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Column: Supplements can be helpful, but understanding them is healthy

We probably all have been there before… bottles of supplements in hand while we stand in the aisle at the grocery store or health food market.

Which should we pick? How many milligrams? Is it a good deal?

We look at the labels for answers, then wonder why we bothered. They mean nothing to us. Confused, we put the bottles back, saying we probably didn’t need one anyway.

For many people, supplements are a bit of a mystery. Some of us are intuitively drawn to the idea of a supplement, while others feel altogether skeptical. The truth is supplements have their place.

Sometimes we give them too much weight while at other times we ignore their potential benefit. Balance (as always) is key. While I am no pharmacist, supplements definitely come up in conversations about health and nutrition. They certainly are in my scope of practice.  There is a lot we could discuss when considering supplements (this will take up several articles-worth of material!); however, let’s dive into the specifics of what type of person needs a supplement. But first we will define a supplement.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, a dietary supplement “is a product intended for ingestion that contains a ‘dietary ingredient’ intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet. A ‘dietary ingredient’ may be one, or any combination, of the following substances: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical.”

It is a lengthy and wordy definition to be sure.  The main idea is that supplements are meant to be eaten for the purpose of adding to and enhancing one’s diet. They may include a vitamin, mineral, herb or other plant-based ingredients and extracts.

Supplements are meant to complement and augment what you may or may not be getting and absorbing in your daily food choices.  They may be used short term or long term. They are not superpowers that overcome all the evils of consistently poor eating habits.  You simply can’t out-supplement bad choices. So keep that in mind when you create expectations for a supplement.

Who needs a supplement? Do I need it? That is the first question to ask yourself.

This is a tricky question, and one that really must be answered on an individual basis. However, there are certain groups of people who definitely may benefit from some sort of supplementation.

First in line are the seniors and the elderly (over 65 years old). Supplementation may be appropriate for several reasons. Since digestion often decreases with age, certain nutrients are not absorbed as effectively. Alterations in appetite, sense of taste, chewing or swallowing can also have an effect. Also, many seniors are on medications that may deplete the body of specific nutrients (as in the case of metformin and the vitamins CoQ10, B12 and folate).

Next are pregnant or lactating women (or women hoping to be pregnant soon). Pre-pregnancy and pregnancy needs place unique demands on the body and require many nutrients in order to support health hormones, fetal growth and milk supply (not to mention the continued support of the mother!).

Thirdly, are people with malabsorption and gastrointestinal issues, such as Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, celiac disease or those who have undergone weight loss surgeries.

In such cases, certain parts of the digestive tract may not be functioning well or may require more nutrients for additional support and healing.

Fourthly, individuals with highly restrictive diets such as vegan, vegetarian or ketogenic, may also benefit from supplementation. Vitamins B12 and D3 are often top issues for vegans/vegetarians, while fiber and several micronutrients (vitamins) such as magnesium, and folate, are likely needed for the person following a ketogentic (high fat, low carb, moderate protein) diet.

Specific genetic mutations can make it difficult for a person’s body to utilize certain forms of nutrients. This necessitates that these nutrients be supplemented in a very specific form. A common one is called the MTHFR mutation, which can affect the metabolism of folate. This mutation causes poor activation of folate from both foods and traditional supplementation sources.

As you deliberate on your need for a supplement, consider asking your doctor to review your bloodwork. This is a good way to actually know what your body needs. Your doctor can see objectively what vitamins and minerals your body is lacking.

Recently, my doctor tested my vitamin D levels and found them to be at less than half of the recommended level. While I have increased the frequency of eating vitamin D-rich foods (hello, sardines!), I have started taking a vitamin D3 supplement daily.

A question you may naturally be asking is “what about the average person? Does it hurt if everyone took a general supplement?”

My quick answer is, if you want to and can afford a good-quality multivitamin, then you may of course do so (unless you have been told otherwise by your doctor). The key word here is “good quality” supplement.

Honestly, I think it is better to know specifically what you want out of a supplement rather than just blindly throw things at a problem that might not be there. You can spend a lot of money that perhaps you didn’t “need” to spend.

As we consider supplementation, we ought to consider that while supplements can be a great asset, they should never be separate from the foundation of a whole-foods, varied diet. In almost every case, food is simply the best source of your nutrients, so it ought always to be your first source of vitamins and minerals. The truth is, you simply cannot out-supplement poor eating habits. And let’s face it; eating is far more enjoyable than pill popping!

As we have seen, a key question to ask when considering whether or not to take a supplement is “am I in a category of people who likely really need it?” Those people include individuals with increased needs due to their age, digestive health, genetic mutations or dietary restrictions. Confirming a deficiency with your doctor is also helpful.

Have you decided that you might be one of the people who would benefit from a supplement? You might then be wondering what to look for on a supplement label and how to determine quality. Stay tuned for next month’s article where we will dig a little deeper in just that!

– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist. She lives in the McDowell Creek area, with her husband and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. To learn more about Cathryn, visit her Facebook page or You Tube Channel by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.” Find her blog at thepantrylab.com.