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The Skinny on Supplementation: Part 1 – Nutritional/Dietary Supplements

As the general public’s interest in fitness, nutrition, and living a healthy lifestyle has increased over the last two decades, so has the market for supplements, whether vitamins, minerals, or herbal supplements.  There’s a supplement for everything these days – weight loss, joint pain, hair loss, anxiety, sleeplessness, immune system boosters, thyroid health, anti-aging, and just about any ache, pain, or illness.  But which ones really work?  It’s easy to get overwhelmed and confused when considering supplementation.  For many supplements, there are countless options and conflicting information about effectiveness.  It’s important to do your homework and make decisions about which supplements are right for you depending on your priorities and your budget.  This article focuses on nutritional supplementation – vitamins, minerals, and other supplements that promote healthy mental and physical well-being.

Nutritional supplementation is an ever-expanding market filled with all kinds of options for adding essential vitamins, minerals, and herbal supplements to your diet.  It is important to remember that if you are eating a healthy diet filled with fruits and vegetables, there is a good chance that you are already getting many of the important vitamins and minerals your body needs to maintain physical and mental health.  However, there are times when it may not be possible to be consistent enough with your diet to prevent deficiencies that can lead to fatigue or illness.

Depending on your age, level of physical activity, and other factors, there also may be times in your life when your daily needs will change, so supplementation can help address those needs.  Also, if you are an athlete, bodybuilder, physique competitor, if you just spend a lot of time in the gym, you may want to consider some nutritional supplements to help address specific deficiencies that may develop from high levels of physical activity.  Intense physical activity and weight lifting over long periods of time can compromise your immune system because your body can be put in a weakened state when recovering from hard training.

For just about every supplement, you will find reports and reviews that highlight the benefits and praise its effectiveness, and ones that argue that the supplement is entirely ineffective and a complete waste of money.  In my experience, I have found only a few supplements that have enough confidence and faith in to take on a year-round basis.  Most of these are vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that support general health.  However, when I am preparing for a bodybuilding contest, I do use additional supplements to ensure that my body remains healthy enough to support a caloric deficit, a significant amount of weight training and cardiovascular activity, and a general depleted state that often results from hard contest dieting.

I also believe that supplement effectiveness can be a very individual thing, and results can be quite variable.  That’s why it is important for you to do some research and experimentation to see what works for you.  If you are interested in trying out a supplement, try to give it 4-6 weeks of consistent use before determining whether or not it is effective for you (unless it is giving you adverse side effects, of course).  Below is some general information about some of the nutritional supplements that I feel may be beneficial to consider for anyone who maintains a physically active lifestyle.  I don’t necessarily recommend taking all of the supplements described below, but I believe that these are worth evaluating in the context of your personal needs, diet/nutrition priorities, and your budget.

Vitamins and Antioxidants

In addition to maintaining a healthy diet, I recommend taking a multivitamin every day.  This will help to ensure that you consistently get at least the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of the vitamins that are most essential to everyone’s physical and mental health.  A multivitamin isn’t a supplement that you need to spend a significant amount of money to incorporate into your nutrition plan.

Some people supplement with an additional tablet that contains the vitamins that make up the vitamin B complex.  These are all of the water-soluble vitamins except for Vitamin C – thiamine (B1), riboflavin, niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), cyanocobalamin (B12), biotin, and pantothenic acid.  In general, sufficient quantities of B vitamins can be gained by consuming liver, whole grains, rice, nuts, leafy green vegetables, and eggs.  People who do not take in enough B complex vitamins through diet or those who are under significant physical/mental stress may want to consider supplementing.  The B complex vitamins assist in amino acid metabolism and energy production.  While the benefits of supplementation aren’t entirely clear through supporting science, B complex supplementation is popular for addressing many problems including stress, lack of energy, and cravings when dieting.

Antioxidants are vitamins/minerals/substances that occur naturally in many foods and are thought to prevent and repair damage that can be caused to cells in the body by harmful substances called “free radicals.”  Damage from free radicals contributes to aging and chronic illness.  Antioxidants essentially attack free radicals in the body, strengthening the body’s immune system and fighting off infection and disease.  Fruits and vegetables contain a lot of antioxidants, and diets that are rich in these foods can support immune system health.  Foods rich in antioxidants generally tend to be full of color – carrots, tomatoes, green peppers, strawberries, oranges, spinach, etc.  The addition of “superfoods” like avocados and blueberries to your diet can significantly increase your antioxidant intake.  Supplementing your diet with plants like spirulina and wheat grass can also have a beneficial effect and have been thought to help detoxify the body (these plants can be taken in tablet form as well because the taste can be quite strong!).

Regardless of how rich in antioxidants your diet may be, supplementing with antioxidants can provide all kinds of health benefits.  Some vitamins are powerful antioxidants and may be worthwhile to supplementing in addition to the amount that may be found in a multivitamin.
  • Vitamin C is a particularly strong antioxidant that boosts the immune system and helps the body resist infection.
  • Vitamin E is an antioxidant that is thought to play a role in the prevention of heart disease and also promotes skin health.
  • Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA) is a naturally-occurring fatty acid that helps convert glucose into energy and is also a powerful antioxidant.  Small amounts of ALA can be found in some foods like spinach and broccoli, but ALA is a relatively popular supplement that can be found in most health food and vitamin stores.
  • Coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10) is another popular antioxidant supplement that is thought to have benefits similar to those of Vitamin E.  The body’s natural production of CoQ10 decreases with age, so some people find it beneficial to supplement CoQ10 in their later years.
  • Perhaps one of the most common ways to supplement antioxidants is through the intake of green tea or green tea extract.  Green tea is recognized worldwide for its antioxidant properties and health benefits.  It contains powerful antioxidants called catechins.  The chief catechin in green tea is epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which is considered to have anti-inflammatory, cholesterol lowering, fat burning and other beneficial properties. Benefits of green tea are widespread, and supplementation with green tea or green tea extract is very popular. 
Green tea has an added benefit of promoting fat burning and is often used as a supplement for contest preparation and general body fat reduction.  The most obvious contribution to fat burning is from the caffeine that is found in green tea and green tea extracts.  Caffeine has a well-established track record of fat burning through increased metabolism (increased rate of calorie burning).  In addition, though, green tea is thought to contain compounds that regulate glucose, which can slow the rise of blood sugar following a meal.  The weight loss and fat burning benefits are all in addition to the antioxidant properties and overall health benefits of green tea.  If you are tolerant of caffeine, you should consider supplementing your diet with green tea, whether by drinking it or taking it in pills.

Fiber and Digestive Enzymes

Fibers are essentially indigestible carbohydrates that our bodies process and excrete.  Fiber is an extremely important component of maintaining healthy digestive function; it can absorb water in the intestine, facilitating the digestive process, promoting nutritional absorption and regularity.  I cannot emphasize how important fiber is for digestive health and how critical it is to supplement with fiber particularly if your diet is low in carbohydrates.

Fiber is filling and can help reduce hunger and cravings when dieting.  It slows digestion and absorption, which helps your blood sugar remain more stable.  Fiber can be found in foods like whole grain bread, fruits, nuts, and green vegetables.  If your diet is lacking in any of these foods, it is important for you to consider fiber supplementation.  The general recommended daily allowance for fiber is about 25-30 grams.  Fiber supplementation does not have to be expensive, but the benefits are well-supported and far-reaching.

Also important in maintaining digestive health is supplementation with digestive enzymes.  Digestive enzymes can help break down food to improve digestion and absorption of vitamins and minerals that are critical for healthy metabolic function.  Supplementation with digestive enzymes can reduce indigestion, heartburn, irregularity, gas, bloating, constipation, and other digestive problems.  Digestive enzymes have been thought to reduce the symptoms associated with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and other similar chronic problems.

Fish Oils/Essential Fatty Acids

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) are the “good fats” in your diet.  They are necessary fats that humans cannot synthesize themselves and must be obtained through diet and/or supplementation.  There are two categories of EFAs – Omega-3 and Omega-6 EFAs.  Omega-9 fatty acids are not considered essential but can be supplemented as well for additional benefits.  EFAs have been scientifically demonstrated to support healthy cardiovascular, nervous, and immune system functions.  Studies have shown that EFAs can prevent heart disease and other chronic illness, fight the signs of aging, lower cholesterol and blood pressure, help stabilize blood sugar, and reduce depression and improve mental well-being.

Everyone’s diet should include a healthy dose of essential fatty acids.  EFA supplementation can ensure that you are taking in an adequate amount of EFAs and should be considered on a year-round basis, in addition to eating foods that are rich in EFAs (salmon, avocado, nuts and seeds, flax seed oil, and olive oil).  Fish oil supplements are a safe and effective way of maximizing the use of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids in your body.  They don’t taste like fish either!  When shopping for an EFA supplement, consider fish oils and look for a product that has a high ratio of omega-3 fatty acids.

Do Your Homework and Make Decisions that Meet Your Needs

As you can see, the options for nutritional/dietary supplementation are seemingly countless – what I have described above is jus the tip of the iceberg.  Be sure to do you homework and select your supplements carefully, with your lifestyle and nutritional priorities in mind.

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