Nutritional Supplements: Essential or Extra?
When it comes to nutritional supplements, there’s a lot of misinformation floating around, mostly due to the massive marketing budget of most supplement companies. They spend millions of dollars every year to convince you that whatever they are selling is the holy grail to health, leanness, and longevity—the best nutritional supplements. To make matters more complicated, supplement companies do not need FDA approval before marketing, and will only be taken off the market by the FDA after a series of adverse events are reported. They are simply expected to follow standards and guidelines for marketing and manufacturing.
So what’s the truth about supplements? The truth is that they are just that—a supplement to an overall healthy diet and exercise regimen.
With a balanced diet, they shouldn’t be necessary for health. However, there are a handful of supplements that can be very beneficial depending on your goals. Compared to what is available for purchase in a supplement store, this is a very short list. We aren’t saying that these are the only supplements that you might find beneficial, but they are the most talked about and thoroughly researched, and we consider them the best supplements for women.
Adequate vitamin and mineral intake is crucial for supporting normal, physiological functions of the body, and even better than adequate, which insinuates just enough, is optimal intake, which insinuates the amount to help our bodies function optimally. While it’s impossible to ensure that we are always getting the exact perfect amount of vitamins and minerals we need, we can cover our bases pretty well by eating a varied diet full of minimally processed, whole foods like:
- Protein (animal or plant sources)
- Foods low in added and simple sugars
- Moderate amounts of natural fats (i.e., nuts, seeds, oils, avocado)
- High-fiber foods (beans, flax, vegetables, nuts)
- Bulky foods (leafy greens, beans, and some whole grains)
If you don’t eat a varied diet like the one listed above, and/or you’ve had bloodwork done and are deficient in a number of vitamins and minerals, you may want to consider adding a high-quality multivitamin from whole foods sources to your daily routine. There has been some concern over the past few years that taking a multivitamin would actually be associated with an increased risk of mortality. That may sound counterintuitive, but proponents argued that people may be less attentive to their overall nutrition, believing that a multivitamin provided them with everything they lacked by avoiding the foods listed above.
A recent meta-analysis found that this is not true, and that multivitamin use is not associated with mortality.8 The Harvard School of Public Health explains the flaws in the studies that found an increased risk of mortality, such as not taking into account the lifestyle factors of people using multivitamins, and makes recommendations for multivitamin use.24 Debate continues, but most sources agree that a daily multivitamin is not harmful, but should not be viewed as a substitute for healthy eating. Of course, before adding any supplements to your daily routine, make sure you first talk to your doctor.
You may be thinking, “fish oil? Ewww!”
Yes, fish oil! Fish oil is a supplement that is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is critical to your overall health and well-being. Omega-3s, as well as Omega-6 fatty acids are known as essential fatty acids because our bodies cannot make them – our only sources are food. These fats are essential for proper nervous system development and function, growth and repair, prevention of against skin disorders, healthy vision, cognitive function and fertility.9 Omega-3s come in 3 forms: EPA, DHA and ALA. There are other sources of omega-3s besides fish. ALA (alpha-linolenic acid) is found in many nuts and seeds.
For vegans, EPA and DHA are found in supplements made from algae, which is where the fish get the omega-3s in the first place. Dr. Cassandra Forsythe, Registered Dietitian and Girls Gone Strong Advisory Board Member wrote an extensive piece explaining the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids and the pros and cons about the different sources.
Most Americans consume more ALA than EPA and DHA, meaning overall, our fish and seafood intake is low compared to other countries. The trouble with this is that Americans consume much more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s. Omega-6s aren’t inherently bad for you, but they compete with omega-3s in the body, so balance is key. You can improve your profile by either upping your omega-3 intake, or decreasing your omega-6 intake. Omega-6 fatty acids are most commonly found in vegetable oils, meat and poultry (think any and all processed, fried food). Since this ratio may be difficult to change in the American diet, supplementation with omega-3s is heavily investigated.
The strongest evidence for the health benefits of omega-3 supplementation are for the prevention of heart disease, but there is also evidence for lowering cholesterol, blood pressure and managing rheumatoid arthritis.
Research continues to look at the relationship between supplementation and the prevention of neurological disorders such as Alzheimers as well as several psychiatric conditions such as ADHD, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. Of course, if you do not take in any sources of omega-3s, supplementation should be considered for your overall health.
Where can you get fish oil? Fish oil supplements generally come from sources like salmon, sardines, cod or krill, but there are a lot of low quality supplements out there.
When choosing a fish or krill oil supplement, it’s important to find one that uses third-party testing to confirm low levels of mercury or other contaminants. Labdoor.inc recently ranked fish oil supplement brands by measuring total omega-3 content, EPA and DHA quantities, vitamin D and CLA amounts, methylmercury concentration, and total oxidation values.18
The next question you may be wondering is, “how much fish oil should I take?” The research consensus is that a normal healthy individual can get all the omega-3s they require from eating fish rich in omega-3 2-3 times per week. If you are not going to eat fish 2-3 times per week, then your fish oil supplementation should reflect what you would derive from natural food sources. An equivalent dose in fish oil currency would be about 400 to 500 milligrams per day of combined EPA and DHA.10 Otherwise, dosing for fish oil depends upon your reason for taking it.
Mayo Clinic provides an extensive list of dosing recommendations based on every condition to which fish oil supplementation has been recommended.19 Make sure you are taking an appropriate recommended dose (not too much or too little) and monitor how you feel over several weeks.
Also, if you’ve ever taken fish oil supplements and experienced the dreaded “fish burps,” you may be hesitant to give it another go. If this is the case, give krill oil supplements a try, which are less likely to have this unpleasant after-effect. Or, you can try the vegan algae alternatives.
A probiotic is a microorganism that when ingested in sufficient amounts, is suggested to have beneficial effects on the host. With every year of research, scientists are uncovering more about the role of gut microbia in regulating our overall health. Despite only getting mass attention in the past decade or so, probiotics have been discussed in medicine for several years.In fact, we acquire probiotics the moments we are born, if delivered vaginally in the birth canal from our mothers. This has been a hypothesized reason why babies delivered via C-section have more allergies and gastrointestinal disorders!
Having healthy levels of good bacteria in your gut aids in better digestion and better overall immune system function.
This can help also you absorb nutrients from the food you’re eating more effectively so you’re actually benefiting from the food you eat, instead of eating it and excreting it. Probiotics can also help improve bowel regularity, and are especially important for anyone who has recently taken antibiotics, as your bacteria population (bad and good bacteria) has recently been wiped out. Gut bacteria can be compromised by lifestyle factors as well, such as stress, poor sleep and poor food choices.12
Probiotics are being recommended frequently by medical practitioners to treat a variety of conditions. The most common uses for probiotics are to treat abdominal pain, gas and bloating, and for immune-boosting benefits after a course of antibiotics. However, probiotics are being researched as potential treatments for allergies, IBS, Crohn’s disease, dermatitis, Ulcerative Colitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, reproductive disorders, and even obesity.12,13
A concern about probiotics is that there is no standard measurement, or qualification for “gut health”, and many symptoms that probiotics are used to treat are very subjective in nature.13 This may mean that probiotics get used excessively, or when not needed. In addition, simply taking the probiotic does not mean that the microbes will set up shop in your digestive tract, making the type and dosage of probiotics a tricky thing. There is no evidence that you can overdose on probiotics, however, but it’s still unclear whether they should be recommended to everyone.
If you do decide to take probiotics, how do you know what brand, and dosage to take? Labdoor Inc. has a current ranking of probiotic brands. They ranked these brands by measuring the amounts of total probiotics as well as potential contaminants, compared with labeling claims. In general, the highest rated probiotics have microbia populations in anywhere from the 1-50 billions. Ryan Andrews of Precision Nutrition recommends, “Between 3 and 5 billion would be a starting dose…this could be increased to 10 billion if you are hoping to treat a specific health concern.” The highest rated probiotic from Labdoor is currently at 50 billion, but typically, this also means a higher price. Labdoor also includes a list for the best probiotic based on value, so we recommend that you choose a brand from their list at a lower dose to start, and increase your dose if you don’t experience any benefits.20
Make sure to talk to your doctor about your probiotic use.
If you are using probiotics to treat a specific condition, you need to manage your expectations of what the probiotics could reasonably do to help you versus other medications or lifestyle changes.
Protein powder is one of the most common nutrition supplements we receive questions about. We are consistently asked:
- Should I be taking protein powder?
- If so, how much?
- What is the best brand of protein powder to take?
First things first, the bottom line is, no. You don’t need to take a protein powder supplement. assuming you get adequate protein from whole food sources. However, protein powder can be a healthy (depending on what brand you buy) and convenient way to get more protein in your diet.
Protein powders are extracts of protein from various whole foods. The most common supplemental proteins are isolates or combinations of whey, casein and soy. Whey is one the proteins, along with casein, that comes from dairy products. Soy protein is derived from soybeans. The vegan protein options include hemp, isolated from hemp seeds, pea protein and rice protein.
You may be wondering if this extraction process is healthy or not (various heat processed and/or chemical applications may be used). As far as safety, unless you have an intolerance to any of these foods, the isolated protein should not have any negative effect on you.
That said, according to Registered Dietitian Dr. Cassandra Forsythe, “Soy protein isolate is controversial because there are many claims (some substantiated, some not validated at all) of digestive and/or hormonal alterations with long term, consistent use. For this reason, it’s best to only use this type of protein source sparingly if at all.”
The most common protein powder on the market is whey, so if you tolerate dairy products well, you should be fine with a high quality whey. If you don’t do well with dairy or have ethical reasons for avoiding dairy, then other alternatives can be found in hemp protein, rice protein and/or pea protein.
Regardless what protein powder you choose, be aware that many brands contain minimal additives and artificial sweeteners. If you are sensitive to these, or simply do not want to ingest them, read your labels carefully. You will see that the lower price products typically are blends of proteins. Soy is cheaper, so it is frequently added to whey protein to increase bulk. Mineral additives and artificial sweeteners help to increase shelf life, which decreases cost.
Keep a close eye on your digestive health with these products; if you get digestive distress, discontinue immediately, but you don’t have to give up on protein powder altogether.
Experiment with different types of protein and different brands to see what sits well with you. Often times you won’t handle a particular brand of whey well, but you’ll handle another brand just fine.
Protein powder is most frequently used post-workout to help muscles recover. The hour post workout is also the optimal time for utilization of the amino acids. Yes, you could eat a chicken breast, but a protein powder will require minimal digestion by your stomach, allowing for quicker absorption by the body. Deciding against protein powders will not limit your strengths or ability to recover. In fact, research that examines whole food sources such as milk or simply a glucose drink with amino acids shows optimal benefits on muscle recovery.14
A February 2016 meta-analysis, which compiled the results from several research studies investigating ideal post-workout nutrition, reported that it is the total protein intake in a day, versus the timing of protein intake, that makes the difference in muscle mass.14 The study does mention that there may be a beneficial window post-exercise, but the available studies had too many limitations to make a final conclusion on the subject.
The moral of the story is, you don’t need protein powders in your diet to get protein at all of your meals and snacks, but they sure can make it easier when you don’t have the time or desire to cook or prepare another protein option. What’s important is that you get the nutrients you need to help you refuel your muscles and support the recovery process.
Curious about creatine? Creatine is a supplement well-known for enhancing strength, increasing muscle mass, and improving overall exercise performance. Although most creatine research has been conducted in men, there is some evidence that indicates women benefit from long-term creatine supplementation, particularly in older women. However, many women still avoid taking creatine, mostly due to misinformation or lack of information.
First things first, creatine is not a steroid. In fact, it is a completely different chemical compound that is not at all related to hormones.
Creatine is a natural substance in the body that is used to build a compound called creatine phosphate. When performing short bursts of activity that don’t require oxygen, such as in resistance training or power sports, creatine phosphate is used as an instant source of energy within the muscles. Overall, creatine aids cellular functions, even beyond the muscular system. Benefits are found in the nervous system, bones and liver as well.
Second, creatine is produced naturally in your body, primarily the liver, and when creatine is broken down, it doesn’t involve the removal of nitrogen when excreted from the body by the kidneys. Therefore, the concern that creatine may harm your kidneys because of increased nitrogen removal is unwarranted. However, there is very little long-term research on creatine supplementation, so what may be safe in the short-term cannot be definitively determined safe over years, or decades.15 It also seems that the most benefits are derived in the first few months of supplementation, but it is difficult to determine if psychological effect of taking creatine is also greatest in this period of time, when people are expecting a benefit.
Third, you may have heard that creatine causes bloating and water retention. While this is true in some women, this side effect seems to diminish over time, and is very dependent upon the amount of creatine being taken, which is known as a “dose-response.” Make sure you give yourself six to eight weeks before determining if you’d like to discontinue using creatine or not. This gives you enough time to experience the positive side effects, while also giving your weight time to normalize.
Still not convinced? Examine.com, a trusted resource for nutrition research, gathered all of the recent research available on creatine and created a matrix to examine the research, and the potential benefits of supplementation.22 The claims are listed, with the strength of the evidence for the claims in the adjacent column. Even a quick glance at this matrix should convince anyone that creatine is both beneficial for performance and safe. However, it also shows that concerns about weight gain are not anecdotal, but due to water retention, not a gain in fat mass. You might be surprised to see that there is strong evidence that creatine is an effective treatment for depressive symptoms as well, and may have an even stronger effect in females.
While you can get creatine in small quantities from food, namely red meats (beef, lamb, pork) and fish, the normal dietary intake of creatine in people who eat meat is about 1 gram, and intake is much lower in vegetarians. Considering that in an average healthy person, approximately two grams of creatine is broken down and excreted in the urine per day, the amount of creatine you get from food is not enough to see the same benefits you would see from supplementation.
The general recommended dose is 3 to 5 grams of creatine per day. At this dose, it will take your muscles about a month to become saturated with creatine, and to begin reaping the benefits. If you’re interested in faster results, it’s possible to “load” creatine and take much larger doses in the beginning (~20 grams), and then taper off. However, there’s no need to take that much creatine per day unless you want to see results faster.