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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Megan P. Dahlman
Hi friend! I'm a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, Precision Nutrition Certified Coach, Wife to Scott, and Mom to two crazy boys, Calvin & Peter. I train hard, eat well, rest just enough to keep going, and do my best to maintain a heavenly perspective. I'd love to coach you to do the same. Cheers!
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