About 14 years ago I had lunch with a guy who owns a pretty popular triathlon training company here in Chicago. We chatted about fitness, health, diet – all the usual suspects for two people working in the same industry. He asked what I thought about nutrition supplements, if I thought we should add them to our diet.
Back then I was a strong believer that we could get most of the nutrition we needed from a whole foods-based diet. I answered him pretty adamantly, “No, if we’re eating healthy, we don’t need to supplement. We should get all the nutrients we need from the food we eat.”
In retrospect, that was a pretty naïve thing to say, and was purely based on an absolutely perfect 100% organic diet.
It didn’t take too long for me to reverse my stance on how I felt about nutrition supplements, and the role they play in our ability to maintain a healthy body.
Nutrition Supplements: Why You Need Them
To say we all need nutrition supplements is a very broad statement. Walk into any grocery or health food store, and you’re paraded with wall-to-wall bottles of capsules, drinks and powders all promising to manage or improve something that’s lacking or in need of maintenance.
Distilling all of these choices down to exactly what you need for your body can be overwhelming and confusing.
You definitely don't need to take every supplement you see, but there are a few you should take. Let me explain why.
Each of these supplements adds back something that helps our body - but is often depleted - either by age, lifestyle or our existing diet.
When nutrients are depleted, our body doesn't operate the way it should, resulting in illness, weight gain, mood changes, bone loss, increased body fat and of course, disease.
Naturally, a healthy plant-based diet, balanced with a good amount of protein and fat is the optimal way to get nutrients, but these supplements are the extra layer of armor that protect your body from the inside out.
Here are my specific recommendations. I've taken these supplements for over 10 years and have tried so many. Of all that I've tried, these are the only supplements that pass the test for me...and my family.
Nutrition Supplements #1: Probiotics
Probiotics are bacteria. Our gut consists of a certain amount of good bacteria and bad bacteria. Good and bad bacteria will always co-exist in every body, but our job is to make sure there is a healthy balance of the beneficial stuff!
In my house, I tell my kids that good bacteria and probiotics are soldiers. Good bacteria helps to fight for our immune system to keep it strong, and it helps to digest food. Without good bacteria, our defenses are down.
When we don't have enough good bacteria in our gut, we develop unpleasant symptoms, including:
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome
- Anxiety and Depression
- Insulin Resistance and Diabetes
What Causes Bad Bacteria to Grow?
Bad bacteria grows and can take over our gut if we:
- eat too much sugar
- don't eat prebiotic foods
- take antibiotics (even in the past few years)
- experience high levels of stress
- don' t eat fermented foods or take a daily probiotic
- don't get enough activity
- don't eat a variety of fresh foods
The bottom line is it's important for your health to take a probiotic. And if you're a parent, your kids should take one as well.
I take probiotics in the morning and in the evening as this is what works best for me.
What Sort of Probiotics Should You Take?
I've listed a couple of the probiotics that I've taken, and those that I've given my kids.
There are so many different strains of good bacteria, but the most important thing is buying a brand that is well researched. I can't emphasize this enough.
An indication of how well-researched a brand is can be found when looking a the strains of bacteria. You'll see a lot of different names, like lactobacillus, for example.
"Lactobacillus" - this is vague and doesn't tell you anything about the strain
"Lactobacillus plantarum" or "Lactobacillus La-14" - this tells you more about the specific strain and indicates more research
This is sort of my litmus test for probiotics before I even consider buying them.
The brands I trust include:
Nutrition Supplements #2: Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of essential fatty acid, meaning our body can’t produce them, so we have to get them from the foods we eat or nutrition supplements we take.
Omega-3s are one of the most important nutrition supplements you can take for a number of reasons that I’ll get to in a moment, but it’s important to know that it’s highly unlikely you’re not getting enough in your diet, and even if you’re getting some, it’s probably not enough.
Benefits of Omega-3 Fatty Acids
When we don't get enough omega-3 fatty acids, our body gets "rusty" from the inside out. It starts to show signs of wear and tear faster, and generally breaks down more often.
Supplementing with omega-3 fatty acids has been shown to:
- Decrease risk of heart disease
- Reduce the risk of certain types of cancer
- Improve memory
- Reduce inflammation
- Decrease the likelihood of depression
Omega-3 fatty acids are a group of polyunsaturated fats or PUFAs. There is no substitute for this type of PUFA in our diets. You can't get the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids from any other type of fat.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids vs Omega 6 Fatty Acids
(Skip over this part if you're not interested in super geeky details)
All fatty acids should sit in a sort of homeostasis to be optimal. In addition to omega-3 fatty acids, two other fatty acids include omega-6 and omega-9.
The relationship between omega-3 and omega-6 is where things get interesting.
Ideally, our bodies should have a ratio of 4:1 - meaning four (4) omega-6 to one (1) omega-3.
Most people, at least in the United States, have a ratio that’s closer to 20:1.
To put it bluntly, this wreaks havoc on our body – just about every part – from our brain to our bones.
Part of the reason this ratio is off so much is because omega-6 fatty acids are in foods that are common staples. Omega-3 fatty acids are available, but not in the way omega-6 fatty acids are.
A few foods that contain a lot of omega-6 fatty acids include:
- Corn Chips
- Potato Chips
- Whole Wheat
- Corn Oil, Soybean Oil (and every processed food made with these oils)
- Peanut Butter
- Fast Food
- Deli Meats
Eat less of these foods.
On the flip side, a few foods that contain omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Salmon and Most Fatty Fish
- Flaxseed Oil
- Fresh Veggies and Fruits
- Chia Seeds
Eat more of these foods.
What Omega-3 Fatty Acids Should You Take?
These are the only brands I've taken for the past 12 years.
If you are vegetarian, vegan or have an allergy to fish, you can also get a decent amount of omega-3 fatty acids in flax seed oil.
You may be wondering how much to take. Different agencies recommend different amounts, which vary greatly. I take one tablespoon a daily before bed.
My kids also take one teaspoon a day in the morning.
There really is no right or wrong time to take this supplement, but it is important to take it daily.
What about the taste?
I started my kids when they were babies and they really don't know any different. It's a spoonful every morning. That's it!
If you have a young child, you may be able to just start them on the liquid oil. There are also capsule alternatives, as well as a variety of flavors.
Nutrition Supplements #3: Vitamin K2 + D
Did you know that calcium is preferential to soft tissue? Most people don't know this.
So how does calcium make its way to our teeth or bones if it prefers to make a home in our arteries and other soft tissue areas?
Through vitamin K2 in combination with D.
Maintaining Vitamin K2 helps to regulate soft tissue calcification. In other words, K2 helps keep calcium out of your arteries and in your bones and teeth.
Keeping Vitamin D at optimal level helps to "unlock" the bones and teeth to receive calcium through the vehicle of vitamin K2.
Vitamins K2 and D help to make sure calcium gets deposited where it needs to go!
Without adequate amounts of K2 or D, calcium isn't as regulated as it should be and moves directly to our soft tissue, including our arteries.
Another word for this is arteriosclerosis.
Of course, the first thing I thought when I learned this was WOW! How many glasses of skim milk was I told to drink during the "low fat 80s and 90s" because it made my bones strong? And how much calcium was I told to supplement with when I was in my teen years?
K2 and D in Our Diet
It's unlikely that your diet has been void of K2 and D! Both of these fat soluble vitamins can be found in foods, but probably not in the amounts we need.
Vitamin K2 can be found in:
- Egg Yolks
- Chicken (especially the liver)
- Fermented Foods
Vitamin D can be found in:
- Fatty fish (like salmon)
- Egg Yolks
- Cod Liver Oil
- The Sun!
How can you supplement with K2 + D?
Fortunately, there are supplement available that come in the right combination of these two important vitamins.
This is what I use:
I use a liquid K2 + D3. I add a drop of this supplement to my cod liver oil and take them together. I add a drop to my kids' teaspoon of cod liver oil in the morning as well.
More Doesn't Mean Better
Keep in mind that taking more of these supplements doesn't always mean better. With the exception of probiotics, the rest of the supplements are fat soluble. Our body needs them, but don't go overboard.
Think of vitamins like sun exposure. A little bit is good, but too much can burn you.
This post contains some affiliate links, which won't affect you in any way, but if you click on them I may make a small commission.