A Dietitian’s Take: Why You Might Want to Start Taking These Nutritional Supplements
Guest post by Sarah Remmer, RD
We all know how important good nutrition is for our short-term—but more importantly long term—health, right? The nutrients we consume through food help our bodies and brains to function properly, help to repair our bodily tissues, and contribute to our overall longevity and health. Eating a balanced diet complete with lots of vegetables, fruits, protein-rich foods, and whole grains helps us to attain most of the nutrients that we need for proper health. And as a registered dietitian, this is what I guide my clients and readers towards—a nutrient-rich, balanced eating plan most of the time!
But, then there’s real life.
Even as a dietitian, I know that eating nutritious foods at every meal and snack isn’t always realistic, and that balanced eating is also about indulging in not-so-healthy foods now and then. And life happens! Meals get scarfed down in cars and snacks get skipped. Heck, sometimes—if you’re a busy mom like me—meals consist of your toddler's scraps. I get it! And quite honestly, meeting 100% of all your nutrient needs is nearly impossible through food alone, even for the most diligent of us.
Enter: nutritional supplements.
I’m not one to recommend a whole bunch of supplements every day (because we should be getting MOST of our nutrients through food), but there are certain nutritional supplements that I recommend for most people, in order to meet nutrient needs that—generally speaking—can’t be met through diet alone. And supplements may be especially necessary for certain populations such as people with medical issues, pregnant and breastfeeding women (or women who may become pregnant), older adults (men and women over 50), people who restrict certain foods from their diet, children and adolescents, and people who don’t eat a variety of nutritious foods.
Here are three nutritional supplements that you may want to consider taking consistently and why:
- Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a very important vitamin that helps your body utilize calcium and phosphorous to build and maintain strong bones and teeth. It may also help to reduce the risk of chronic diseases such as multiple sclerosis and cancer, and it is also linked to a stronger overall immune system!
Vitamin D is made by the body after exposure to the sun. It’s really cool actually. The sun's rays hit cholesterol in the skin cells, providing the energy for vitamin D synthesis to occur. This happens quite quickly (in about 10 minutes), particularly in the summer. That means you don’t need to tan or burn your skin to get vitamin D. You only need to expose your skin for around half the time it takes for your skin to begin to burn.
Sunblock and sunscreen block some vitamin D-producing UV rays, but all is not lost! Most people don’t apply enough, fail to cover all sun-exposed skin, or don’t reapply often, so some vitamin D is still made. If you live in a cool climate (do you see snow for half of the year like I do?) or are really careful about sunscreen, you may not naturally get enough vitamin D (in fact, most of us don’t). Vitamin D is found in smaller amounts in certain foods such as eggs, milk, and fish, but it’s highly unlikely that you’ll meet your daily requirements through food. Therefore, Vitamin D supplements are 100 percent the answer, for babies, toddlers, kids and adults too!
People ages 1-70 years, whether pregnant or breastfeeding or not, require 600 IU (international units) per day. Those above 70 years require 800 IU’s/day. I usually recommend that adults take a 1000 IU supplement daily, for a few reasons. Many adult Vitamin D supplements come in 1000 IU doses, vitamin D deficiency is highly prevalent, and a little extra doesn’t hurt! Some health professionals suggest even more—2000IU’s and up! It’s pretty difficult to overdose on it as adults – the tolerable upper limit is 4000 IU! Breastfed babies 0-6 months require 400 IU’s per day in supplement form.
- Omega-3 DHA and EPA:
Omega-3 fat is an umbrella term for a few different fatty acids, and these are essential for proper health. The two most important types of omega-3 fats are called DHA and EPA, found in oily fish. They’re important for proper brain, eye and nerve development. But they can also help to keep cortisol and adrenaline from spiking when you’re feeling tense, and may even help counteract the negative effects of stress hormones. For example, university medical students who took omega-3 supplements had a 20% reduction in anxiety compared to the group given placebo pills.
Now, if you’re not a fan of fish, or if you have a fish allergy or follow a vegetarian/vegan diet, you still need DHA and EPA. The good news is, you can get it from algal oil supplements (there are toddler and child versions too!), which is a vegan alternative to fish oil.
There is no set government standard for how much DHA and EPA you should get each day, but some independent health organizations have suggested 250-500 mg/day for adults, at least 300 mg/day pregnant women and 50-100 mg/day for children.
Omega-3s DHA and EPA are found mainly in fish and seafood such as salmon, low mercury tuna such as skipjack or yellowfin, herring, Atlantic mackerel, and rainbow trout. Some eggs contain DHA. Omega 3 ALA are found in walnuts, chia, flax, hemp, soy oil, and supplements.
What those acronyms stand for:
DHA: Docosahexaenoic acid
EPA: eicosapentaenoic acid
ALA: alpha-linolenic acid
ALA is found in plant-based foods including chia, walnuts, hemp, flax, canola, soy, etc. It does not have the same health benefits for brain, eye and nerve development as DHA and EPA do, but some ALA is converted to DHA and EPA in the body (researchers suggest that less than 1% of ALA is converted to physiologically effective levels of EPA and DHA) but this number may be higher in vegetarians and vegans.
- A multivitamin:
Multivitamins aren’t always necessary, but for certain populations, such as pregnant women, adults over 50 and for those who don’t meet their micronutrient requirements through food, a multivitamin can be beneficial. For example, a woman who is pregnant or could become pregnant should be taking a pre-natal multi-vitamin and mineral supplement in order to meet increased needs of nutrients such as folic acid, iron, and calcium. And someone who is over 50 should likely be taking a multivitamin to meet requirements of nutrients such as calcium, vitamin B-12, and potassium. Those who live with certain chronic diseases such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease might not be absorbing nutrients properly, so may benefit from a multi as well.
It’s important to note, that for the general population, multivitamins aren’t always necessary and can actually cause harm if taken inappropriately or in excess, providing too-high doses of certain nutrients. So, if you don’t fall into an at-risk population as mentioned above, and you eat a well-balanced diet consistently, a multi is likely not necessary. Taking a multivitamin shouldn’t be a license to eat poorly either. Multi’s don’t contain ALL necessary nutrients, just some. So a well-balanced diet is still #1.
When choosing a multivitamin, choose one that contains close to your RDAs (Recommended Dietary Allowance) of vitamins and minerals, and choose one that is specific to your needs (ie. a pre-natal multivitamin/mineral or a seniors multivitamin). Remember that exceeding RDA’s can result in unintended consequences associated with nutrient toxicity. Choose one that only contains micronutrients (vitamins and minerals)--no bells and whistles (additional nutrients) required. Also, read the label carefully and follow the dosage recommended, pay close attention (sometimes one supplement doesn’t equal one serving) and go with a reputable company that you trust.
About Sarah Remmer, RD
Sarah Remmer is a registered dietitian, author, writer/blogger, mom of 3, and founder of the Centre for Family Nutrition. She's passionate about teaching parents how to feed their families well (and stay nourished themselves!).