by: Ali B, RD
It seems like everyone I talk to these days is taking a supplement of some type, whether it be a multivitamin, protein supplement, or omega-3. Talking about it with people can make you second guess whether you too need the supplement or if you are fine without it. Here are some general guidelines that can assist in choosing the right supplement for you.
Decide if you need it. I always laugh when I talk to athletes who want to start taking a protein supplement. A 170-pound athlete needs approximately 90 grams of protein per day (more or less depending on their sport). This amount of protein is high for the average person and can be met by consuming 6 ounces of chicken, 3 eggs, 1 cup of milk, and 2 tablespoons of peanut butter. It is not unrealistic for someone to eat this much protein a day, eliminating the need for supplementation.
A general rule of thumb: if you can get nutrients through food, do it! If you are having trouble with that, consider supplementing.
Determine the supplement safety. Supplements are strange products because they are not regulated by the FDA like food is. Because of this, supplement manufacturers are not held accountable for the ingredients and safety of supplements (yikes!). To learn more about that, watch this John Oliver video that explains some flaws of the supplement industry. I like to look up supplements at nsf.org, the Public Health & Safety Organization’s website. They analyze supplements to ensure the claims on the bottles are true and that all ingredients inside the container are listed on the label. If these requirements are met, the product will receive an NSF safety certification. Their website is easy to use – you can search for a supplement (e.g. “probiotic”), and the website will list their certified products.
Talk to your doctor. This is especially important if you have a medical condition or prescription. Some supplements may have side effects that can worsen your condition, while others may alter the effectiveness of certain medications. If you have an upcoming surgery or dental procedure, make sure to disclose that you are taking a supplement when you schedule the appointment –you may be asked to stop taking the product for 1-3 weeks prior to prevent side effects like excessive bleeding.
Is there a maximum dose? While rare, some nutrients can cause negative side effects when used in excess. For example, large amounts of omega-3 fatty acids are linked to colon cancer, vitamin A deficiency (think poor eye health), and vitamin D deficiency (weakened calcium absorption). Unless recommended by your doctor, never take more than the manufacturer’s recommended dose.