Supplements can be a helpful tool in supporting your health. As we start 2023 off, we all are thinking about our good health. Since you know we are ingredient geeks and researchers, we asked our friend and colleague Ashley Koff, Registered Dietitian and Founder of The Better Nutrition Program, for some advice on what to look for when considering supplementation. Here is her take.
Supporting a healthy lifestyle means giving your body what it needs to run better. We call that your better nutrition. It includes what you put in your body and what you choose not to put in it. This includes your food, beverages and supplements - your total nutrition. Today, let’s help you navigate making better nutrition choices when it comes to dietary supplements.
Depending on your health goals, dietary supplements can play different roles to support better health. There are three ways supplements work to help optimize your nutrition and health.
- Prevent Gaps — Given that we all have a variety of eating patterns, preferences, and lifestyles, you may need a supplement to prevent gaps because you don’t like or can’t take in certain nutrients from other food choices.
- Address Insufficiencies / Deficiencies — When we discover that the body isn’t getting enough or not getting an optimal amount of a nutrient, we want to correct that issue. As a short term or lasting fix, your practitioner may recommend supplementation.
- Therapeutic Reason(s) — Medically there may be reasons you need to add a therapeutic amount or type of nutrient. For example, if a medication or treatment makes it harder for your body to produce a nutrient or if genetically you don’t produce enough of a nutrient, your practitioner may recommend a supplement.
It’s also worth noting that life stage changes and lifestyle choices (pregnancy, training for a race, recovering from surgery, etc.) can create an increased need for nutrients or support for digestion that results in your needing or wanting to add a supplement to optimize your nutrition.
Ready to choose a supplement? Let's debunk three myths first.
Myth 1: More is better — The body needs nutrients in balance, not just more of ones deemed “good for us.” Unprocessed foods typically deliver a balanced array of nutrients. Uninformed supplementation can increase our risk of upsetting this critical balance. Two examples:
- If as a vegan you take in only B12 as a supplement, you may not be getting enough B6 and folate. These three work together synergistically to reduce the risk of homocysteine formation - a risk for heart disease. If they are out of balance this is a health risk.
- The same goes for calcium and magnesium. If you take in calcium supplements and also get it in your food, but you don’t get enough magnesium, this imbalance can exacerbate symptoms like headaches, cramps, insomnia, and even affect how your body builds bone.
Myth 2: You should take a supplement when your labs show you are low in a nutrient — This is a maybe but not a definite. The most important thing to do if your labs are low - for you or based on the ‘standard values’ (which aren’t very personalized) - is to work with your practitioner to understand why. If you are low in iron according to one set of labs, your practitioner should evaluate your intake of iron rich foods, supplements that can interfere with iron absorption, your body’s ability to absorb nutrients (digestion), and other factors such as workouts, bleeding, and inflammation. Then, they can recommend a better plan which may include the right type and amount of a supplement, as well as a time frame for re-evaluating to see how the supplement is working.
Myth 3: Everyone of a certain age or goal should take the same supplements — You are a unique person; your “better” nutrition is specific to your body’s needs. Thus, it is wrong for anyone to suggest a blanket approach to supplementation.
If this already feels overwhelming, that’s actually a good thing. Too often marketing messages make it seem like there’s a simple quick fix or one-size-fits-all approach to supplement your way to better nutrition and better health. One goal of this post is to help you realize that supplements need to be personalized and routinely updated to be helpful. So, let’s look at how you can make those choices, ideally in collaboration with a practitioner who understands you and your goals.
Quality is Key
Regardless of why you take a supplement, the most important thing to consider with supplements is the quality. When it comes to quality, a good rule of thumb is to set the same standards or make the same choices you make for your better food choices. For example, are the ingredients planet-friendly? Healthy for the workforce harvesting ingredients? Safer for the animals that live near the source of ingredients? Beyond that, here are important things to consider and discuss with your practitioner.
Active Ingredients — Will my body be able to recognize and use the type of ingredient in the supplement? Unlike food sources of nutrients, supplements come in a variety of nutrient forms: some are from food, some are man-made (synthetic). What your body can use and needs depends on your health goal and things like digestion, genetics, etc. Here are some examples:
- Folate versus folic acid: the first is the form found in food, the second is a man-made version (with a patent) that some individuals don’t break down as efficiently.
- Vitamin E is made up on tocopherols and tocotrienols but in supplements we often only see one tocopherol as either d-alpha tocopherol or dl-aplha tocopherol. The first is naturally occurring, the second is synthetic and a byproduct of petrochemical manufacturing, so it’s on my not better list.
Inactive Ingredients — Supplements are made with other ingredients besides the ones you are trying to add to your nutrition to make it better. This means that you want to evaluate the inactive ingredients to make sure they aren’t ones to avoid. For example, if you avoid gluten or corn in your diet you want to ensure your supplement’s inactive ingredients don’t include them. You also want to make sure these inactive ingredients aren’t ones that can irritate or disrupt your body’s health efforts (like excess added sugar, artificial colors or sweeteners, etc.)
Supplement Form — Beyond the ingredients, the form can matter for your body. For example, if your digestion isn’t working optimally, you may want a liquid or powder that’s easily absorbed. Or, if you want something to take effect at a specific spot on the body, you may use a cream or oil.
Supplement safety is appropriately a significant concern as we are choosing supplements to improve our health. While there are a lot of credible supplement manufacturers, there are also less credible manufacturers with large marketing budgets. Slick marketing stories and product labels may claim results that are too good to be true. This can be extremely confusing and potentially detrimental for your health, not to mention your wallet. Third-party certifications like NSF, glyphosate residue-free certification, and USDA organic can help you make better choices.
With a myriad of supplement options on the market, it can be difficult to identify the better choices for you and your family. The team at The Better Nutrition Program (BNP) is a helpful resource to walk you through the keys to better supplementation, how supplements can support your health, and finally, safety considerations.
If you are interested in optimizing your nutrient intake for better energy, blood sugar levels, digestion, sleep and immune health, you can download a free copy of The Better Nutrition Program’s Supplement Guide. For a deeper dive on supplements with a personalized approach, check out The Better Nutrition programs and resources.
Want to learn more? Watch MADE SAFE founder Amy Ziff's interview with Ashley Koff, in which they talk about what's in supplements and why it matters.
Ashley Koff, RD
Ashley honed her personalized nutrition expertise over 25 years in private practice, teaching practitioners, as an author, media source, spokesperson and strategic nutrition advisor for national and global companies. Today, she’s the founder and CEO of The Better Nutrition Program, seeking to scale access to personalized nutrition nationwide. She loves playing the trumpet, time outdoors, basketball and her puppy Roger.
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