By: Nav Sharma, MSc, Registered Dietitian
Have you ever walked down the supplement aisle of your pharmacy, favourite grocery store or health food store and thought to yourself “maybe I should be taking one” but then get overwhelmed by the abundant amount of options and walk away? Or has Nancy at the office told you how incredible she feels after taking an energy-boosting supplement and now you’re wondering if you should be taking it too? Understanding if you need supplements and what you should be looking for can be confusing! Keep reading to find out whether you should contemplate a supplement.
What are supplements?
Okay, so let’s start with the definition of dietary supplements. What comes to mind when you think of the word ‘supplement’? Here are a few thoughts that have come from clients over the years: “something my doctor told me to take”, “a pill that will keep me healthy”, “things athletes take to get stronger”, “protein powder”, etc. While these definitions aren’t completely off the mark, here is the true definition: Supplements are products that are meant to ‘supplement’ the diet with nutrients that our bodies could potentially be lacking. Dietary supplements include vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes and can be purchased in different forms, including tablets, capsules, powders, and liquids. Some common ones include vitamin D, fish oils, iron and probiotics.
Why do people take supplements?
Now, there are so many reasons why people choose to take supplements. Whether someone is trying to enhance their sleep, increase their energy levels or keep their luscious locks strong, the most common reason is wanting to improve or maintain their health in some way.
So what does the research say? While it is true that healthy people with very minimal concerns can get most of what they need by eating a balanced diet filled with fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, fish, pulses, whole grains, and dairy or alternatives, science shows that some dietary supplements can help you get adequate amounts of essential nutrients. For example, calcium and vitamin D can help keep your bones strong and reduce bone loss and omega-3 fat supplements may help reduce heart disease risk (1).
Who needs daily supplements?
Here are some people that may benefit from supplements:
- Pregnant women
- Women who are breastfeeding
- Women with excessive bleeding during menstruation
- Some vegetarians and vegans
- Athletes, both recreational and professional
- Older adults
- People with allergies or intolerances to particular foods or food groups
- People with malabsorption issues
- People with IBS, IBD, and other digestive disorders
- Those on medications
- People who drink alcohol above the recommended amount
- Cigarette smokers
- Illicit drug users
- Crash dieters or people on chronic low-calorie diets
- Those low in certain blood markers (eg. iron)
- Those with certain health conditions and concerns (eg. heart disease, thyroid issues, PCOS, osteoporosis, etc)
Can supplements be harmful?
Although most nutritional supplements are safe if taken in the recommended doses based on Dietary Reference Intake (DRI) Tables (https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/food-nutrition/healthy-eating/dietary-reference-intakes/tables.html), there are some risks.
- There are several products out there that may not meet Canadian standards and may not have gone through the same reliable checks as products from more reputable companies. As a result, there could be less of the active ingredient than claimed, or the product could contain “filler” ingredients harmful to your health. Some ingredients to look out for include Red Dye 40, hydrogenated oils and magnesium silicate. If a supplement has a Natural Product Number (NPN) or Homeopathic Medicine Number (DIN-HM) on its label, it has been assessed for quality, safety, and efficacy by Health Canada. If these numbers are not on the label of the product, that means Health Canada has not approved the product. You can search for licensed natural health products using Health Canada’s Licensed Natural Health Products Database (2). Keep in mind that Health Canada does not actually test products before they appear on store shelves.
- Another risk to consider is the quantity of the supplement you are consuming. Taking too much of a vitamin or mineral can be dangerous. Some vitamins are ‘water-soluble’, meaning they dissolve in water, and any that your body doesn’t need will leave your body through your urine. On the other hand, some vitamins are ‘fat-soluble’ (vitamins A, D, E and K), meaning they dissolve in fat, and will not leave your body when you go to the bathroom. This means our bodies can store fat-soluble vitamins (as well as some minerals) and consuming too much may be detrimental to your health. For example, high amounts of vitamin A consumed during pregnancy can lead to birth defects.
- Watch for unrealistic promises and claims with no evidence such as “quick weight loss” or “delayed aging”. At the moment, the Government of Canada is not responsible for the accuracy and reliability of consumer advertising by external sources. If you wish to learn more about the product, you must contact the source directly for more information (3).
- Some supplements may interact with certain medications or may be unsafe for people suffering from certain medical conditions.
- Remember: Supplements do not replace food. Dietitians are often asked the question ‘If I don’t like vegetables, can I just take a supplement?’ The answer is simple…no! According to research, they just can’t replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods such as fruits and vegetables. So if you are (or planning on) taking supplements to avoid a healthy, balanced diet, you might want to think again.
The best way to choose a supplement is to always purchase a reputable brand rather than an unknown company on the internet. As well, check the label to ensure the information on dosing is provided and matches DRI amounts.
Should YOU take a supplement?
If you are wondering whether or not you should be taking supplements, here’s what you should consider:
- Your diet. Are you able to consume all the needed nutrients through your diet? For example, are you following a vegan diet, or perhaps you cannot consume dairy due to an intolerance.
- Blood work. Typical lab work that we look at when determining whether someone needs a supplement includes Complete Blood Count, Ferritin levels, Lipid Panel, Blood Sugar levels (HbA1c), vitamin B12 levels and vitamin D levels, just to name a few.
- Genetics. If known, what’s your family’s medical history? Have you had your genetics examined for genetic-based differences in nutrient metabolism?
- Quantity requirements. Are there any supplements that contain active ingredients that you cannot receive in high enough amounts through your diet? For example, would you have to eat salmon at every meal in order to get high enough levels of omega-3s?
Before starting supplements, talk to your registered dietitian. She or he will consider a few things including your overall health, nutrition goals, medical conditions, current intake, food preferences, blood work and Nutrigenomix genetic test results (if available).
Finally, taking supplements is a personal decision based on your needs, diet and life stage. If you decide that you would like to start taking them, be patient. It could take up to several weeks to see the benefits.
Request a full initial assessment or a $30 supplement review with a registered dietitian for unbiased advice! https://www.nutriprocan.ca/supplement-review/
National Institutes of Health (2020). Dietary Supplements: What you Need to Know. Available from: https://ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx
Government of Canada (2018). Questions from Consumers – Regulated Natural Health Products. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/natural-non-prescription/frequently-asked-questions/questions-consumers-regulation.html
Government of Canada. Policy and Guidance Documents. Available from: https://www.canada.ca/en/health-canada/services/drugs-health-products/regulatory-requirements-advertising/policies-guidance-documents.html