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Why Are Supplements Important?

Few things in life can impact health more profoundly than nutrition.  What we consume is converted into the very cells of our body. You’ve heard it 1000 times, but we literally “are what we eat!”

Dietitians and doctors agree that it is best to get the nutrition we need from whole foods, by consuming 3 to 6 sensible meals per day containing a variety of food types to optimally fuel our bodies. Unfortunately, that can sometimes be really challenging. 

It is estimated that more than 9 in 10 individuals fails to consume the recommended 5 to 9 daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Likewise, most Americans do not eat sufficient amounts of omega 3 fatty acids from fish or any other foodstuff. In short, eating the right nutrients in the right quantities takes work, knowledge, money and time.

Adding to the challenge, mass market food sources and factory farms pump out ever more processed, low quality ingredients; and the pace of daily life keeps getting faster. Food fortification has helped, but it’s a controversial solution that in practice can only tackle narrow needs. As a result of it all, we often don’t get enough of certain essential micronutrients from the foods we eat.   

Enter dietary supplements. For many, they play a role by filling that gap, ensuring optimal, steady intake of these necessary nutrients and providing a sort of “nutritional insurance” against unwanted deficiencies. In certain cases, targeted supplementation can also support specific areas of human health including physical and mental performance, vision, and joint flexibility, to name a few.  

But, we need to be mindful of what supplements are; their role; and how to use them appropriately. Supplementation isn’t a cure-all, or substitute for proper diet, and can even cause problems when done improperly!

From a balanced diet perspective, there are many schools of thought, often times competing. The NIH and USDA update a national perspective on healthy eating guidelines every 5 years. For the sake of providing perhaps the most mainstream/common perspective as a starting point, here are the most recent daily intake suggestions from the NIH/USDA - the organization responsible for developing national nutritional guidelines for public health:

When to Supplement

1. When you aren’t getting the vitamins and minerals you need from your daily diet. For example, we're supposed to eat 2 to 5 servings of fatty fish/week to maintain the right balance of fatty acids. Do you? Not enough omega-3 fatty acids from fish can lead to excessive inflammation and decreased heart and brain health.The American Heart Association, for example, recommends people consume at least 500 to 1000 mg of omega-3 fats per day, whether from fish or fish oil supplements.

Many of us constantly wear sunscreen to protect against risks of sun exposure. Unfortunately, that can cause suboptimal levels of Vitamin D in the body, so many people supplement with a multi-vitamin containing high levels of D3.

Most Americans, particularly women of all ages, fail to consume sufficient calcium from the diet. Daily intake of a calcium-containing supplement is estimated to result in a savings of approximately $16.1 billion in healthcare costs over a 5 year period.

We are constantly exposed to oxidative stress, be it from high-altitude living, frequent travel, physical activity, stress and other natural factors. Many people supplement with anti-oxidants to ensure the body’s natural defenses against these forces are at their best.

2. When you are performance-focused and looking to replace specific nutrients spent from training, or reinforce your body’s nutrient levels for a specific need.

3. If recommended by a physician, or to address a specific concern where a concentrated and targeted dose of nutrients may play a supportive role (e.g. clinical nutrition). For example, many eye doctors now refer patients to eye supplements to ward against the effects of intense sunlight and prevent age-related macular degeneration. High doses of vitamin B3 (niacin) under the care of a doctor can play a role in the reduction and maintenance of normal blood cholesterol levels

How to Supplement Safely:

  • Follow label instructions – just because a little is good doesn’t mean a lot is better!

  • Be aware of duplicate ingredients across multiple supplements if you are taking more than one product.

  • Choose a brand that uses pharmaceutical standards of quality.

    • Dietary supplements are regulated as foods by the Food and Drug Administration. This is important because food regulations focus solely on ensuring edibility and safety. They do not ensure efficacy, consistency, performance, or bioavailability.

    • There is a huge difference between the cheapest thing on the shelf and a professional grade product – less expensive feels like a value at the register, but cheaper products often contain less bio-available forms of nutrients, may not dissolve in the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed, may contain contaminants or may not deliver sufficient potency.

    • Many products are not evidence-based, and the ingredients or forms of ingredients they use haven’t been shown or studied to be effective.

  • Don’t believe the hype or buy into fad ingredients! Supplements are not a panacea, cure-all or replacement for a healthy balanced diet, managing your stress and getting exercise. Most of us live here because we enjoy an active, more natural and outdoor-oriented lifestyle – supplements can play a role, but only a supportive role, in maintaining optimal health for you and your family.

How to Choose a Quality Product:

When selecting a supplement, here are some important tips to consider:

  • Pharmaceutical quality – don’t automatically assume that a product is made to pharmaceutical standards just because the label says “pharmaceutical grade.”This term is not regulated by the government, and thus can be used in any label.Instead, look for a product that is manufactured at FDA-registered pharmaceutical facilities, or by a company that follows pharmaceutical standards of quality.

  • Chelated minerals – this means the ingredients are put into a special, bio-available form so your body can absorb the nutrients… and your body gets what you paid for it to have!

  • Dissolution and bioavailability – make sure the manufacturer discusses dissolution or bioavailability in its product information, as this separates the good marketers from the quality products.

  • Ask a healthcare provider who works with nutrition and is knowledgeable.

  • Beware inexpensive, off the shelf products from mass retail – shopping/researching online or working with a niche nutrition/health & wellness shop increases the chance of getting a good product from a well-informed source.

Sport Specific Nutritional Supplementation:

If you are a high intensity athlete, there are specific considerations for your peak health.

  • Consider a supplement that supports immune health, to help manage your body’s normal inflammatory response, strengthen joints and cartilage.

  • While there are many ingredients marketed for this purpose, ones that have been studied and shown effective for this purpose are:

    • Omega-3 Fatty Acids / Fish Oil

    • Avocado & Soy Unsaponifiables

    • Glucosamine Hydrochloride

    • MSM, especially in conjunction with Glucosamine

  • Ginseng has been studied to support balanced energy levels, and may provide a healthy “lift” if you are feeling slow in the afternoons.

  • Sufficient protein, anti-oxidant and liquid intake support the body to rebuild muscle fibers, process lactic acid and repair tissues during and after intense workouts. The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Daily Intake Pyramid: U.S. Department of Agriculture | The Washington Post.

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