wouldn’t want to eat beef from a sick cow, or eggs from a sick chicken, right? As far as supplements go, let’s use collagen as an example. It’s popular for many reasons – stronger and healthier skin, hair and nails are just a few. Many brands including the one I occasionally take are sourced from fish. But there’s a difference between fish that live in clean pristine waters and ones that live in parts of the ocean where the water is highly toxic. We don’t want those toxins inside of us! Again, companies that are transparent about the source of their ingredients are a good sign.
By this I mean the actual physical format – liquid, capsule, tablet, powder etc – as well as the form of the vitamin or mineral inside. This is because both affect how well our bodies can actually make use of the nutrients in the supplement.
Sometimes it can be more beneficial to take liquids because they’re more quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, whereas capsules need to be broken down first. Powders can also be more easily absorbed for this reason, but you might find that a powdered form is more easy to take than liquid because you can hide it in a smoothie. If you’re taking capsules or tablets and finding them in your stool, undigested, that’s a sign your body isn’t efficiently breaking them down and that an alternative format might work better.
Ultimately, micronutrients are best absorbed when they’re found naturally occurring in real food. But as we’ve discussed, it’s not always practical or convenient today to get them in the amounts we need. When it comes to the specific micronutrients you’re trying to obtain from whatever capsule, tablet, powder or liquid you’re taking, understanding what forms of those vitamins and minerals are most easily absorbed by the human body is also important.
For example, many cheap mainstream multivitamins use calcium carbonate. It’s the cheapest form of calcium available, but it’s not as easily absorbed or bioavailable as calcium citrate which is used in some higher quality (and more expensive) brands. You’d have to take more of the cheaper version to obtain the same amount, and by that point, you’d probably be better off just buying the higher quality one anyway.
Lastly on format, everybody’s body is different, and that means that a form of a micronutrient that you feel best on may be different to someone else. I experimented with iron supplements for a solid year – iron bisglycinate, ferrous sulphate, ferrous gluconate, and ferrous fumarate – before finally realizing that ferrous fumarate was the only one actually making a difference. It takes a bit of patience, and it’s definitely not a one-size-fits-all deal.
What’s my supplementation routine?
I’ve taken a while to answer this question, haven’t I? 😜 The truth is, I used to take a ton of supplements on a very regular basis. Those were expensive days, and I think some of them were doing absolutely nothing! I took them because I thought I probably should, but they really had no noticeable effect on the way I felt, and in some ways, might have made my issues worse.
Today there are very few supplements that I take daily and several that I pulse in and out depending on the time of year and situation.
The 3 ‘usuals’:
When I take it: 2x daily, or 1x daily if I’ve had red meat that day.
Why: Because I’m iron deficient, and taking this supplement in combination with eating organic ethically-raised red meat has made a huge positive impact on my health over the past few years. All deets about my anemia sitch can be found here.
Omega 3s: Nordic Naturals Omega 3
When I take it: During days when I’m not eating salmon, sardines, or other oily fish
Why: The average Western diet today is so high in omega-6 fats, but low in omega-3s. These quality fats reduce risk of major life threatening health conditions like heart disease, so it’s often recommended that we supplement with them – particularly those who don’t eat oily fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel. For vegans and vegetarians, getting enough omega-3s is a bigger challenge because plant-based sources aren’t as efficiently utilized by the body.
Omega-3s are also super important for reducing inflammation of all kinds, the brain (our brains are primarily fat!) and skin health – something I struggled with a lot in my teens. Because I’m very physically active, and because I want to be proactive in preventing disease (specifically cancer and arthritis, which are present in my family), I see omega-3s as an important one. However, I aim to get as much as I can through real food first, since that’s the most bioavailable form.
When I take it: Most days
Why: Digestive health is something I struggled with in the past, but feel like I finally have figured out – at least for me, right now. (More about that here.) Everything about my digestion just feels better when I take a probiotic, so it’s part of my regular routine, in addition to lots of fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut, fermented vegetables, tempeh, kombucha and apple cider vinegar.
I alternate between these 2 brands because the strains of bacteria in each supplement (16 different strains and 10 different strains of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli for Garden of Life and Renew Life, respectively) tend to make a noticeable difference for me, whereas others haven’t had much of a noticeable impact. I also really like that the Garden of Life one contains stress formula with ashwaghanda (a herb commonly used in ayurvedic medicine) which supports mood and relaxation.
Other as-needed food-based supplements:
Of course, the Culinary Nutrition Expert in me likes to use whole foods for their functional benefits, especially in situations where I have a symptom that needs fixing. For example…
- Sore tummy? Ginger, licorice root and peppermint to the rescue.
- Inflammation or soreness? Turmeric, ginger, omega-3 rich foods and heaps of dark leafy greens are my go-to’s.
- Cold coming on? It’s a few drops of oil of oregano under the tongue, a good shot of ginger juice, turmeric and cayenne, then lots of vitamin-C rich fruits and vegetables in every meal.
- Just feeling yuck and in need of a detox? A few chlorella tablets in my smoothie or a superfood greens powder, loads of dark leafy greens, fibrous veggies, cilantro, parsley, lemon and lots of water.
Food can be so healing in itself, so my usual approach is to try a mixture of foods, aromatherapy (a story for another day), and good old sleep whenever I need to shake something off.
With that said, I want to give some honourable mentions out to a few of my favourite food-based supplements:
- Protein powders + sports nutrition: Vega, pretty much daily. I’ve used the Vega Sport line for years for my pre-workout, during-workout and post-workout needs, and I know I’ll never be left with digestive issues or any other unwanted side-effects. I also see the clean plant-based ingredients lists as being a huge advantage, because sadly, there are a ton of sports nutrition supplements out there from other companies that are full of nothing but crap!
- Mushroom Elixirs: Four Sigmatic Reishi, Cordyceps, Chaga and Lion’s Mane Mushroom Elixirs – taken 1-2x/day, mixed with hot water and enjoyed like tea. Reishi, chaga, cordyceps and lion’s mane are types of mushrooms that have different purposes, so depending on how I’m feeling or what I feel I could use a boost with, I’ll choose accordingly. My favourite is reishi which has calming properties and seems to greatly improve my sleep quality, so I take it at night before bed.
- Collagen: withinUs TruMarine Collagen – taken about 4x/ week and mixed into my morning oatmeal or smoothies for bone, skin, hair and nail health.
- Maca root powder: Vega or Navitas Organics – taken during times when I feel like I’ve been under a significant of mental or physical stress. As an adaptogen, it helps our bodies to respond more effectively. I mix this into smoothies and oatmeal and it adds a mild nutty, caramel-y taste.
- Magnesium: Natural Calm ‘The Anti-Stress Drink’ (powdered magnesium) – taken once in a while if I have a really hard workout that I think is going to leave me feeling really sore the next day (because magnesium prevents muscle cramping), or if I’ve been having trouble sleeping (because magnesium has a calming effect – hence the name Natural Calm).
- Digestive enzymes: Garden of Life Dr. Formulated Enzymes Organic Digest+ – taken while traveling or eating outside of my own kitchen. These support digestion and help our bodies absorb more of the nutrients in foods we eat. If I know I’m going to be eating meals I haven’t prepared myself or something my system isn’t used to, sometimes I’ll take an enzyme just to be safe.
Summing it all up…
In my opinion and experience, supplementation needs just as personalized of an approach as a nutrition and lifestyle plan. For some with restrictive diets or specific medical issues, of course – they’re extremely helpful and in some cases very necessary. But I think a lot of people use supplements as Band-Aids for underlying issues, when what would really move the needle further are things like:
- Eliminating processed, less-nutrient dense foods
- Moving the body more (not necessarily in more intense ways, but just moving)
- Getting enough sleep
- Practicing effective stress management
Personally, I prefer to use a minimal number of daily supplements and aim to get as many of my needs covered by whole food as possible. Outside of my ‘usual 3’, the others I take are intended to fill in gaps or enhance an aspect of my health in a given situation, such as eating out, traveling, or experiencing a crazy busy work week where I need to focus and manage my energy well. (And by no means do I ever claim to be perfect at all of this, just FYI.) In many cases, I think it’s overkill to take a huge cabinet’s worth of supplements every single day – not to mention inconvenient and expensive.
We have to be prepared to take responsibility for our health, and this might sound like a preachy thing to say but I don’t think ‘not liking vegetables’ is a valid excuse for not eating any of them – especially if you’re fortunate enough to live in a country where the assortment is endless! There is so much amazing whole food available to us, so why not embrace it and use it as a tool for enhancing yourself as a vibrant, life-loving human being? I’ll raise my green juice to that. 😉
Right. That’s enough from me. I’d really love to hear your take on all of this. Tell me about your supplement routine. What do you take? What works really well for you? Any game-changing shifts, or things you’ve done outside of supplementation that have made an even bigger difference to your wellbeing? The mic is yours!