As a dietitian, women ask me all the time: do I need supplements? In the United States, about 86% of us supplement our diet, and we’re spending a ton of money to do it instead of asking if it’s necessary or when it can truly benefit your body.
Not sure if you need supplements? Look at food first
Before you decide to take a supplement, you need to first look at how you’re eating. Take some time to look at what you’re preparing and putting on your plate each time you eat. Ask yourself: are my meals regular and reliable? Your body needs calories for energy, and it needs to get that from consistent eating throughout the day. If you’re tracking calories and ignoring your body’s natural hunger cues, it’s possible that you’re not eating enough. Supplements aren’t a band-aid for restriction or too few calories.
You’ll also want to really think about the quality of nutrition you’re getting every day. As a dietitian and in my personal life, I advocate for intuitive eating over strict meal plans or saying treats are off-limits. Food is fuel for our bodies, but it’s also something that’s supposed to be enjoyed. Getting a variety of really colorful foods and different kinds of foods daily is really important to your digestive health, the nutrients you’re getting, and how you feel. Notice what’s missing. For example, if your plate never has leafy greens on it, make an effort to add more in. If your diet doesn’t have healthy fats, drizzle olive oil over some of your meats or veggies. Any time you can get nutrients from the food you eat, it’s better and has more value than using a supplement.
Supplements I do recommend and ones you can skip
For a number of reasons, I don’t think many of us are eating enough fatty fish or foods with omegas. I generally recommend most of my clients take fish oil. There’s so much research about the benefits of supplementation: lowered inflammation, joint health, brain health, and more. What I want women to understand about omegas is that we have an omega index, meaning we have omega-3s and omega-6s in our bodies. Omega-6s have been labeled as inflammatory, but this doesn’t mean you should avoid them completely. Some inflammation is natural and necessary for your body to be helpful, and you want to have a healthy ratio.
When you look for an omega supplement, you want the container to be dark or opaque. Eliminate anything that’s clear. See-through containers let light in and the oil gets rancid. I hear all the time: I can’t take omega-3s because I burp and it takes like a fish. So, if you’re getting fish burps, there are two reasons: it’s not in an opaque container or a dark one or you’re storing it in too hot of a place. Don’t store your supplements in your purse or in your car. Next, look at the total amount of milligrams the product says are in each pill. How close is that to the milligrams of DHA and EPA listed? If it’s a long way off, you’re getting a large amount of fillers. Lots of fillers are completely unnecessary, and it’s not healthy because we don’t always know what those fillers are.
I almost never recommend multivitamins for my clients. I don’t see the benefit of them unless you have several nutrient deficiencies. The two most common nutrient deficiencies I see in women are vitamin D and iron, but there are targeted supplements we can use. In place of multivitamins, my advice is almost always that you focus on eating good foods instead. Don’t cut out macronutrients or try to restrict calories. Allow yourself to have some freedom with what you eat.
Every now and then, I do see clients who I feel can benefit from a multivitamin. If you’re pregnant, you’ll want to get a prenatal vitamin a few months before you try to conceive or as soon as you possibly can.
Collagen’s having a moment right now. I see a lot of women taking it for skin, hair, and nails. There are claims out there about stronger hair and nails and smoother skin with fewer wrinkles. Some small studies have been done. But research isn’t very conclusive yet on how effective collagen is for these areas, especially when compared to what women are paying for it. At this point, I can’t say I would recommend taking it just from a cosmetic standpoint.
When you might want to consider trying collagen would be if you’ve had surgery or if you have joint pain. If you have ligament issues or do a lot of high-intensity exercise, it could be helpful. However, here’s the thing about collagen. In order for it to help in these cases, you need about 20 grams a day. Many pills have 1 gram, so keep that in mind. I take collagen as a powder and recommend it in coffee or tea or smoothies. I do want to say that you can get the collagen you need from your diet. If you’re eating enough protein, then you’re getting collagen.
Greens powders are really having a moment and are being marketed and oversold to women a lot. For most of us, they’re just not necessary. Even though they have a place, I don’t find them overly effective or needed for many people. The only time I’ll recommend a greens powder is when working with someone who hates fruits and vegetables. But it’s only meant to be a start. Maybe they need to start getting nutrients and get used to the taste of vegetables. I’d much rather have you explore by adding a little spinach or carrots to a smoothie. Once you’ve expanded your palate, greens powders can be dropped.
Why you need to look for 3rd party certifications
Supplements are expensive, and you don’t want to be wasting your money. Always, always look to see if there’s a reputable third-party certification or verification on whatever you want to buy.
From a hormone perspective, stay away from pre-workout supplements with SARMS—selective androgen receptor modulators. SARMs mess with hormones, and they’re not approved by the FDA. Whenever you’re thinking about supplements for athletic performance, look for NSF certification. This ensures that there are no banned substances in what you’re using.