Nutrition

"Should I be using supplements?"

Megan Dahlman
January 8, 2019

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Should I Be Taking Supplements?


​Probably the most confusing aspect of the health and fitness industry is the world of supplements. There are thousands of different nutritional supplements out there, and your mom, dad, sister, neighbor and friend are probably all taking various types. 

The topic of supplements is incredibly controversial: you’ll have one person that has a bunch of packets, pills and oils lined up on their counter, arguing that they are absolutely necessary to feel completely healthy and thriving. On the flipside, you’ll have someone who won’t ever touch a single supplement because they think they’re all a sham and a money-making scheme. 

Where do you fall? If I had to guess, probably in the confused but willing to dabble category.

In this post, I will teach you the difference between essential nutrients and non-essential nutrients, common supplements that have been researched thoroughly and have very well-known effects, and the benefits of taking or not taking certain supplements. You should be able to determine whether or not you NEED to be taking a supplement. 

​So, the next time your neighbor brings over her catalog of pill bottles, you’ll know whether or not to say “thanks, but no thanks”. 

Essential vs. Non-essential 

Nutrients are what our body uses for various physiological functions. Many nutrients are necessary for normal functioning and without them we would cease to function properly. Some of these nutrients our body can make itself, while others we have to get from food.

Essential to survival
Essential nutrients are those nutrients found in food that our body MUST have. They’re essential to survival. Essential nutrients include proteins, essential fatty acids, vitamins and minerals. Some plant based nutrients (called phytochemicals or phytonutrients) may also be considered essential as they play a host of important functions.

Because we can eat our essential nutrients, supplementing with these is not necessarily needed. God did not design our bodies with a vital need and then say, "Welp! Good luck! You're not going to be able to function the way I made you to until you figure out a supplement for that!" 

However, some of us may have a hard time meeting certain essential requirements, so we may need to increase our intake of these nutrients through supplements to meet our body's demands. Based on lifestyle factors and other reasons, a large part of the population is malnourished when it comes to vitamins and minerals, so taking a multivitamin/multimineral supplement may be important for many individuals.

Even still, the emphasis should always be on trying to meet your nutrient needs through real, whole foods

Not so essential
The non-essential nutrient category is much broader. Non-essential nutrients are nutrients that we can either make ourselves or we don’t necessarily NEED for normal functioning. Nutrients that fall into this category are supplements like caffeine and green tea extract...we don't need them for normal functioning, however they may be helpful in certain cases. Some of these supplements produce well-documented benefits (like caffeine and creatine), while others are less known.

Proceed with Caution

What you need to know is that supplements are NOT regulated by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which means they do not analyze supplements for their safety, purity or effectiveness. Supplement companies are on their own and can say whatever they want about their product. In fact, they can legally package sugar in capsules and sell it as a fancy supplement, with the consumer never the wiser. With supplements, especially non-essential nutrients, you should ask yourself if the risk is worth the reward.

If you do choose a supplement, make sure to purchase from a larger, well-known company that has been verified time and time again for producing high quality products. 

I also highly recommend consulting with your physician or a registered dietitian before you begin taking any supplements. Certain supplements can have strong interactions with particular medications and health issues. Don't start experimenting assuming it's "safe" because it's just called a supplement. 

Essential vs. Non-Essential Supplements

Common Supplements

If you’re considering taking a supplement, you need to first ask yourself if you actually need it. Do you already eat a very well-balanced diet like this yet still have some nutritional deficiencies? Do you have specific performance and body composition goals that are difficult to achieve with your ordinary diet? Do you have a dietary restriction that prevents you from eating adequate nutrients? Do you have a medical condition that would necessitate the need to supplement?

Remember, supplements are just that…a supplement to your ordinary diet. Make sure your eating habits are top-notch, and then supplement if absolutely necessary. 

Essential Nutrient Supplements
​There are some common essential nutrient supplements that may be beneficial to take, especially if you feel there may be some small gaps in your diet.

  • Protein powder is helpful as a meal replacement in smoothies when whole food protein is inaccessible. There are now many varieties available. If you are not allergic to dairy, whey protein isolate is the best option since it is the fastest absorbed, making it especially beneficial in the peri-workout period.  

 

  • Omega-3s. Most people do not consume enough omega-3 fatty acids so taking fish oil (or other omega-3) supplements is very important. Look for one that contains at least 30% EPA and DHA and take at least 2,000 mg per day. 

 

  • Greens supplement. Like certain fatty acids, many fall short when it comes to eating enough produce, so a greens supplement (powdered green food blend) can fill the gaps. This should be used very infrequently as it is much better to strive for eating high amounts of fruits and vegetables.  

 

  • Multivitamins & multiminerals should be taken every day, unless you are extremely conscientious about eating a varied diet. 

 

  • BCAAs or EAAs. A branched chain amino acid drink (BCAAs) or essential amino acid (EAAs) drink is helpful during very high intensity exercise sessions when you’re working hard to lose fat but still need enough energy to perform. 

 

  • ​Probiotics and Prebiotics. Probiotics are live microorganisms that help to restore beneficial bacteria in the GI tract. Prebiotics stimulate the growth of this healthy bacteria in the gut. Our intestines contain numerous and diverse species of bacteria that are necessary for overall health and gut function. Taking antibiotics and other lifestyle factors can result in a diminished gastrointestinal bacteria count, so it may be beneficial to use a probiotic and/or prebiotic supplement when you're not able to consume enough foods that contain a broad flora of bacteria. 

 

  • Protein-carb workout drinks are also beneficial during very high intensity workout sessions where muscle strength, size and a faster recovery is the desired outcome.

 

  • Electrolytes (primarily the minerals sodium and potassium) are important regulators of muscle contraction, fluid balances and nerve impulses. Electrolyte deficiency can lead to fatigue, poor circulation, muscle cramps, and many other clinical complaints. It may be beneficial to consume an electrolyte replacement drink, especially if you consistently sweat profusely. 


Non-Essential Nutrient Supplements

Here are a couple common, and well-researched, “non-essential” supplements. Remember, you probably don’t NEED these if you’re eating very well and your essential nutrients are taken care of. Be very judicial about whether or not you really should be taking these.

  • Caffeine. Even though we don’t think of it as such, caffeine is a widely used supplement that stimulates your central nervous system. It can be beneficial to improve your focus and readiness prior to "competition". Many cannot tolerate caffeine so be careful with it. Most average trainees should not need caffeine for performance. 

 

  • Creatine is another very well-known supplement that can help replenish energy stores during very high intensity training. It allows you to train harder with a much greater intensity. Unless you’re training at incredibly high intensities for extended periods of time, you probably won’t benefit from creatine. 

 

  • Tyrosine and phosphatidylcholine help reduce nervous system fatigue and/or symptoms of nervous system stress during periods of heavy training. 

 

  • Green tea extract stimulates the metabolism during weight loss phases. Make sure the extract is high in EGCG, which is the most active component. If your nutrition and training is perfect, yet you’re having a hard time with fat loss, this may be helpful for you. 

 

  • Similarly, CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is a fatty acid that stimulates metabolism and can be helpful during periods of fat loss.


The list of non-essential nutrient supplements could go on and on, but those listed above are the most common and widely used. Creatine, for example, has been thoroughly researched for its safety and efficacy, however many other supplements have not. There are some supplements that may promise certain benefits, but the research done on that particular nutrient could be very limited and the true effects are unknown.

Necessary?

When considering whether or not to take a supplement, ask yourself if your nutrition is up to par. Could you be eating better? If the answer is yes, start there. Fix your diet and then see if you still could benefit from a supplement. 

It's tempting to walk through Costco and throw a bunch of Green Tea Extract and other "fat burners" in your cart, hoping they'll make a difference, while your eating habits are still a mess. Master the Big Picture Stuff long before you consider supplementing. 

Are you still a little overwhelmed? I generally suggest to my clientele to just take a multivitamin/mineral and omega-3 supplement. For the average person looking to workout hard, shed some body fat, get healthier and feel better in general, these two supplements combined with a good nutritional plan will be sufficient. 

Try not to get too bogged down with this and especially don’t spend your whole paycheck on supplements!

Eat well, train hard, and then fill in the gaps if you need to.

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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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