Nutrition, diet, and health and wellness are huge buzz words these days! If you are considering jumping on the wellness bandwagon, but don’t know where to start, this dietary supplement primer is designed for you
Dietary supplements, also known as food supplements or nutritional supplements are products intended to provide nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, fiber, fatty acids or amino acids, which may be missing or are not consumed in sufficient quantity in a person's diet. Ideally, people should get all their nutritional needs met from their diet. Unfortunately, few people eat or have access to a well-balanced diet.
Looking for the right type of nutritional supplements can be daunting, if not overwhelming. It’s sometimes very difficult to know which vitamins and supplements you need and how much of each you need to take. Fortunately, science is catching up with anecdotal evidence when it comes to evaluating vitamins and supplements. Experimental evidence is derived from controlled studies done by professional scientists and researchers. Anecdotes are stories obtained from people who have used a product and gotten a real or perceived benefit from that use. In fact, some of the first nutritional supplements offered for sale in the United States came from observations and anecdotes of what surviving prisoners-of-war ate versus those that did not survive. Both types of evidence are important when evaluating which nutritional supplements to purchase and use. The more you know, the better your chances of getting what you need.
All industries have a hierarchy of quality. Some companies sell top-notch, exhaustively researched products and some companies sell substandard products. Nutritional supplement manufacturers are not required to list their ingredients the way food makers must, nor are they held to the governmental scrutiny of pharmaceutical makers. As with any product or service, you usually get what you pay for. Research and high quality ingredients (both of which can be costly!) are vital in developing effective and safe supplements. These costs will be reflected in the price of the product. Cheap nutritional supplements may not be as effective, so purchase nutritional health supplements only from reputable manufacturers and dealers. Remember, good nutrition is an investment in you!
If you are trying to determine which type of supplements to purchase, it is best to understand a few terms which are very common on nutritional supplement labels.
“Nutrients” is a catch-all word to describe the substances the body needs to properly function. This definition can include such things as elements, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids, oils, fiber, or botanicals (herbs or other plant derived chemicals).
“Vitamins” are compounds required as nutrients in small amounts by the body. A compound is called a vitamin when it cannot be synthesized in sufficient quantities by the body and must be obtained from foods in the diet. Some examples are vitamin C and A.
“Dietary Minerals” are the chemical elements required by the body to function properly or to help perform a particular biochemical function. In reality, the term “minerals” is a bit of a misnomer, as the real functional materials used by the body are ions. Some examples of important minerals are potassium, chloride, calcium, fluoride, and sodium
“Amino Acids” are organic chemical compound that are the building blocks of protein. Many amino acids can be synthesized by the body. Those that cannot be made by the body and must be obtained from the diet are called essential amino acids.
“Essential Fatty Acids and Oils” are organic chemical compounds required for many bodily functions including supporting the immune system and blood pressure regulation. Some examples of these compounds are LA, ALA, EPA, and DHA.
“Dietary Fiber” is the indigestible portion of plant foods that pushes food through the digestive system, absorbing water and easing the elimination of solid wastes.
“Antioxidants” are substances that block or inhibit free radicals—naturally occurring molecules that speed up the aging process and contribute to illness.
“IU or the International Unit” is a unit of measurement for the amount of a substance, based substance’s biological effect. This definition is often used on supplement labels to show the efficacy of a particular ingredient rather the total amount of the ingredient. A good example is vitamin E. There are different forms of vitamin E, all of which are effective. Rather than listing the particular type and amount of vitamin E in the supplement, the label will simply say “Vitamin E” with a certain number of IU’s.
The “RDA or Recommended Dietary Allowances” is the minimum daily dietary intake level of a nutrient considered sufficient to meet the requirements of nearly all healthy individuals. It is not age or gender specific. Multivitamins and other supplements often contain much more of an RDA of a material because the company making the supplement believes or has some evidence that the larger amount of a vitamin or mineral is more effective than the RDA.
Nutritional Supplements come in a wide variety of forms and formulations. Some are designed to address specific situations or problems and some are intended to be used by the general population.
There are many types of Vitamins and Multi-Vitamins on the market. Multi-vitamins are compounded to include a large array of vitamins and minerals in the amounts determined by the manufacturer to be healthy. There are a variety of multi-vitamins that address different segments of the populations. For example, some multi’s are made specifically for women and may contain additional calcium, magnesium, or iron. There are also vitamins designed for women in their child-bearing years called pre-natal vitamins which may contain higher levels of folic acid and DHA. For men, multi-vitamins may include little or no iron, and have additional vitamin E and selenium to assist with prostate health.
It is also important remember that multi-vitamins come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and formulations. For example, some pre-natal vitamins now come in soft-chews to assist women who may have a hard time swallowing the traditional larger pill. There are once-per-day type pills which claim to have all of the needed daily nutrients in one pill. Some of the higher end vitamins lines may actually come in doses of 2 or 3 tablets multiple times per day. This allows you to tailor the dose to fit your needs. So, it is best to think about the form of the tablets to determine if you will actually take the vitamins.
Children’s multi-vitamins are also very varied. Most children’s vitamins now come in more kid-friendly forms such as gummies, candies, or even chocolate flavored varieties. There are even certified “organic” vitamins made specifically for kids. Also, it is important to note that you should be careful when choosing a children’s vitamin that contains iron, as an iron overdose can be fatal in children.
In addition to multi-vitamins, there are individual vitamins and supplements designed to compliment or fill gaps in your nutritional regimen. Some examples are: saw palmetto for prostate health, calcium and magnesium for bone health, specialty herbs such as Echinacea for an occasional boost to the immune system, or large doses of B-12 and B-6 for those who suffer low energy.
Again, there are a tremendous amount of choices in nutrition now-a-days, which is great! The key to finding the right nutritional supplement is to do your research, read the labels, and determine what is best for you. As always, before making any major changes to your nutritional habits, talk to your physician. This is particularly important if you are taking any medications to prevent unhealthy interactions. Here’s to a healthier you!