I get asked all the time, 'Are supplements really worth it'? The simple answer is 'Yes and No – it depends'! We've all read those tabloid exposes claiming supplements are a waste of money and just create expensive urine. Well, like a lot of media hype they are kind of right but they are also wrong as they only tell part of the story because, quite simply – 'Not All Supplements are Created Equal'.
Choosing supplements can be overwhelming, below is a list of some of the top considerations I employ when recommending supplements:
1. Is it a Synthetic or Food-State nutrient?
As a Nutritional Therapist an oft-repeated mantra of mine is 'The best way to get your nutrients is from food'. Nutrient's don't work in isolation, they work synergistically with all the other naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and enzymes contained within that food. So supplementing an isolated synthetic nutrient (which is what the majority of supplements are) is never going to have the same impact as eating a healthy, well-balanced and varied diet.
That is why, when I do prescribe supplements I recommend Food-State supplements wherever possible. Food-State bases are derived from whole-food complexes that not only provide the base nutrient but all the other macro-/micro-nutrients, phytonutrients and enzymes that food-state naturally contains.
'But if the best way to get nutrients is from food why even supplement with food-state supplements?', I hear you ask! Well, it just is not always possible to consume the amount of food necessary to gain the amount of nutrients needed to have a therapeutic benefit. Particularly if we have an increased requirement due to illness or because we are experiencing symptoms, eat a poor diet or have nutritional deficiencies. Stress, smoking, alcohol and many medications all act as nutrient robbers in the body which can increase our requirement for certain nutrients beyond the norm. And what is the norm anyway? Many NRVs (Nutrient Reference Values) are set woefully low and were originally constructed to avoid pathological states such as Scurvy and were never designed for optimal well-being. Then there are the issues of nutrient depletion in foods due to intensive farming, cold storage, global shipping, food refining and processing methods. Even the way we store, prepare and cook our food at home can deplete it of nutrients. So there are many reasons why supplementing can be beneficial, even for those of us who do eat a varied, well-balanced, healthy diet.
2. How bio-effective is the nutrient?
A key issue to bear in mind when considering efficacy of supplements is the nutrient's bioavailability. That is to say, the proportion which actually enters the bloodstream and thereby can have an active effect in the body. Many of the cheaper, mass produced supplement ranges have poor bioavailability and although they might initially seem good value, when you compare the cost relative to its bioavailability, in reality it is actually poor value. And, most importantly, you will not be reaping the therapeutic benefit of the nutrient and we are back to our old friend 'expensive urine'.
Another reason I prefer food-state supplements is because in using the same metabolic pathway as food they are considered to be more bioavailable to the body. That said, it may not always be possible to supplement with food-states, so when considering synthetic supplements it is important to know bioavailability can vary greatly depending on what substance the nutrient is chelated, or bound to, for example:
Organic Acids (eg: Citrate, Malate, Gluconate) which generally have weaker bonds and so are more easily absorbed;
Inorganic Acids (eg: Carbonate, Sulphate, Oxide) which generally have lower absorption and more likely to cause side-effects;
Amino Acids (e.g: Glycinate) thought to improve absorption as the body efficiently absorbs amino acids.
Each Acid provides different elemental amounts of the nutrient and it is important to note can have different therapeutic effects on the body.
3. Does the supplement contain Excipients?
Besides the active nutrient(s) many supplements contain a host of inactive ingredients otherwise known as excipients. Excipients are chemical anti-nutrients that act as fillers, binders, anti-caking agents, lubricants, coating agents, sweeteners, colouring and flavouring agents that make the manufacture of the supplements easier, faster, cheaper and more profitable. Why worry? Well some excipients are known to have negative effects on health and, if you are taking several supplements or a supplement over a long period of time then it is better to reduce your exposure to these.
Food-state supplements are excipient free in line with their ethos of keeping their products as natural as possible. This is why you will never find food-state supplements in table form but always as capsules, powders or liquids and may have a more limited range of products.
4. Have the manufacturer's claims been verified by an independent third party?
Professional supplement brands obtain independent verification and certification to substantiate label accuracy, stated levels by end of shelf life as well as claims relating to purity. Claims to purity are particularly important in the case of fish or krill oil supplements which should meet or exceed EU legislation as to acceptable levels of heavy metals and contaminants. Mindful brands will also have certification for sustainable fishing and seafood traceability.
5. Has the manufacturing process depleted, damaged or oxidised the nutrient?
Food-state supplements use various processes in their production. Some are fresh freeze dried, some classified as 'raw' are never heated beyond 42 degrees celsius in the drying and milling process which minimises nutrient and enzyme depletion and oxidisation.
6. Why are you taking a supplement?
Do you actually have a need for this supplement? If so, in what form and at what dose to be beneficial? Are you taking the best nutrient or best form of that nutrient for your particular symptom(s)?
My advice, stop guessing and work with a nutritional therapist who will analyse your current eating and lifestyle habits, current and previous symptoms, current and previous health and medical history to formulate a Nutrition, Lifestyle and Supplement plan that is targeted specifically to your personal requirements.
In addition, testing can also be conducted to pinpoint exactly what your functional requirements are for many nutrients. This can be exceptionally beneficial for those who feel their health has been deteriorating.
So, To Supplement, or Not To Supplement? Yes, if you are choosing the right ones for your needs and which your body can absorb.