Confused by nutritional supplements? Not for long.
Written by: Shawn Talbott, PhD
Without a doubt, dietary supplements have widespread usage and appeal—to the tune of more than $25 billion in annual sales in the United States alone. Approximately 85 percent of Americans have used dietary supplements at one time or another, and more than six in 10 members of the population are regular users of supplements (using them on most days of the week). The numbers for supplement use are even higher for athletes.
Despite the large number of people currently buying and using dietary supplements, however, a huge gap often exists between the practice of supplementation and the knowledge behind those choices and usage patterns. For example, many consumers are not careful about recommended dosages for supplements—and the common assumption that “if a little is good, more is better” can pose serious health consequences.
Choosing a Supplement
In choosing dietary supplements, ask the following questions:
1. Is it safe and legal?
2. Do the product’s claims make sense?
3. Do studies exist on the actual finished product (not the individual ingredients), and were those studies conducted in endurance athletes?
4. Was the amount of the supplement in the study the same as the recommended amount on the label?
5. Is it right for you (do you need something for general nutrition or endurance or recovery or nothing at all)?
Natural Versus Synthetic Vitamins
In most cases, natural and synthetic vitamins and minerals are handled by the body in exactly the same way. A good example of this is the B-complex vitamins, which can be obtained in supplements as “natural” B vitamins (usually from brewer’s yeast or a similar substance) or as purified chemicals and listed on the product label as thiamin (B-1), riboflavin (B-2), niacin (B-3), and so forth. When any of these supplemental sources of B vitamins is consumed, the vitamins are absorbed, transported, and utilized by the body in exactly the same way—so we can say with confidence that there is no difference between natural and synthetic when it comes to B vitamins.
Two interesting exceptions to this rule are folic acid, which is better absorbed in the synthetic form (compared to natural forms found in foods), and vitamin E, which is far superior as the natural form (absorbed and retained in the body two to three times better than synthetic vitamin E).
Brand Name or Generic?
This is one of the most common questions that I get when it comes to multivitamins. People want to know if they can just buy the “grocery store version” to get their daily nutrients. The ultimate answer is really less about generics vs. brand-name products than it is about choosing between supplements that provide “basic” versus “optimal” levels of particular nutrients. Therefore, the answer to this question will depend on two primary factors: How much money can you afford to spend on a supplement, and are you looking for a basic or an optimal supplement?
Many of the generic or private-label store-brand supplements on the market will do a satisfactory job of helping you meet the basic RDA (recommended daily allowance) levels for essential vitamins and minerals. The primary limitation with these generic products, and even with many brand-name supplements, is that the basic RDA levels of most vitamins and minerals fall far below the levels associated with optimal health and certainly below those needed for optimal endurance performance.
With respect to the B vitamins, there is good scientific evidence to support daily intakes at 200-500 percent of RDA levels for optimal stress response and cortisol control. These levels are two to five times higher than the levels found in most multivitamin products.
Calcium and magnesium are two minerals that are known to help regulate the body’s stress response, yet most generic supplements and one-tablet-a-day-type brand-name supplements provide only a small fraction of the 250–500 milligrams (mg) of calcium and the 125–250 mg of magnesium needed to promote a normal stress response. The primary reason for skimping on the calcium and magnesium in these products is not cost (both are very cheap), but rather space considerations in the capsules and tablets. Both calcium and magnesium are bulky minerals—that is, they take up a lot of space—so an optimal daily dosage requires more than a single capsule each day (and sometimes as many as four capsules, depending on the mineral source).
The bottom line here is that everybody should take at least a basic multi-vitamin/multi-mineral supplement (MVMS)—and virtually any product, generic or brand-name, on the shelf at Wal-Mart, Rite-Aid, or your local grocery store will satisfy the basic RDA-level requirements. However, if you are interested in a supplement that delivers more than the rock-bottom levels of nutrients, and if you can afford to spend a little more on your daily supplement regimen, then you will want to consider a MVMS that provides higher levels of B-complex vitamins, calcium, and magnesium.
When it comes to selecting herbal supplements, the situation can quickly get very confusing. Because herbals are really a form of natural medicine, it is crucial that you select the right form of the herb so that you get the safest and most effective product. Herbal supplements are an area in which generic products are not equivalent to brand-name products. It is vitally important to select either the exact product that has been used in clinical studies, or a product that contains a chemically equivalent form of the herb that has been studied. The easiest way for most consumers to select a safe and effective herb is to select only those extracts that have been “standardized” to provide a uniform level of the key active ingredients in each batch of the product. The best scenario would be to select only those specific products that have undergone clinical studies of their own and in endurance athletes (rather than selecting products that contain ingredients on which studies have been conducted)—but there are far fewer finished products that have been subjected to clinical testing than there are raw ingredients (cordyceps, rhodiola, glucosamine etc.) that have been evaluated in such research.
Where to Buy Supplements?
The preceding three points should offer enough general guidance to help you weed through the many less desirable supplement products on the market and select products that can make a difference in your overall health. With the explosive growth in the supplement market over the past decade, consumers can now find vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other supplements for sale in a variety of places—including specialty supplement stores, natural-foods stores, drugstores, grocery stores, discount department stores, and through direct marketing, infomercials, catalog sales, and the Internet. Are any of these outlets “better” than the others? Not really—but each has its own particular niche.
For example, the least expensive “bargain” products will be found at supermarkets and discount department stores (e.g., Wal-Mart), but these products may suffer from many of the problems outlined above with regard to basic versus optimal supplementation. Supplements that are a step above the cheapest and most basic of products can typically be found at drugstores, natural-foods markets, and specialty supplement outlets, including running and cycling shops. These are the middle-of-the-road products that do a decent job of balancing high-quality and optimal nutrient levels with moderate prices. The most expensive products, and those with the widest range in terms of quality, safety, and effectiveness, are typically sold through direct sales channels such as the Internet, catalogs, and independent sales agents. In some cases, these products are designed to deliver optimal levels of all nutrients in the most bioavailable forms, but the obvious downside is their high price. In other cases, all you get is the high price—without any of the optimal levels of the crucial nutrients.
So how can you differentiate among these premium-priced products? By asking to see the results from their clinical studies. Products in this “premium” category will almost certainly need to justify their high price with strong scientific evidence to support their claims and to show that their product is justified at this price. If the company cannot provide you with scientific evidence to support its premium products, then you are well advised to look elsewhere for your supplement.
After you have selected your supplements with the help of the above information, the following guidelines can help you use those supplements in the proper manner (that is, to optimize both safety and effectiveness):
- Remember that a dietary supplement is just that—meaning that it is meant to be added to an otherwise healthy diet. It is not meant to substitute for a balanced diet or to make up for a poor diet.
- Follow the dosage recommendations on the package. The recommended dosage is important for safety and effectiveness—especially for herbals and other supplements that combine multiple ingredients. Don’t assume that if one tablet is recommended per day, two or three will be even better.
- Keep all dietary supplements in a safe place—away from heat and light that may accelerate their breakdown, and away from children who may accidentally ingest them.
Now that you know how to choose your optimally-formulated, research-proven, endurance-specific supplement based on the broad criteria above, you can put it to its best use by adding it to your otherwise super-charged diet and training regimen (and not hoping that the supplement will act like a magic bullet).
About the Author: Shawn Talbott is multiple Ironman and ultramarathon finisher and a sports nutrition expert with a Ph.D. in nutritional biochemistry and a master’s degree in exercise science. He lives in Salt Lake City. For more information visit www.ShawnTalbott.com
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