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Mindful Nutrition: What Makes a Quality Supplement?

Being mindful is great because it's is so... inclusive! We need to be mindful to make sure this one body we have for our entire life (you only get one... remember that) does the best that it can, for as long as it can. A smarty pants like you, who is very mindful about the things you're putting in, on, and around your body, is often the exact same person taking nutritional supplements. You've read enough to know that you probably aren't getting the nutrients you need regularly, which is why we need to talk about supplements. Why do I need them? How do I tell which ones will work? Ok, but specifically, GIVE ME THE DEETS!

Why do you need supplements?

Food is always ALWAYS the best way to get the building blocks your body needs to function at 100%. However, we always pride ourselves on being "real not ideal" because life doesn't hand everyone a private chef, and sometimes all I get for breakfast is coffee, ok, BACK OFF... So that's why we need supplements. 

Oh, and also, due to advances in modern agriculture the nutrient density of our food has gone down. These advances are great for {literally starving} people, but not for anyone who can afford to go to the grocery store. As in, there are definitely more oranges available, but those oranges have less vitamin C per orange. So vitamins from food are great, but it can be hard to get enough of them to combat and prevent diseases of the modern era (autoimmune disorders, cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, etc.). So that's also why we need supplements.

How do you tell which supplements are good?

Not all supplements are created equal. You know how you look at cut and clarity when you pick out an engagement ring? (or at least you do if you want her to say yes...) Well, with supplements and vitamins you need to look for sourcing, potency, and manufacturing standards. If you ask your supplement company about any of these, and they shy away... that's a bad sign. 

Sourcing: i.e. where is the stuff coming from?

Did they choose that vitamin B just because it was the cheapest version of vitamin B, or did they pick the vitamin B that showed results in real people's lives in a research study? You can start to see 2 very different pictures of health. This is one of the reasons that safe and effective supplements cost more. Fish oil (great for your heart and brain) has to come from a fish. Did your fish swim in nasty contaminated waters? He will be cheaper. You might want to invest in a fish that swam in water, not toxic sludge. In shopping terms (easier for me to understand), you'd prefer your supplements came from Saks and not from the dollar store. 

Will it actually dissolve?

That's right. Some companies make supplements that don't even dissolve, and just come out the hind end unchanged. Sometimes it even shows up on x-rays, and you can literally see all the money someone is wasting by buying and taking supplements that can't break down in their system. We don't suggest digging through your toilet, but it's good to ask questions about how dissolvable a capsule or tablet is. 

Is it the proper form to work in my body? (i.e. can my body even use it?) 

Let's be real, bodies are weird. And because they're weird they absorb certain forms of nutrients better than others. I see this in action all the time in my clinic. I run a blood and urine panel on a lot of my patients to check their levels of vitamins and minerals. Often, their results will show they are low in several nutrients, and then they tell me "BUT I'M TAKING A MULTIVITAMIN"... which tells me a few things: 1. It's not potent enough, or 2. It's not the right form of vitamins to be absorbed, or 3. Their supplement has a lot of fillers and not a lot of vitamins. Often all are true, and the patient can feel the difference when they switch to a higher quality product. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Look for vitamin B9 as folate instead of folic acid. Folic acid is ok for about 50% of the population, but pretty much everyone can use folate. Unless you've had genetic testing to know which boat you're in, it's safer to go with the folate form
  • B12 should be in the "methylcobalamin" form, not "cyanocobalamin." Methyl (methylated) is a good sign your body will like it better.
  • Vitamin A should be in the form of beta carotene. This is the natural form and is used much easier.
  • Minerals (magnesium, potassium, iron, calcium... etc.) should be "chelated" or "reacted." This means they've been tied to a helpful amino acid so your body can more easily use them. 

What's inside?

First of all, the company should publish their ingredient lists and make them easily accessible to you. Is it packed with sugar, artificial sweeteners, artificial flavorings, or colors? Remember how you were looking for something to make you healthier? Also be wary when something says it contains "other ingredients" and then doesn't list what "other" means.

How potent are these puppies?

Vitamins and minerals need to have a certain amount of oomph to actually have an effect on your body (this is called "therapeutic dose"). Manufacturers might not put as much in each capsule because, once again, it doesn't cost as much. This is when patience and time reading the label pays off. Scared of a higher price? You might actually be getting more bang for your buck with a more expensive bottle if the pricier supplement is more potent. Probiotics are a good example:

  • Probiotics are the good bacteria we need in our gut to help with... well, everything. We measure them in CFU's (the total number of bacteria) and strains (the different types of bacteria). Look for CFU's in the BILLIONS, and multiple strains. Each strain/type of bacteria does something different, so mostly it's the more the merrier. One of the reasons we love our probiotic so much is that it's tested to make sure there are 22 billion CFU when we bottle it, and STILL 22 billion CFU at the expiration date. #gamechanger

Is it backed by research?

This should give you some piece of mind that a product really serves a purpose. It was chosen by someone who cared, to be available to you because it's doing good things in the lives of others. It'll hopefully also explain why each ingredient was chosen for that supplement.  

FDA approval (Does it matter?)

Critics LOVE to scream at the top of a mountain that nutritional supplements aren't FDA approved. Just so we're clear, a stamp of approval from the FDA (while a valuable organization) doesn't necessarily make or break anything for me. There's a lot of time, influence, and red tape that goes into getting something approved. The FDA, like everyone else, also have regrets and often change their mind. For example, here's a list of things that were once (or are still) FDA approved:

  • a tea with cocaine as an ingredient (not approved any more)
  • rodent hair & cigarette butts in your food (still cool with them)
  • 35+ prescription drugs that killed people or made their diseases worse (not any more, but once had the seal of approval)
  • medications that haven't actually finished their controlled trials (aka... they stop before side effects show up)

I'm not here to bash the FDA, but my point is that my consumption and judgement of what I put in my body doesn't hinge on a stamp of approval from the FDA. So if that statement ever tries to sway you again, just smile and nod... and do some more digging. FDA approval is a great thing for supplements to have because it means they trust their product enough to let a bunch of strangers scrutinize it. It just isn't the end-all-be-all.

That being said, without any sort of regulating organization, there are some shady supplement companies. I'd love to paint you a pretty picture of rainbows and unicorns, where everyone only used the best ingredients and didn't care about how high their profit margin was... but I can't. So you need to read a little more into how your supplements are manufactured, and what's actually in them.

You SHOULD look for QAQC or "quality assurance" or "3rd party audits." And if you want to get REAL intense a manufacturer should be able to provide a COA (certificate of analysis) that says "hey! this is what we say it is, and our ingredient list is real and has been proved by other people!"

But that price, tho...

We get it. Money is tight, so that $5 multivitamin looks way more attractive than the $60 multivitamin. However, would you rather throw $5 in the toilet, or spend $60 on something to make you healthier? As we've mentioned a few times, in the supplement world you get what you pay for (rotting, smelly fish is free-99). Look more closely at cost per day (or cost per serving) than cost per bottle. Some bottles may last 2 months, some may last 2 weeks.

  • Higher quality nutrition costs more.
  • Well researched nutrition costs more.
  • Getting fancy audits and approvals costs more.
  • Safety and effictiveness costs more.

... Here's the thing, you're worth investing in.

Hannah Anderson
Hannah Anderson