I wish I had a penny for each time I was asked about supplements in my career. I’d be writing this article from my villa in Italy! I kid you, but I know there’s a boatload of confusion swirling around the concept of taking supplements. You guys know I am a science and nutrition nerd, so you can rest assured I have done my homework on this subject. I have talked to experts and read endless studies and papers. I have experimented on myself with supplements and going without them.
Here’s what I know.
The average American diet leaves a lot to be desired in terms of nutrient-density. Research finds our dinner plates lacking in a number of essential nutrients like calcium, potassium, magnesium, and vitamins A, C, and D, among other things. It comes as no surprise then that over half of us pop supplements to get the nutrition we need. We take them to make up for what we’re missing; we hope to give ourselves an extra health boost; we hope supplements can help prevent disease.
While getting our nutrients straight from a pill may sound easy, bottled nutrition doesn’t necessarily deliver on the promise of vital health and wellness.
As with most of life, there’s no simple answer here. There’s no one-size fits all supplement prescription that will keep you glowing. And to make things a wee bit more complicated for us, as our health conditions change so do our supplement needs, so you are constantly tweaking what you take…or don’t take.
It’s enough to send you to your bed, right? Hang on; let’s get some stuff straight so you can make wise decisions for your precious bodies.
You might be thinking, isn’t this Christina who’s all about using food to create health? Isn’t our healthy diet enough? And if it’s not, why bother with all this healthy cooking when I can just take a pill?
Hold onto your water bottle.
While nothing…and I mean nothing can take the place of eating nutritious foods to create health, we face challenges. Modern farming practices and environmental stresses on the planet have depleted some of the essential nutrients in food leaving it less nutrient-dense than in the past. Even in the last five years, we have seen soil depletion that results in “weaker” foods that is unprecedented.
On top of that, each of us is unique in our nutritional needs; some of us are athletes, some not so much; some of us eat well all the time, some not so much; some of us struggle with health challenges, some not so much. Some of us are constitutionally stronger than others and require less supplementation than those of us whose mothers blessed us with more delicate constitutions. And if you’re facing a health challenge, all bets are off. You have to tailor your supplements to carefully compliment and support that condition.
I think we name them incorrectly, to be honest. Instead of supplements, we need to think of vitamins and other stuff as a sort of insurance policy to be used as needed. I think it’s essential to talk to someone who knows more than we do—and I don’t mean reading a blog or magazine articles which can lead you down a confusing and expensive path. Talk to an expert (doctor, nutritionist, etc) who listens to you and will understand your needs. This expert can advise you and help you develop a plan to supplement your diet and lifestyle, guiding you as your health changes, so that your supplements also change and continue to support your wellness.
I’ll tell you how I started taking supplements. I wasn’t into them at all and took nothing, not a multivitamin, nada. And then I had an incident involving Vitamin B12 and my world changed. (You can read it here: https://www.christinacooks.com/blog/lifestyle/b-12-dilemma). Since that time, I have paid careful attention to what and how I supplement.
But…and I encourage you to take a deep breath here…deciding what supplements to take doesn’t need to be complicated. It’s not a second job. There’s no need to load up your cabinet with a million pill bottles. Even if an expert advises you to take a bunch of supplements, you can begin with the most essential and build your repertoire as is comfortable. If you’re eating well and are generally healthy, you can build your protocol gradually, seeing how certain supplements work for you. Of course, if you have had blood work done (highly recommended…) it would make the most sense to first re-balance whatever deficiencies you have and build from there.
Not everyone needs a lot of supplementation. Some of us are more complicated, requiring more help in the nutrient-absorption department and need to pay a wee bit more attention to supplementation. Not all of us eat well all the time, making supplementation more important than those who are more diligent about their food choices.
I advise that you look at quality over quantity (just because Vitamin C is on sale at a big box store doesn’t mean it’s good quality Vitamin C that your body can absorb). I consider Vitamin B12 essential for all of us, with the balance of supplements needed as your condition dictates.
And yes, you read right. Whether vegan or not, Vitamin B12 is essential as there’s not nearly what we require for health in our food, animal or plant. We need mere traces of this essential nutrient but the fact that, among other things, B12 helps create DNA, keeps our nerve and blood cells functioning, it moves from a supplement we might consider to one we would be wise to consider.
I can tell you what works for me and maybe that will help you begin to think in terms of supplements and what you might need based on your diet and lifestyle.
I am deeply faithful to vitamin B12 and take it via injection every two weeks. My condition demands it. I am completely disciplined about it, even taking syringes when I travel.
I am also relatively faithful to my other supplements, but I do take a wee respite from them when I travel. I feel like my little hardworking liver needs a holiday from them as I need a holiday from work. But in my day to day life, I take astaxanthin (an antioxidant from algae to help my body recover from gym workouts, phyto-ceramides (for glowing skin), green tea extract (for concentrated antioxidants since I am not much of a tea drinker) (all from Life Extension), zinc, magnesium and Vitamin D3. That’s about it. But that’s me.
Each of us is like a snowflake (I can hear you laughing…I’m laughing too.) Each of us has specific needs. I am very lucky in that I don’t need to supplement calcium. My bones are healthy. I take omega-3 in the form of chia seeds so I don’t need a supplement. I take Vitamin C if I am around a lot of people with colds or flu to boost my immune function, but that’s hit or miss.
I am very lucky to not suffer from adrenal issues or kidney problems or absorption issues that inhibit me getting most of what I need from my food.
If you take nothing else from this piece, remember that food is always our first resource for the nutrition we need. Eating a diet of whole unprocessed foods, rich in nutrients essential to human health is your first line of defense in getting through this life alive! But it’s as I said at the beginning of this article. With our modern farming practices and environmental issues, our food, even the purest and most beautifully grown, is not as strongly nutritious as it was a mere decade ago, so we all need a little help from our friends…and sometimes those come in the form of supplements.