Supplements are everywhere. You can find them on the shelves at the grocery store, or stores like GNC and Vitamin Shoppe. You can get supplements as vitamins, minerals, herbs, botanicals, amino acids, enzymes and so on. They are usually marketed as the missing puzzle piece to complete health, peak exercise performance, and optimal recovery. But, do you need them? Are they worth the money? Are they safe? Here are 4 things to ask yourself before you start taking a supplement.
1. Am I getting enough nutrients from my diet?
A simple way to find out if you are getting enough nutrients from your diet is to use a food tracking app for several days (5-7) days. A food tracking app will first ask you about your age and your sex. Then, based on your food log, the app can tell you if you are short of any nutrients. My personal favorite food tracking app is Cronometer. It is free! And, unlike many of the other food trackers out there, Cronometer tracks the micronutrients (aka vitamins and minerals), which are one of the most commonly available form of supplements. A doctor can also perform some labs and blood work to find nutrient deficiencies.
2. How can I adjust my diet to improve my nutrient intake?
If you find that you’re consistently getting low amounts of a certain nutrient, see if there is a way you can alter your diet to get more of that nutrient. Getting nutrients from food over supplements is ideal. Food gives us things that a pill, powder, or gummy supplement can’t. The nutrients that naturally occur in foods are balanced and work in synergy with one another. So, if you’re short on something like calcium, are you able (and willing) to eat more foods with calcium? For some people, this might be easy to do by eating more yogurt, ice cream, dairy, spinach, broccoli, and salmon. For someone with lactose intolerance, or an aversion to dark leafy vegetables, this might be a no go. Also, people who are strict vegetarians, people with autoimmune diseases (i.e. Crohn’s, celiac disease), people with alcoholism, and people who eat less than 1600 Calories a day might have a hard time meeting their nutrient recommendations through food alone.
So, if you are consistently short on a nutrient and have decided that the best way for you to get it is through a supplement, keep reading.
3. Do I understand the ingredients in this supplement and how they affect my health?
Some nutrients interact with medications (i.e. antibiotics, cholesterol medication, antidepressants, and more). Many nutrients interact with other nutrients, and some will compete for absorption in your body. These effects are a concern for people with certain health conditions, people getting surgery, or women who are pregnant/trying to get pregnant/nursing. Disclaimer: You should discuss supplement use with your doctor or registered dietitian beforehand.
Once you have decided to try a supplement the first things to look at are the ingredients and the dosage. These are usually written on the back of the package under “Supplement Facts”. The amounts may be expressed in different units (i.e. grams, milligrams, International Units (IUs), or percentage daily value (DV) (if there is an established recommended intake). Keep in mind that when it comes to choosing a high-quality supplement, more isn’t better. Moderate dosage matters, for nutrients like calcium, where there is a dose-response relationship. Supplements sometimes contain more than 100% of the DV and can exceed a person’s tolerable upper intake level. At best, this can be a waste of money. At worst, this can lead to nutrient toxicities.
4. Was this supplement manufactured with good practices?
Unlike the food you eat and the medicine you take, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not review or approve any dietary supplement products before they are for sale. This raises concerns about the purity and safety of the products. When you take a supplement, you take the risk of consuming unintentional ingredients (i.e. fillers or banned illegal substances) and contaminants (i.e. heavy metals, arsenic, bacteria) in that product. Luckily, organizations like the FDA Good Manufacturing Processes (GMFP), United States Pharmacopeia Convention, Consumer Lab, and National Sanitation Foundation (NSF) evaluate some supplement companies to make sure their factories, procedures, and products measure up to very high standards for purity and composition. But, the majority of supplement companies do not go through these certification tests and could be selling you a phony product in a pretty package. When choosing a supplement, look for these seals on the label to make sure that the product you are buying complies with the standards for good manufacturing practices. These seals do not guarantee that the product will give you results. But their seals are a good indication that the product contains the amount of the ingredient advertised on the label and that it isn’t contaminated with dangerous substances.
Dunford, M., & Doyle, JA., (2019). Nutrition for Sport and Exercise (4th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage Learning Inc.
Forbes. (2015). Lawsuits Say Protein Powders Lack Protein, Ripping Off Athletes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexmorrell/2015/03/12/lawsuits-say-protein-powders-lack-protein-ripping-off-athletes/#116b3c8c7729
Jacobs, D. R., Jr, Gross, M. D., & Tapsell, L. C. (2009). Food synergy: an operational concept for understanding nutrition. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 89(5), 1543S–1548S. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.26736B
National Institutes of Health National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health [NIH NCCIH]. (2019). Using Dietary Supplements Wisely. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/supplements/wiseuse.htm
National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements [NIH ODS]. (2013). Dietary Supplement Label Database for Researchers. Retrieved from https://ods.od.nih.gov/Health_Information/ODS_Frequently_Asked_Questions.aspx
Lately, I have been hearing high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) mentioned more, and more. You might have heard HFCS mentioned as well, probably in association with processed foods, candies, soft drinks, or obesity. Its name carries a lot of negative associations. But you might be wondering, "Are those associations justified?" Why does HFCS have a bad reputation? How is HFCS different from other sugars?
The "F" in HFCS is fructose, which is a type of sugar mostly found in fruits. It is the sweetest of all the natural sugars. HFCS is made from (you guessed it) corn! The corn is highly processed to increase its fructose content, which makes the corn syrup taste sweeter. HFCS first entered the United States scene in the 1960’s. By the 1970’s, production of HFCS was half the cost of refined sugar, making it cheaper to produce and add to foods. Over the next few decades, HFCS would replace sucrose as the primary sugar added to foods. Between 1970-2000, the intake of dietary fructose increased significantly, and there was a 25% increase in available “added sugars” foods. Coincidentally, obesity rates in the United States have increased at the same time as this high availability and mass consumption of HFCS (Summerfield & Ellis, 2014). That’s right. Coincidentally. While there are associations between the consumption of HFCS and obesity instances, there is no direct causal link proven between the two factors.
But, here is what we know (from Summerfield & Ellis, 2014).
You might be thinking, "But if corn is natural, what is the big deal? If fructose is in fruit, should I just stop eating fruit?" Yes, corn is natural. Yes, fructose is a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit. The problem is that the “goodness” of any food comes down to moderation. Balance. For example, fruits like grapes, cherries, raw apples, bananas, and blueberries have a fructose content of 2–10% by weight (Bray, 2007; Johnson & Conforti, 2003). Fruits also contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and water, which provide health benefits that outweigh their sugar content. However, most fructose in the American diet does not come from fresh fruit. Instead, it comes from the HFCS in soft drinks and sweets, which typically have much higher sugar contents than fruit but few other nutrients (Bray, Nielsen & Popkin, 2004). For example, an 8.5 oz bottle of Coca Cola has 100 calories, 100% of which comes from high fructose corn syrup and added sugars. This high sugar content in these sweets and soft drinks (which again often come from HFCS) lead to a ton of extra energy and none of the nutrition you need to provide you with sustained energy and health benefits.
My verdict: high fructose corn syrup is not “evil”, but excessive intake of all added sugars can be detrimental to our health. So the amount of added sugar we eat, HFCS or not, should be monitored.
According to Katherine Zeratsky, R.D., L.D., there are two recommendations. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting added sugar intake to less than 10% percent of total daily calories. The American Heart Association recommends that most women get <100 calories (25 g, ~6 teaspoons) a day of added sugars, and that most men get <150 calories (30 g, ~9 teaspoons) a day of added sugar.
Bray, GA. (2007). How bad is fructose?, The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 86(4), p. 895–896. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/86.4.895
Bray GA, Nielsen SJ & Popkin BM. (2004). Consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in beverages may play a role in the epidemic of obesity. Am J Clin. 79:537–43.
Johnson JM. & Conforti FD. (2003). Fructose. Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition (Second Edition). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/agricultural-and-biological-sciences/fructose
Summerfield, L.M., & Ellis, S.K. (2014). Nutrition, Exercise, & Behavior: An Integrated Approach to Weight Management. 3rd Edition. Cengage Learning. Boston, MA
Zeratsky, K. (2018). What is high-fructose corn syrup? What are the health concerns? Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/expert-answers/high-fructose-corn-syrup/faq-20058201
Lately, I've noticed a lot of foods popping up with labels bragging about how much protein they contain. The popularity of protein supplements and protein-rich foods might have some of you questioning; What exactly is protein? Should I be buying more products with protein in them? My short answer is this: protein is very important, but probably not as important as people want you to think, and you probably get enough of it already. So, here it goes.
What is Protein?
Protein is one of the three nutrients that give you energy (macronutrients or macros). The other two macros are carbohydrates (carbs) and fats. While the body stores excess of any macronutrient as fatty tissue, moderate amounts of protein are generally not stored in the body the way that carbs and fats get stored. Instead, the body is continuously breaking down and using proteins for bodily functions. This means that the body needs proteins in a continuous supply from food. Dietary protein is also important because it is the body's only source of essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein), and the only practical source of nitrogen, which the body needs to build nonessential amino acids (Whitney & Rolfes, 2016). Each combination of amino acids has a specific job in the body, such as:
Extreme deficiency of proteins can lead to marasmus and kwashiorkor, which mostly occurs in developing nations with food access challenges. Cases of starvation also come with problems caused by vitamin and mineral deficiencies. However, in the U.S., protein deficiencies are rare and people typically get 40% more protein than their recommended daily allowance (RDA) (Whitney & Roles, 2016). While some people eat too much protein, some people's bodies need more, including:
Also, because protein intake stimulates the excretion of certain nutrients (i.e. calcium), too protein much can lead to micronutrient inefficiencies. To healthy individuals: when planning protein amounts in your diet, you should consider:
For more info, the USDA offers this online calculator to find out your RDA for protein. NOTE: RDA's are meant to be applied to the majority of the healthy population, and only suggest an average intake for individuals. Individual nutrient requirements may vary from the RDA.
What foods have protein?
Protein comes from animal products (i.e. meat, poultry, greek yogurt, eggs), seafood, and vegetables (i.e. beans, lentils, broccoli, nuts, and seeds). Animal products are the most packed with amino acids and have the most bioavailability (meaning they are more absorbable).
So does this mean I should always get my protein from animal sources? Not necessarily. First, vegetarians are still able to get enough protein from their diet (just not as easily as omnivores). Second, animal sources of protein are higher in saturated fat than vegetable protein sources. High amounts of saturated fat can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, which is a stepping stone toward heart disease. An analysis of data from 10 studies estimates that every 50 gram portion of processed meat eaten daily also increases the risk of colorectal cancer by about 18% (WHO, 2015). To put it in perspective, a 50 gram portion of processed meat roughly equates to the current RDA for protein for most adults. In a study by Lin and colleagues (2015) plant protein intakes may play also role in preventing obesity in teens. Evidence showed that plant protein (soy in particular) can stimulate lipid metabolism. This can result in a better blood lipid profile, by lowering total cholesterol, triglyceride, low-density lipoprotein-cholesterol and reducing insulin resistance (Lin et al., 2015).
The fundamental principle to planning a healthy diet is to have protein in moderation. It's also important to include high quality proteins from a variety of sources. For non-vegetarians, especially, buying and eating protein-fortified foods, protein powders, and supplements is not usually unnecessary.
American College of Sports Medicine [ACSM]. 2015. PROTEIN INTAKE FOR OPTIMAL MUSCLE MAINTENANCE. https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/files-for-resource-library/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf?sfvrsn=688d8896_2
Lin, Y. et al. (2015). Dietary animal and plant protein intakes and their associations with obesity and cardio-metabolic indicators in European adolescents: the HELENA cross-sectional study. Nutrition Journal, 14(10). DOI: 10.1186/1475-2891-14-10
Whitney, E., & Rolfes, S.R., (2016). Understanding Nutrition (15th Ed.). Boston, MA: Cengage.
World Health Organization. (2015). Q&A on the carcinogenicity of the consumption of red meat and processed meat. Retrieved from http://www.who.int/features/qa/cancer-red-meat/en/
I'm Sierra, a nutrition educator and health coach. Here you can read my take on various nutrition and wellness topics, with the help of peer-reviewed research and sources you can trust. Thanks for stopping by!