Nutritional Supplements: How To Choose What’s Right For You

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I get questions almost daily from clients about nutritional supplements. Do I need to take a multivitamin? What dosage should I take? Can I take take anything I want? Does the brand really matter all that much?

I also have some clients who are extremely skeptical of taking anything, even a multivitamin. These clients typically prefer whole-food nutrients and often suspect that the nutrients found in capsule form actually cause disease. Or, they’ve had bad experiences with supplements before and would prefer to just avoid them.

This is a topic I love to provide clarity on because I think supplements can be a very valuable tool when taken and used correctly. There are a few principles I preach before recommending nutritional supplements:

Brand matters.

Yes, purchasing any old brand from a pharmacy or supplement store means that you may get some of that vitamin or mineral, or you may not get any of it at all. You may not break down the capsule and absorb the targeted nutrients, or you may simply not get a consistent amount of the targeted nutrient in each capsule. These concerns are actually quite common among supplement brands. In fact, one 2013 study on vitamin D supplements showed a wide range of content in the capsules: 8% to 201% of the claim on the label. Additionally, a 2012 study on fish oil supplements showed that only about half of the 16 product lines tested contained the claimed amount of EPA and DHA on the label. The rest of the products fell below the amount claimed on the supplement labels. This can be especially concerning with nutrients like fish oil, where specific dosages are often recommended. And just in case you need more convincing: The Natural Health Path Center recently published a piece on supplement quality, citing a 2000 study that showed that only 2 out of 32 tested chondroitin sulfate supplement lines met label claims. That’s only about 6% of the tested product!

This poor trend can be discouraging, but don’t give up! There are ways to find high-quality supplement brands. One of my favorite recommended steps is to become a member of ConsumerLab.com. This organization conducts regular testing on dozens of brands and publishes the results of their 3rd party testing online. Membership is reasonable, and you’ll be sure to stay up-to-date on high-quality supplements. You can also ask your Registered Dietitian or Naturopathic Physician for a list of high-quality nutritional supplement brands.

Determine your personal nutrition needs.

Meet with a Registered Dietitian or Naturopathic Physician to determine if you have any nutritional deficiencies, and/or if you need to boost your intake of any specific nutrients. Taking a multivitamin and calling it a day will provide you with little benefit if you’re not familiar with what your body needs. In fact, some nutrients can inhibit the utilization of other nutrients when taken in abnormal doses (e.g. zinc and copper)! So, talk to an RD or ND, get some comprehensive blood work done, and determine where your body needs a boost. Then, work with your RD or ND to develop a supplement routine that is designed specifically for your needs. This process can help you maximize your nutrient intake.

Go “whole food” whenever possible.

What I mean by this: choose supplement brands that use whole-food based nutrients, or nutrients that are cultivated in real food matter rather than a chemical lab environment. While no supplement will be as powerful as real food, taking a whole-food based nutrient can increase the quality of the supplement you’re taking, improve the utilization of that nutrient during digestion (thank you, enzymes!), and cut down on lab-created substances that are often added to synthetic nutrients. Basically, with a whole-food based supplement, you are consuming the targeted nutrient in a form closest to the form you would find it in food. In my opinion, that is always the preferred choice.

My Favorite Supplement Brands

I’m including some of my favorite supplement brands below to get you started in your search:

  1. Whole-Food Based:
    1. Garden of Life: best for multivitamins, vitamin D, calcium, fish oil, and iron
    2. MegaFood: best for thyroid support, healthy hormones, and digestive health
    3. New Chapter: best for immune support, inflammation, prenatal support, and joint health
  2. Best Value (good quality, low cost)
    1. Doctor’s Best: best for brain health, liver health, and bone and joint support
    2. Life Extension: best for targeted antioxidants, herbals and botanicals
    3. NOW Foods: best for sports nutrition needs, essential amino acids, and essential minerals

These brands can be found at most health food stores, some Vitamin Shoppe stores, and online.

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