6 Secrets to Choosing the Safest, Most Effective Supplements Every Time
Walk through any grocery store or pharmacy these days and there’s a good chance the supplements section is filled with an overwhelming number of options. That’s probably because the vast majority of adults in the United States—we’re talking a full 75%—take supplements, according to the 2018 Council for Responsible Nutrition survey.
Here’s where that survey gets a little more surprising, in my opinion: Of those people the Council for Responsible Nutrition asked about their supplement use, a staggering 78% said they believe the dietary supplement industry is trustworthy. That stat stopped me in my tracks. Because while supplements can be an incredibly helpful way to optimize your health, it’s wise to be just a little bit skeptical (and highly informed!) when it comes to choosing which bottles to take off those supplement-aisle shelves.
In fact, here’s some information that may surprise you: Supplements are not thoroughly regulated by the United States government. While they are overseen by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), they are treated more like food than drugs—which is why it’s especially important to be cautious when choosing a supplement that is safe, effective, and the highest quality possible.
You also want to be sure you are taking supplements that meet your personal needs, which is based on your body, your genetics, your microbiome, and your diet. The supplements you take should ideally be unique to you. Translation: You won’t be able to figure out what to take based on what an article on the internet recommends or what your favorite celebrity swears is a game-changer. This is why my nutrition programs focus on evaluating each client’s lab results to determine individual supplement recommendations—no two are alike!
Since I recommend supplements in my programs and coaching, I spend a lot of time studying the topic—especially how to choose the highest quality, safest, and most effective ones. I even co-authored a research review paper on supplement use in older adults to help guide other practitioners in choosing the best supplements for their patients.
Here’s what I know for sure—and what I think will help you the most when you’re looking to add the safest, most effective, and highest-quality supplements to your daily routine.
1. Embrace a “Food First” Mentality
Loading up on supplements without prioritizing a diet rich in whole foods is like trying to build a house from the roof down. The foundation of anyone’s nutrient intake is best consumed through food, which provides an amazing source of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. It’s estimated that just one serving of a fruit or vegetable can have as many as 100 different phytochemicals, which means that food is a perfect source of a variety of concentrated nutrients that can’t be recreated in supplement form. Food also provides our cells with key messages that tell them to function at their best. Because of this, it’s important to take a “food first” approach to getting the nutrients your body needs: Eat a varied low glycemic diet and use supplements to fill in the gaps.
2. Know that You Still May Not Get All the Nutrients You Need
Even if you are eating a nutrient-dense diet, there’s a good chance you won’t get all of the nutrients you need from your food. And if that’s the case, adding the right kind of high-quality supplements is key. Now, I recognize that not all practitioners will agree with that statement. There are some who are against supplements, likely because they didn’t learn about them in school. (Doctors receive virtually no training in supplements and dietitians receive some, but arguably not enough). However, in my experience working with clients, there are a number of reasons why most people need additional supplemental support. Top of the list? Digestive issues that impair nutrient absorption, lower-quality soil that is depleted of nutrition, life events that inspire different nutrient needs (hello, pregnancy!), high stress levels which can decrease nutrient absorption, genetic variants that enhance the need for certain nutrients, and medications that interfere with the absorption of nutrients.
It’s very common to not get all the nutrients your body needs through food alone. In fact, according to research from NHANES data a large percentage of Americans fall short on vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, folate, calcium and magnesium. In my clinical experience, some of the most common nutrient deficiencies include omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, and vitamin D. It can be very difficult to get optimal levels of these nutrients through food alone, which means supplementing, when appropriate, can be crucial.
3. Look for “Medical Grade” or “Third Party Certified” on the Label
The FDA is responsible for overseeing the manufacturing practices and labeling of supplements—but they do not approve supplements for quality, safety, or efficacy. Yes, the FDA requires supplements to have the good manufacturing practices (cGMPs) to ensure safety. However, they do not test or assess supplements before they go to market. While there is random auditing done on the backend to ensure supplements contain what they say that they do, the number of companies that are assessed is minimal.
In a report conducted by ConsumerLab.com, 19% of B vitamins failed the review because they had far less or more of the ingredients than listed. Another ConsumerLab.com report found that 46% of multivitamin and multimineral supplements did not meet the label claims, meaning the nutrients in the supplements were lower than what the label claimed. More research from the Natural Products Insider reported that 444 of 626 supplements they inspected failed to comply with the cGMP.
Another big problem in the supplement industry is that many companies rely on a practice called “skip batch testing,” which means that they test every few batches with the hope that the amount in those few supplement bottles is the same as what’s in all of them. They do not test every single bottle in every single batch.
Considering all of this, I feel strongly that the best way to ensure optimal quality is to purchase supplements that are medical grade and have been third-party tested. There are companies that conduct this third-party testing and then award products their seal of approval to indicate that it meets the highest standards—including ingredient quality, consistency of product label, freshness, and more. The most common third-party testing certifications to look for include ConsumerLab.com, NSF International, Informed-Choice and US Pharmacopeial Convention (USP). One other certification is the Gold Certification in the Emerson Quality Program. Many of the professional grade supplements that I recommend are Gold Certified, including Designs for Health, Metagenics, Nordic Naturals, Pure Encapsulations, and Integrative Therapeutics[MR2] . You may need a practitioner code to order these supplements. All of my clients have lifetime access to my supplement store, where I sell these brands at a discounted rate.
4. Get Expert Help When Deciding What to Take
Yes, it can be tempting to buy that bottle of zinc or vitamin C because your best friend or favorite social media influencer swears it keeps her healthy all winter. Yet while that’s a common move—data from NHANES indicates that just 23% of supplement users take supplements based on recommendations from a healthcare practitioner—your best bet is to work with an expert who’ll run lab tests to understand your nutrient deficiencies and your personal needs. After all, just because your friend, family member, or a Kardashian sister benefited from a supplement doesn’t mean that it is the right supplement for you. It’s also important to be considerate of drug-nutrient interactions.
5. Look at the Ingredients List
The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act uses the term “ingredient” to refer to the compounds used when manufacturing a dietary supplement. This includes substances such as binders, colors, excipients, fillers, flavors, and sweeteners. These are largely inactive ingredients that are used to hold a tablet together, fill space, or improve the flow of ingredients through the machinery that makes them.
When reading the label that lists all of a supplement’s ingredients, pay attention to the ones often listed under the “other ingredients” line—and choose a formulation that’s in line with your dietary approach. For instance, if you are a vegetarian, you’ll want to avoid supplements with gelatin. If you are allergic to soy, look for (and avoid) supplements with soybeans. If you have a fructose intolerance, steer clear of supplements with fructose. If you are allergic to dairy, watch for milk-based ingredients in popular probiotics. If you avoid food dyes and artificial sweeteners (like sucralose or aspartame), avoid them in your supplements, too.
6. Remember that More is Not Always Better
I work with so many clients who think that the more nutrients they get, the more their health will improve. This is not the case! Fat soluble nutrients (vitamin A, D, E, and K) pose the greatest risk if you are taking too much because they are not excreted through your urine. Even vitamin D, an extremely important vitamin that many people are commonly deficient in, can lead to toxicity in too high of doses (blood levels >150 ng/mL). High levels of vitamin D can increase calcium absorption in the gut, increasing risk of hypercalcemia and symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, muscle weakness and more. Minerals such as calcium and iron can also be overconsumed and increase risk of health consequences.
Water soluble vitamins, such as B vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, B7, B9, B12) and Vitamin C, can be excreted through the urine and are less likely to cause adverse reactions if you get too much. However, that doesn’t mean it’s necessary to take extremely large doses. For instance, when taking more than 1g of vitamin C in one sitting, absorption rates fall to about 50%. What’s more, high doses of vitamin C can cause abdominal cramping and diarrhea. This is also true for supplements like probiotics, where more strains does not equate to the best results.
Want to understand which supplements could help you fill in the nutrient gaps in your diet and optimize your health? Schedule a free 15-minute consult with me to see if you would benefit from my Next Level Nutrition program—the ultimate approach to personalizing nutrition and lifestyle and learning what works best for your body.