Feeling strong starts with feeding your body the right kinds of nutrients. Supplements can ensure that you’re hitting all those key vitamins and minerals, but not all brands are made equal. Here’s your guide to supplementing properly.
Whatever the time of year, having a diet rich in essential vitamins and minerals is important. Strength is built in the kitchen as well as the gym! But even the most conscious foodie can leave gaps in their nutrition, whether that’s because we’re plant-based or aren’t able to eat a tonne of fresh veg every day. That’s when supplements come in extremely handy. Buying vitamins online is way easier than plotting macros on an app or trying to make your own kimchi. But just how good for us are supplements?
During successive lockdowns, your nutrition may have taken a tumble and as a result, you might have felt the siren call of vitamin sprays, protein shakes and other nutritional aids. If so, you’re not alone; sales figures for health supplement have rocketed by 166% since the crisis started, according to Research and Markets.
But if you can’t get to a health food shop or gym to chat about your needs with people in the know, how do you work out what you really need? And how do you separate the good quality stuff from the pointless tablets?
What to look for in a vitamin supplement
Because there’s so little regulation of the online supplement market, BDA-registered dietitian Sophie Medlin, points out, it’s really up to you to do your research or consult a dietician. “Think carefully about what you are looking for from your supplements and do some reading about the food sources of the nutrients you are buying and any potential side effects of supplementation. You’ll also want to look at the brand you’re buying from and if they have credible experts on their development team.”
Everyone is different, which means that there’s no one-fits-all tablet. Someone who follows a fully plant-based diet might want 100% of their recommended daily allowance of vitamin B12 in supplement form because it’s hard to get it entirely from fortified foods. The NHS recommends everyone take a vitamin D supplement during the colder months as it’s difficult to metabolise enough of the sunshine vitamin when it’s overcast, but some people may find that they need to take a supplement all year long. Women also require more iron during their fertile years than after the menopause. So, it really is about knowing your own needs.
One thing is for sure: not all supplements are the same. Quality varies vastly.
“Often supplements contain fillers and gummy vitamins will contain sugar or sweeteners and colourings,” Sophie explains. “Sometimes, vitamin manufacturers add many additional ingredients at very low doses as a sort of scattergun approach to catching people’s attention.”
To make sure that you’re actually having something worthwhile check out the list of ingredients and do some googling to find out whether you are buying more filler than active ingredient. Just remember that all supplements will need a small amount of anti-caking agent or similar ingredients to support their stability, but some you might want to avoid include:
● Artificial colours
● Silicon dioxide
● Magnesium stearate
● Titanium dioxide
● Corn maltodextrin
Nutritionist Nicki Williams, founder of Happy Hormones For Life, advises taking “a good multivitamin (with good levels of bio-available nutrients), vitamin D3, magnesium (often depleted by stress, fish oil and vitamin C”.
Can vitamins replace a good diet?
We’ve previously revealed the fact that supplements probably can’t “boost” your immune system and that you’re better off following a food-first approach to nutrition and health. So when it comes to vitamins, remember that focussing on eating across the food groups and doing your own home cooking is going to vastly reduce your need to supplement.
“For our systems to work optimally, sufficient levels of micronutrients (vitamin and minerals which include copper, folate, iron, selenium, zinc, vitamin A, B6, B12, C and D) are needed,” nutritionist Saadia Noorani explains. “This means eating a variety of foods to ensure you meet those micronutrient needs.” But, as Sophie points out, most of us aren’t doing that; we live hectic lifestyles that stop us from being able to eat optimally all the time.
She calls supplements “an insurance policy” against falling levels of important nutrients. Even if we do manage to eat our fair share of the less readily available nutrients, lifestyle can hamper how well we digest them. The odd boozy night can reduce our body’s ability to digest vitamins, for example. If you don’t eat enough fibre-rich plant food, it doesn’t matter what pre- or probiotics you take – your gut bacteria isn’t going to thrive.
A report published by the British Medical Journal last year warned that a move towards plant-based diets risked poor brain health as a result of dropping levels of choline. Choline is an essential dietary nutrient critical to brain health – particularly during foetal development. It’s mainly found in beef, eggs, dairy, fish and chicken, and at much lower levels in nuts, beans and broccoli. Dr Emma Derbyshire suggested that as many of us turn towards veganism, we’re excluding choline from our diets. If we’re not eating a choline-rich diet, we need to find another source of the nutrient, and again, that’s where supplements come in handy. There are tonnes of high-strength vegan choline capsules online.
So it’s clear that some of us need particular vitamins, but should we prioritise a multivitamin over a single supplement? If you eat a well-balanced diet, do you really need to pop an all-encompassing chew or should you just pick out the nutrients you still need?
“I’d always recommend taking a multivitamin over individual nutrients, especially ones which target the brain as it’s an area which is often forgotten, and of crucial importance to our overall health, wellbeing and performance,” says Sophie.
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“If you’re considering a supplement because your diet isn’t ideal, it is highly unlikely that you will only be low in one nutrient because we eat food, not nutrients. Research has shown that 99% of Brits don’t get the key nutrients their brains need - but supplements such as Heights provide 18 key nutrients needed for optimal brain health that are rarely ever consumed any other way.” Feeding your brain the nutrients it needs is obviously important and perhaps at a time of intense stress, it’s more crucial than ever.
How many vitamins should you take?
Remember, you can take too many supplements.
“Like anything, you can have too much of a good thing!” Nicki warns. “Many vitamins and minerals are water-soluble, so excess amounts will usually get excreted (although don’t take more than the recommended dose to avoid potential side effects), but others are fat-soluble and can be stored in the body – these are mainly A, D, E and K.”
There have been cases of people suffering from vitamin A poisoning which can have devastating effects on the liver. As always, it’s best to stick to the dose on the packet or to get advice from a health practitioner.
It’s important to stress Saadia’s main advice: that “it’s always better to eat foods rather than take supplements”.
While some people may be deficient in a particular nutrient or be part of high-risk groups who need extra nutritional support (such as pregnant people, vegans, and patients living with certain chronic conditions), “most of the population can meet their nutrient requirements by eating a healthy balanced diet.”
And remember to always check with a professional before taking supplements.
How to spot a good vitamin brand:
● Look for companies who have just a few core offerings rather than hundreds of products. That may mean they’ve taken more time and energy to create a good quality product rather than simply focussing on cashing in on a growing market.
● Check out the development team. What experts are on their panel? Many supplement companies create products purely with marketing and business knowledge but without the necessary nutritional expertise.
● Scan the ingredients list for fillers and ingredients that you don’t want.
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Image credit: Getty, Unsplash
Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.