Flick through social media and you'll come across countless supplements that people swear by -- turmeric pills, maca pills, goji berry juice powder, spirulina, kale powder -- you name it.
With so many supplements out there which are simply gimmicks, it's tricky knowing the good ones from the useless ones.
Well, we asked four health experts which supplements they actually use and recommend, and importantly, in what circumstance you truly require them.
According to Alexandra Parker and Anna Debenham, accredited practising dietitians from The Biting Truth, the first and best way to get nutrients is from your food.
"As dietitians who focus on wholefoods for optimal nutrition and wellbeing, vitamins and micronutrient supplementation are not generally our initial recommendation," Parker told The Huffington Post Australia.
"Food first, always. Food provides vitamins in the most biologically available form, in the right quantities and combined with other complementary nutrients.
"We're big believers that if you're otherwise healthy, a healthy eating pattern should never be replaced by a supplement. More and more often we're seeing people who are eating a poor diet, drinking and smoking, and believe everything will be okay if they take a supplement."
Pharmacist and personal trainer Holly Vogt, The Fit Pharmacist, agrees.
"Vitamin supplements should not be used as a substitute for a balanced diet and if you do take them, make sure you do not exceed your daily requirement. Choosing a good health supplement should be an informed and wise decision," Vogt said.
Food first, always. Food provides vitamins in the most biologically available form, in the right quantities and combined with other complementary nutrients.
Although supplements may be marketed as 'magic bullets', unfortunately they don't provide equal nutrients to those found in foods, nor do they counteract a poor diet.
"A piece of fresh fruit, for example, contains antioxidants, phytochemicals, fibre and many other nutrients that do not make it into the vitamin jar but play a huge role in our health," Debenham told HuffPost Australia.
"Saying that, there is a time and a place for supplements and there's good evidence to suggest that if a vitamin or mineral supplement replaces a deficiency, it will have beneficial outcomes. But aside from a few specific groups of people and situations, most people who eat a balanced diet have no need for supplementation."
Who needs supplementation?
The main instances and stages of life where people may need to genuinely supplement is when food alone is simply not enough to meet an individual's nutrient needs, and supplementation becomes integral to that person's wellbeing. Some examples include:
- Those trying to conceive and pregnant women (one month prior to conception and three months after) -- folate has been shown to reduce risk of neural tube defects.
- People on a strict vegan or vegetarian diet, and elderly people who may be eating poorly and/or absorbing less from their food -- iron, and vitamin B12 as this is found almost exclusively in animal products.
- People with an allergy or intolerance such as lactose intolerance -- calcium
- Autoimmune disease e.g. Crohn's disease, cystic fibrosis or coeliac disease -- supplementation may be required at some stage to correct any nutrient deficiencies.
- People who did not receive enough sunlight (e.g. bed bound, elderly, covered/veiled women and men) -- vitamin D
- Following a course of antibiotics -- probiotics may be beneficial in restoring gut health after a round of antibiotic treatment.
- People with specific hormonal imbalances such as PCOS.
- Parker and Debenham.
"It is important to note that we all have specific nutritional requirements and health concerns at different stages of life, and it is ideal to choose supplements that target those specific needs," Vogt said.
So, how do you tell when you need to supplement?
"If you are fatigued, training hard, have a restricted diet or limited food options available, say, when you are travelling, this is a good time for supps," celebrity trainer Tegan Haining said.
"When it comes to supplements, it's often difficult to decipher which protein powder, omega 3 oil or multivitamin to trust. It's very important to understand that supplements should not be a free-for-all," Parker explained.
"It's best to avoid going to the supermarket or searching online when you don't know what you're looking for or if you're self-diagnosing.
"Blood tests can be useful, however are not always necessary. We highly recommend speaking to your doctor or accredited practising dietitian to determine your need for supplementation."
On top of this, not all supplements are required to be taken long term and dosages will vary depending on your specific needs.
"Some supplements have adverse effects, like toxicity or interference with nutrient absorption when taken in excess. For example, vitamin A, B or zinc," Parker said.
A few key things to consider when purchasing supplements:
- Start out with the low dosage recommendation first and increase as required.
- Look for supplements without added fillers, colours or unnecessary ingredients.
- Think of supplementation as an investment to your health and always choose quality. Try not to choose a product for its logo, price or marketing.
- Ensure you continue to eat real food.
- Parker and Debenham.
Here are five supplements health experts actually use.
1. Fish oil
"One of the key nutrients many of us don't get enough of is long chain omega 3 fats (which are found naturally in oily fish, for example, salmon)," Debenham told HuffPost Australia.
"There is solid evidence to show that omega 3 fatty acids are necessary for a healthy heart and brain, and play a role in reducing inflammation throughout the body."
Fish oil is rich in omega 3 fatty acids which include eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
"We cannot produce these in our bodies so it is essential that we receive them through our diet or supplementation," Vogt said. "Ensure that you choose a supplement with a high concentration of EPA and DHA, and one that has purity and sustainability certifications."
"I also like cod liver oil tablets, which are high in Vitamin D and A," Haining added.
Probiotics are 'good' bacteria that line our digestive tracts and support our body's ability to absorb nutrients and fight infection.
"I always take a probiotic to ensure my gut health," Haining said.
"There is mounting scientific evidence to show that the health of our gut directly affects our immune system. Taking a daily probiotic can be a simple way to help keep your gut healthy and your immune system strong," Parker said.
"Whether you take it as a capsule, drink or powder, the choice is yours. If you've taken a course of antibiotics, supplementing with probiotics will also be beneficial to your gut."
It's important to note that there are different types of strains of probiotics, Vogt explained.
"Certain strains of probiotics support immunity, others digestion, and some even help to regulate weight and balance hormones," Vogt said.
3. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is important for strong bones, muscular and overall health.
"Vitamin D is a fat soluble nutrient and is one of the 24 micronutrients essential for human survival. Due to the increasing rates of vitamin D deficiency and the implications, supplementation is encouraged if optimal levels are not present in the body," Vogt said.
"Most of us probably get enough vitamin D from the sun during the summer months (you only need about 15-20 mins of exposure). However, during winter, if you tend to spend a lot of time indoors, some of us may benefit from a vitamin D supplement," Parker added.
Magnesium is an important nutrient which plays a role in hundreds of enzymatic bodily reactions, including metabolising food, synthesis of fatty acids and proteins, and transmission of nerve impulses.
While most people can obtain adequate protein through their diet (it's found in both plant-based foods and meat), select population groups can benefit from protein supplementation -- namely athletes or those who have an intense training regime.
"Whey protein is ideal, however if you have issues with lactose intolerance, then plant-based proteins are still highly effective."
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