Winter is approaching, the holidays are here, and many of us are thinking about whether or not we should be adding any nutritional supplements to our diets in order to strengthen our immune systems, manage stress, and curtail the winter season flu. The multi-billion-dollar nutritional supplement industry is counting on it! But the truth is, many people have no idea whether their bodies truly need the supplements they are buying. Nor do they know whether the supplements they buy are actually working for their bodies they way they should be.
I have broken down some basics about nutritional supplements, to make it very easy to decide when you may want to consider supplementing, and how to understand your supplement labels, so you can decide if the supplements you are choosing are the best fit for your needs.
Here are Some Possible Reasons to Use Nutritional Supplements:
- Targeted nutritional or herbal therapy for a desired wellness outcome such as doing a cleanse, taking a turmeric supplement to support managing inflammation or using an amino acid supplement to support muscle recovery. With this type of supplementation, it is helpful to know that there is some clinical evidence behind the efficacy of the supplement you are seeking for support. Many companies are racing to come out with “the new best thing” in nutritional supplements. I’d be careful jumping into any product that hasn’t been extensively studied in credible trials for both efficacy and safety.
- Filling in individual missing nutrient gaps in one’s diet such as taking a good source of vitamin B12 if you are vegan, or supplementing with vitamin D because your blood work showed low levels. It is obvious that you wouldn’t want to go very long being deficient in a specific essential nutrient, so supplementing when you are deficient- when there isn’t any way to make it up in your diet- is sometimes necessary. I wouldn’t assume that because your friend said, “that sounds like a symptom of vitamin D deficiency” that you should run out and buy some vitamin D. Supplementing with an unneeded nutrient, especially if the quality or source of the nutrient is substandard, can sometimes cause more harm than good to your body. Ask your doctor, nutritionist, or trusted wellness professional whether or not you need to supplement for specific nutrient deficiencies before going out and wasting your money.
- Ensuring you are getting enough key nutrient-rich foods in order to supplement the Standard American Diet (SAD). If you consume processed foods, fast food, frozen dinners, and-or pretty much partake in the SAD diet, you may want to consider supplementing with foods or nutritional supplements that are otherwise greatly missing in this diet. An example of this would be supplementing with a daily protein-meal replacement or superfoods shake, a multivitamin & mineral supplement, or a fiber supplement (most Americans don’t get enough fiber in the their standard diet of processed foods). A lot of people probably already are supplementing in this way by taking a multivitamin or something along those lines, but many or most of these products on the store shelf are nutritionally inferior, therefore becoming useless in their intended purpose.
So, once you think you have a good reason to supplement, here are some things to know about what you are buying:
Understanding the Varying Kinds of Nutritional Supplements
Nutritional supplements come in varying forms, and knowing how to identify the difference, along with some of their therapeutic actions, and nutritional complexity can make a big impact on your results.
- Whole food– According to many leaders in the field of holistic nutrition and supplementation, this is the best kind. Nutrients come from the complete food, intact with all its fiber, macronutrients, micronutrients, and other compounds. To clarify, the real food is actually the best, but there are many supplements that are forms of whole foods that have been processed in a way that allows them to retain all their whole food components, like low heat dehydration and-or other methods of concentrating the food so that it retains its nutritional complexity.
- Herbal– This is like a whole food supplement, but made from plants that fall into the herbal classification, like chamomile or valerian root. Herbs have a different function. Whereas food supplements provide the materials for your body to make energy, resist disease, and perform many functions for your body to thrive and rebuild itself; herbs are bioactive plant materials known to alter the level or nature of certain biological activities that can affect both the structure and especially the function of the body. The quality, cultivation, and formulation of herbs is crucial, as many herbs at the store are adulterated and therefore unable to perform their bioactive function when ingested by the body.
- Isolated– When the desired nutrient is extracted from the food using a chemical or water process (like whey protein isolate or pea protein isolate). If you drink a protein shake made from protein isolates, you need to know that you are not getting a complete meal, just the protein and possibly some synthetic vitamins added in. So it would be a good idea to add some real food to your shake, like spinach, apples, berries, and healthy fats. This kind of shake would be better utilized as only a protein supplement for exercise recovery, for example.
- Synthetic- When nutrients are synthesized in a laboratory and delivered in their singular form, without the synergistic support found in their natural food or botanical counterpart. Someone who lives on the Standard American Diet and then supplements with a synthetic multivitamin, is sadly still missing the key quality nutrition that would otherwise be made available in a healthier diet or a supplement formulated with whole foods. A synthetic vitamin tricks your body into thinking it is receiving the vitamin, but is not well utilized by your body. And some studies have shown it actually can do harm. That is because our bodies are genetically designed to receive vitamins in their natural food state, along with all the other nutrients and compounds that work synergistically with the vitamin.
- Food Based– In a food based supplement, a food is used as a base (like corn starch and-or rice or pea protein) and then isolated and synthesized nutrients are added in. There are many products that have words like “whole food” or “natural” on the front of their label, but when you turn the product around and look at the actual nutrition facts, you will discover that they are actually only food based and that they contain many unnatural additives, flavors, and synthesized nutrients.
How Do You Know Your Nutritional Supplements Are Best?
It comes down to knowing how to read the ingredient deck. You want to look for the primary ingredients to be a list of foods described as their known name. Such as: “quinoa sprouts, dehydrated wheat grass juice, spirulina, maca, cordyceps mushroom…” In this case, the nutrition facts (the list of vitamins, minerals, fats, etc.) reflect the nutritional value of the foods that make up the formula. This is most ideal.
In contrast, be cautious if you find a list of synthesized vitamins: “vitamin A (as retinyl palmitate), vitamin c (as ascorbic acid),” and so on… followed by another list of other ingredients: “corn starch, pea protein isolate, guar gum, natural flavors… ” or even more so with a list of vitamins & minerals followed by an ingredient list of synthetics: “calcium carbonate, dl-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate, Niacinimide…”
You can learn how to read the product’s label by looking for key words that indicate the supplement is synthetic. Words that end in “ide” or “ate” indicate that the product contains salt forms, which are synthetics. For instance, if you see chloride, hydrochloride, acetate or nitrate on the list of ingredients, the manufacturer used synthetics for the product. Additionally, the letters “dl” that appear before the name of an ingredient indicates the supplement is synthetic.
Common Synthetic Vitamins in Your Medicine Cabinet:
• Vitamin A: Acetate and Palmitate
• Vitamin B1 (Thiamine): Thiamine Mononitrate, Thiamine Hydrochloride
• Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin): Riboflavin
• Pantothenic Acid: Calcium D-Pantothenate
• Vitamin B6 (Pyridoxine): Pyridoxine Hydrochloride
• Vitamin B12: Cobalamin
• PABA (Para-aminobenzoic Acid): Aminobenzoic Acid
• Folic Acid: Pteroylglutamic Acid
• Choline: Choline Chloride, Choline Bitartrate
• Biotin: d-Biotin
• Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid): Ascorbic Acid
• Vitamin D: Irradiated Ergosteral, Calciferol
• Vitamin E: dl-alpha tocopherol, dl-alpha tocopherol acetate or succinate
NOTE: The “dl” form of any vitamin is synthetic.
Some Examples of Different Nutritional Supplements:
Here is an example of a completely synthetic multivitamin product. Every single nutrient is synthetic and not providing your body with the nutritional complexity found in whole foods:
A low-quality multivitamin is not limited to economy brands like Centrum. Don’t be fooled by fancy marketing slogans and green washing. I have seen some outrageously expensive multivitamins claiming to be healthy and pure with marketing slogans like “pure, safe & beneficial,” that were actually nothing more than a formula of mostly synthetic vitamins and a few herbs. When a product contains mostly synthesized vitamins, you would have to wonder if the quality of the added herbs is sufficient to make the herbal actions helpful in any way to the formula.
Here is an example of a whole-food multivitamin product, with some synthesized secondary ingredients. In this case, the synthesized ingredients are probably there to complete the formula and enhance the performance and-or quality of the formula, and not being used to replace or mimic a nutrient, as they are in the aforementioned Centrum formula.
Here is an example of a food-based protein-meal replacement shake with isolated proteins, that has been fortified with synthetic nutrients. In this case, most of the nutrients are bing “added in” in their isolated or synthetic form, so there aren’t many nutrients coming from actual food :
Here is an example of a protein-meal replacement shake made from 100% whole foods: Notice anything different?
And, here is a whole food shake that appears to be formulated for supplementing nutrient-dense foods (i.e. a “superfood”):
So you might be asking, “what do I do now?” The best place to begin is always with the food you eat every day. You can increase the nutrient density of your diet simply by increasing the amount of dark leafy green and colored vegetables, whole fruit, seeds, nuts, and whole grains that you consume each day.
After that, if you still think you want some additional support from supplements or shakes, it is best to go to a professional. Nutritionists and naturopathic practitioners can truly guide you in the right direction, and have access to products that are held to a much higher standard than what you will find at the vitamin store. Did you know that you can see a clinical nutritionist and they can actually help you design a nutritional supplement plan that fits your individual health profile? Seeing a professional for supplementation can be a way to make your nutrition budget really work for you in more meaningful ways.
At Vibrant Living Wellness Center, we provide designed clinical nutrition and nutrition coaching, that together can help you give your body the nutritional support it’s actually asking for. We do this using clinically proven methods of assessing your body’s systems and then making nutritional and herbal recommendations that will support your body to thrive and heal. You can schedule a nutritional assessment here, or take advantage of my complimentary phone or video chat consultation if you have questions. We’d be happy to help you better understand how your supplements are working for you, so you can be more informed and empowered about the nutrition decisions you make for yourself and your family.