Are Supplements Necessary?

by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.

*Note: The information listed below is not specific to nursing or pregnant moms. MCT oil is not advised while nursing because fat soluble will concentrate in the breast milk, and research has not shown the  impact on the baby.  It’s not necessarily dangerous, we just don’t know because supplements while breastfeeding are not thoroughly researched. In general MCT oil is safe during pregnancy. For more nutrition guidance visit our pregnancy and breastfeeding nutrition articles.

We all need a boost sometimes. Whether it’s that emotional boost you get when your kid hugs you after a hard day. That physical boost you get when you’ve been doing a workout and realize you’re making progress. Or the nutritional boost you get by adding certain foods to your diet. It is the later in this list that we are going to tackle here – supplements.

Wait a minute…

No need to come in skeptical or hide your wallet. Supplements can get a bad rap because of all the advertisements and false claims being made in the media. Yes, there are some great supplements… and some you should steer clear of. However, for our purposes we are talking real, whole foods, as supplements to either boost your nutrition or fill in the gaps. These are all foods that can be purchased at your grocery store, fit into your current eating habits, and are backed by clinical studies.

Up first: MCT Oil

This is the true superstar of the coconut oil revolution. You may remember when you started seeing coconut oil touted for its health benefits and weight management success stories. When we dive into those studies it was this Medium Chain Triglyceride that was to congratulate.

A little background. Triglycerides are another way of saying fatty acids, and there are many types of triglycerides out there. We classify them based on the number of carbon atoms, so we have short chain fatty acids (with less than 6 carbons), medium chain fatty acids (with 6-12 carbons), long chain fatty acids (13-21 carbons), and very long chain fatty acids (carbons in excess of 22). In our food supply, long chain fatty acids are the most common because they encompass polyunsaturated fats, saturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids.

In clinical studies it was noted that individuals who consumed medium chain triglycerides saw moderate reductions in weight and improvements in their body composition (decreased waist circumference, decreased hip circumference, and decreased body fat percentages). This all happened with no change – or some studies showed a slight improvement – in the patient’s blood lipid profile. When you dig into the why, we find that MCTs are broken down quickly in the body, giving a quick energy boost while also being able to convert to ketones which are a great source of fuel for the brain. In subsequent studies more benefits were found:

  • Increased fullness: MCTs increased the hormones that decrease your appetite and make you feel full longer
  • Not stored as fat: because they are broken down quickly, metabolized, and not stored as adipose tissue
  • Improve lipid profile: May help decrease cholesterol, decrease LDL levels, and increase HDL levels in some
  • Improve brain health: there are early indications that MCTs can help improve brain function as we age

We can find MCTs in several whole foods. Coconut oil is 60% MCTs, palm kernel oil is about 50% MCTs, and using an MCT oil supplement will give you 100% MCTs. When it comes to how much you need, that is still up for debate. In a meta-analysis of MCT studies, participants saw benefits when they used anywhere from 5-70 grams of MCT daily. So, add some MCT oil to your coffee or smoothie in the morning; cook up those veggies with some palm kernel oil; or add some coconut oil to your baking. Just remember, even for it’s benefits you are still adding a fat to your diet so monitor how much you add and don’t replace those omega-3s and other good fats. Just think of using MCTs in addition to those fats.

Chia Seeds

As a kid we couldn’t get away from the “chi-chi-chi pets” and I know it was on my Christmas list! Now we are looking at those chi-chi-chia seeds for a whole other reason. Chia seeds are considered a functional food, meaning they offer benefits beyond their nutritional value. These little seeds are known to help decrease cholesterol, improve gut health, reduce your appetite, help maintain a healthy weight, decrease triglyceride levels, and improve your blood sugar levels (especially for those with Type 2 Diabetes). The reason these are so powerful is found when we zoom in on its nutrition facts.

In just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds we find:

  • 7 grams polyunsaturated fats – 60% of those grams are in the form of omega-3s
  • 11 grams of fiber – helping keep you full longer and positively impacting your triglyceride levels
  • 4 grams of protein – and it is considered a complete protein because it offers all nine amino acids (important if you are trying to eat more plant-based)
  • 18% of your daily value of calcium

Extra good news: you can eat it anyway it comes. Chia seeds have a soft shell so you can enjoy whole or ground – as opposed to flaxseeds which have a hard-outer shell so are more bioavailable when they are ground or in oil form. So, sprinkle on your cereal, add to baking or other dishes, and enjoy some chia pudding!


This supplement is widely popular and often endorsed for promoting great skin and hair. There are many studies that back up this idea but the biochemistry behind it is more complex. Collagen is the main component of various connective tissues in the body from your skin and hair, to your joints and cartilage. Your body naturally produces collagen every day, however, over time that production slows down. To help boost collagen production a form of hydrolyzed collagen aka: collagen peptides can help (whole collagen cannot be absorbed by the body).

When we look at the mechanism by which this happens, we know that once the supplement is ingested it is broken down into amino acids. These specific amino acids serve as the building blocks to production of new collagen in the body while also acting as antioxidants helping to protect existing collagen from oxidative stress that would break it down. If you hit the store today you can find some solid sources of collagen on the shelves including bone broth, fish, egg whites, and spirulina. If you want something that you can stir into a power smoothie or add to your baking, you will also find collagen supplements. Current research does not show one type of collagen supplement to be superior to another, but we do know that bovine derived collagen (collagen types I and III) is linked to improving skin and hair while chicken derived collagen (type II) is seen to help cartilage and joint health.

Like all supplements and boosts, you can’t neglect the rest of your diet and lifestyle. For example, for collagen peptides to do their thing in your body your need Vitamin C (think citrus fruits, peppers, strawberries, and tomatoes). Also, no amount of collagen supplement in your smoothie will be able to undo the oxidative damage done to the skin by sun exposure, smoking, and high sugar intake.

Bottom Line: If you are looking to add micro-boosts to your diet, MCTs, chia seeds, and collagen can be a great place to start. Add these things while keeping the focus of your lifestyle on whole foods and moving your body for best results.


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