by Stephanie Margolis, R.D.
We all need a boost sometimes. Whether it’s that emotional boost you get when your kid hugs you after a hard day, the 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. The latter is what we’re 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 you see in the media. Truth is, there are some great supplements, and some you should steer clear of.
We are going to talk about a few popular (and rightfully so) 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.
Hands down the BEST way to get the nutrients you need is through a variety of real, whole foods. Too many times I see people go overboard, and frankly, overthink the supplement portion of their diet. Choosing supplements should not mean you buying a whole pantry full of containers or spending a ton of time in the supplement aisle. Remember supplements are meant to supplement your diet, not replace whole foods.
Consider this: taking an omega-3 vitamin (like fish oil) gives you that single nutrient, while eating a serving of salmon gives you omega-3s plus protein, B vitamins, potassium, selenium, and more.
So before you start buying everything I’m listing below pause and take a look at your overall diet and health. What types of food are you consuming a lot of or very little of? Are there foods you avoid or are allergic to? Do you have a family history of high cholesterol? Once you do this, you will have an idea of what gaps there may be, or what your health priorities should be and which supplements to choose from. If you aren’t sure what your gaps are, read on and pick one thing you want to improve.
Note: The information below is not specific to pregnant and nursing moms. MCT oil is not advised while nursing because fat soluble vitamins will concentrate in breastmilk, 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. View nutrition guidance specific to pregnancy and breastfeeding.
You may remember when you started seeing coconut oil touted for its health benefits and weight management success stories. When we dive into the studies, we see that medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are the real superstar.
A little background: Triglycerides are another way of saying fatty acids, and there are many types of triglycerides. We classify them based on the number of carbon atoms: 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:
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.
Just remember, even for its benefits you are still adding 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.
Keep in mind that MCT, like other fats, is nutrient dense. When you add a tablespoon to your smoothie, you are also adding about 100 calories. I have mentioned in many articles that we need to start stepping away from calorie counting, but it is often something people are surprised to see when looking at the label. I’d rather you have 100 calories of a good fat that has the above benefits than 100 calories of trans fats found in french fries that could lead to health concerns down the road.
As a kid we couldn’t get away from the “chi-chi-chia” 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 the nutrition facts.
In just 2 tablespoons of chia seeds we find:
Extra good news: they are easy to eat. 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, toss in a smoothie, or enjoy some chia pudding!
When narrowing down your supplement list I would recommend choosing an omega-3 OR chia seeds. If you eat plenty of seafood, you can skip the omega-3 supplement. However, if you don’t see yourself finding enough ways to use chia seeds then opt for the omega-3. A third option is you don’t see yourself using the chia seeds, you eat plenty of seafood… simply skip both and enjoy your food!
Worth noting: we do want to be thoughtful about our fats because the body does need a balance of omega-3s to omega-6s. But omega-6s are found in many sources while omega-3s are more rare, so this isn’t an issue for most people.
This supplement is widely popular and often endorsed for promoting great skin and hair. There are many studies that support this claim, 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 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 you 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.
Collagen is a protein, so if you are using a protein powder you may not need to add collagen. However, if you feel you need a boost in the collagen department then choose this over another protein powder. Of course, if you aren’t sure, here’s a guide to picking the best protein powder for you.
Maybe none of the supplements listed above is quite what you were looking for. If you’ve been following along in the Moms Into Fitness Members Facebook group, you see we talk about inflammation a lot — and the supplements and certain foods that can help with inflammation.
If you are deficient in certain nutrients, you should first check in with your MD as a simple blood test will often reveal what to focus on. Many who live in areas that have darker, colder winters will find themselves vitamin D deficient, so adding a supplement might be a good idea. When you find a single nutrient you are lacking, pick a moderately priced supplement that is a brand you recognize and trust.
Another product you’re probably seeing are these blends of fruits and veggies that provide a certain number of servings in a single scoop. However, many times we don’t know exactly what is in those blends nor are they regulated. You can get all the same nutrients in real foods, which leave you more satisfied and more aware of the foods you are putting in your body. If you really feel like a superfood or veggie blend is something you need, look for one made with non-GMO, whole foods and isn’t disguised as “proprietary blends.”
Bottom line: If you are looking to add micro-boosts to your diet, supplements have their place. Add these things while keeping your focus on whole foods and moving your body for best results.