There is a massive amount of confusion around supplements and whether they are even necessary or effective. The confusion is not just with fitness enthusiasts. Doctors and medical professionals are confused as well. Research studies affirming or denying the usefulness of supplements vary week to week, and the consensus is still mixed. It’s no wonder we are confused.
I take supplements myself and have done so for years, partly from my own research about their effectiveness and partly based on medical advice from a functional medicine physician. One important caveat when considering taking supplements; it is essential to individualize your supplementation. Just because your friend takes a particular supplement, or Dr. Oz recommends one, does not mean it is good for you or will even work to improve your health. Some supplements do more harm than good. Some supplements are a total waste of money. Here’s an overview of my take on supplementation and what is useful and what is wasteful. This is just my opinion and you all may have a different take, so let me know!
Weight Loss Supplements
There is no supplement on the market that magically burns fat or results in quick weight loss. Yet, the supplement industry is a 2.4 billion dollar industry. That says a lot about our desperation! It is also an unregulated industry, and 90% of what is out there is a scam and, worse, some products are dangerous.
In a literature review of weight loss supplements, Oregon State University researchers saw no evidence that any one product results in significant weight loss. All products- even the good ones- require healthy nutrition and exercise to get results. Let me say this again: no weight loss supplement will do anything unless it is accompanied by exercise and healthy eating. The study did show that a few natural products such as green tea and fiber create a modest weight loss of 3-4 pounds, but even these were tested as part of a reduced calorie regimen. Green Tea is a favorite of mine for many reasons. It has wonderful phyto-nutrients and antioxidants, but also increases metabolism through naturally occurring EGCG, a non-stimulant. It takes quite a lot of tea to get a metabolic affect (4 + cups/day), but there are also green tea extract pills
To be specific, avoid all weight loss supplements with stimulants, even excess caffeine. These stimulants try to elevate metabolism- but an elevated metabolism also means elevated blood pressure and heart rate, which could cause serious problems. That’s not to say that caffeine is bad for you. It’s not! In moderation, it can really help with your workouts. Caffeine has been shown to increase endurance and helps temporarily increase energy so you can work harder. I use caffeine myself for these great results.
So what about protein powders and shakes? Often, my clients think protein powders help with weight loss, but this is incorrect. Protein powders/shakes can be useful for people doing heavy weight training, where muscle tissue is damaged from exertion. Protein powders provide the nutrients (protein and carbs) necessary to rebuild muscles. But taking protein shakes without the stimulus of hard weight training is just like taking any food or drink. It’s calories in. If you are not weight training heavily, taking in extra protein for your workouts is unnecessary. Do not make the mistake of drinking shakes after a cardio workout or any lighter workout as you’ll just undo all of your calorie burning. In reality, protein shakes are not even necessary post workout, as a small meal or a protein filled snack like yogurt and nuts will do the trick just as well. Don’t fall prey to the marketing of any protein or muscle building shake. If it’s convenient and healthy and you like the taste, go for it, but feel free to make a nice turkey sandwich as well.
Speaking of muscle building, Creatine is a well-known body building supplement which increases strength potential and thus muscle gains. Creatine is merely a protein used for energy metabolism and has been shown to be safe when taken as directed, but again, it only works if you do! Creatine side effects can include increased water retention (which most women don’t aspire to!) and hence can increase blood pressure, so it is only for serious bodybuilders or athletes.
Vitamins and Minerals
Multi-vitamins and other vitamin and mineral supplements have been around for decades, but in the December 17, 2015 issue of the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, a large cumulative study found that multivitamin and mineral supplements did not work any better than a placebo. “We believe that it’s clear that vitamins are not working,” said Dr. Eliseo Guallar, a professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In a strongly worded editorial on the three studies, Guallar and his co-authors urged people to stop spending money on multivitamins.
This is groundbreaking news for the millions of people who take supplements to offset a poor diet, and even for our personal physicians who continue to suggest the practice.
This is why I do not recommend a traditional multivitamin. Nor do I recommend most individual vitamins. Generally, these vitamins are synthetic and, because they are not directly derived from food, they do not have the same benefit as the vitamins and minerals we get from food. While “An apple a day keeps the doctor away”, vitamin supplementation does not. The ONLY kind of “vitamin” I recommend is a whole food based product * (*full disclosure- I am a distributor for Juice Plus, a highly researched whole food supplement product) one which contains the entire food itself, not an isolated vitamin. There are many on the market and a careful consumer can find one which is both affordable and effective.
So- what do I recommend? Aside from a whole food based product, I also recommend Vitamin D, an Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acid supplement, and for some, a vitamin B supplement and a probiotic. Let’s discuss why…..
Vitamin D is a supplement which has some controversy. Despite the fact that many people are deficient in Vitamin D due to a lack of regular sunshine and foods rich in vitamin D, there is still a myth that one can overdose on vitamin D. This is just not true if you keep your supplementation of vitamin D within normal recommendations. Vitamin D deficiency has been linked to depression and mood disorders, diminished musculoskeletal health and even higher levels of body fat. More research is needed on the benefits, or not, of Vitamin D, but if your levels are low (as detected by a blood test) supplementing is well worth a try and very safe.
Omega 3 and 6 Fatty Acid supplementation is something I highly recommend, as for most of us, our diets are significantly lacking in these healthy fats. Our bodies do not make omega 3 and 6 FA’s, so we must get them from our diets. I was shocked to learn that some of my FA levels were too low, and so I increased my supplementation of these fats. This is very easy to do. Flax seed, chia seed, some nuts, olive oils and fish and fish oils are all easy ways to add healthy fats to your diet. Research shows that omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation and may help lower risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and even Alzeimer’s. Omega-3 fatty acids are also highly concentrated in the brain and appear to be important for brain memory and behavioral function. I have personally found that my joint pain has diminished with my improved supplementation. These fats most definitely thin the blood, so be aware of this significant side effect.
Vitamin B’s, the “energy vitamins” of the body, may be important to supplement for those who exercise heavily, have a chronic illnesses, or who do not eat foods rich in vitamin B like meat, shellfish, eggs and dairy. (The use of folic acid, a B vitamin, for pregnant women is widely accepted and won’t be discussed here) While Vitamin B is also found in leafy green vegetables like spinach and kale, you need to eat a TON of these veggies to get a good dose. There are many vitamin B “fortified” cereals and breads, but these are just “supplemented” with Vitamin B, so we are back to the same issue…… fortified foods are just foods with added vitamins and minerals. Do they work the same as naturally occurring Vitamin B? Maybe not. I would discuss the pros and cons of Vitamin B supplementation with your doctor depending on your general energy level, as many diseases and illnesses can also cause low energy.
What about the mineral calcium? Calcium is a supplement which women have taken for years to ward off the effects of aging and bone loss. However, a meta-analysis research study published several years ago suggested calcium supplementation may cause calcification of the arteries and thus increase cardiovascular disease risk. However, since then, as recently as January 2015, The Journal of Bone and Mineral Research re-assessed the data, and found the previous meta-analyses had flaws. This has been affirmed by other studies, including one by Purdue University. Contrary to recent reports, consuming calcium supplements is not likely to cause heart problems or heart attacks. “Our study found that consuming a high-calcium diet, which is defined as not exceeding 2,000 milligrams of calcium a day, is not a risk factor for heart attacks,” said Connie Weaver, distinguished professor and head of the Department of Nutrition Science. If you are thin, have a family history of osteoporosis, or are a non-exerciser or a post-menopausal woman, calcium may be needed. Ask your MD! I personally do not take calcium because I have a large strong frame, do a lot of heavy weight training and high impact activities, and I do still eat dairy.
Probiotics are a hot topic right now in nutrition science, and the food marketers are having a heyday adding it to many products. While holistic physicians have recommended probiotics for decades, research results are mixed. Placebo-controlled randomized clinical trials have demonstrated the clinical efficacy of probiotics for functional gastrointestinal problems and preliminary studies show some benefits of probiotics for food allergies, and inflammatory bowel disease. However, probiotic trials suffer from shortcomings similar to those of trials for other dietary supplements. And, although some recent trials have corrected these failings, there is still inadequate data to draw valid conclusions about the use of probiotics in general. Probiotics may not be the answer for everyone, but I have definitely seen a benefit for myself as far as ease of digestion. If you do decide to take a probiotic, start slow, monitor your digestion and make an informed decision if you feel they are working for you personally. Of course, healthy bacteria is also found in many foods including some yogurts, kimchi, tempeh, kefir and even miso soup.
There are many products, herbal and vitamin, that claim to help alleviate or prevent colds. Common supplements for cold treatment and prevention include Vitamin C, Echinacea and Zinc. Research has clearly demonstrated that supplementing with Vitamin C or Echinacea does not have any positive effect on colds and flus. Vitamin C has shown to have some small positive affect in seniors or smokers who get colds at a dose of 200mg/day, but evidence for the rest of us is lacking. As far as Echinacea, a medical study by Taylor et al. (2003) demonstrated that Echinacea products made from the entire plant (not just the root) provided no measurable beneficial effect. Studies by the University Of Virginia School Of Medicine (Turner, 2005) confirmed these results. Zinc, commonly found in cold lozenges, has been shown to decrease duration and severity of colds slightly. Slightly. Not enough to make it go away!
You Are What You Eat
Regardless of the varied research on supplements, it is clear to all of us that eating a well- rounded diet with an abundance of fruits and vegetables is better than any supplement and….. less expensive. Yes, less expensive. But, if, like many people I know, you do not eat 5-8 servings of veggies and fruits a day, or do not eat meat or fish, you may very well need to supplement your diet. Please do so with whole food supplements whenever possible, and realize that supplements by themselves are not the answer to good health. Ironically, the healthier you are, the better they work, because your body is already receptive to improvements. Those who do not take care of their health or who drink excessively or smoke cigarettes may find little or no benefit from supplementation, as smoking and drinking actually diminish the positive effects of vitamins and minerals.