You make food and lifestyle choices to keep you energetic, free from illness, and feeling great. Now you’re wondering "Should I take supplements to help my health?"

What is the difference between a vitamin/mineral and other herbal and performance enhancing supplements?

Vitamins and minerals are chemical substances found in our food that our bodies require in very small amounts (compared to our macronutrients: carbohydrate, fat, and protein). Vitamins and minerals contain no actual energy (calories) but some are used in the metabolic processes that turn food energy into the usable fuel our bodies need.  Others are used to combat chronic diseases and optimize health and performance. Examples of vitamins are A, D, C, and B complex. Examples of minerals include sodium, potassium, and calcium. Ideally in a well rounded diet we can meet our needs for all of these vitamins and minerals but sometimes due to medical conditions, poor absorption, or poor dietary intake, we may become deficient and supplements are needed to bring our body back to its ideal level.


Now is the more confusing part. What about other non-vitamin/mineral supplements on the market like herbal products, amino acids, and other performance enhancements or weight loss products? These products often make claims to improve your athletic performance, fat burning capacity, brain function, etc. with often minimal research to back them from both an effectivness standpoint but also a safety standpoint. However, some like omega-3’s, probiotics, and creatine do have enough research that medical professionals are able to recommend these if needed. Unfortunately, sales-people and well-meaning friends are usually the ones encouraging these products and they may not be safe. If you are a competitive athlete, these products may be contaminated with banned substances that, if caught, will get you disqualified from your sport.


So here are some things to consider before you commit.


  1. Prioritize safety:

    many supplements are truly natural and organic, they can still be harmful to our bodies. Sometimes additional vitamins, minerals or other substances in a supplement are not appropriate for people already being treated for disease and may interfere with the current treatment methodology. Keep in mind, supplements are not required to go through any testing or inspection so the claims and safety of these products is questionable. What does this mean? It can actually cause harm to your organs because of the ingredients and dose even if it is natural! Your best bet is to check with your doctor or dietitian before starting something new.

  2. Understand effectiveness:

    Taking a supplement can act as a placebo even if it isn’t truly causing any cellular changes to the body. This makes us believe it’s working. But do you really want to spend money on something that’s not actually effective? Not all supplements are effective at treating what they claim to treat. In fact, not all supplement manufacturers are honest so sometimes the labeled ingredients are not even present (or present in the dose that is stated). Again, no one regulates what supplements land on the shelves so it’s hard to stop dishonest people from entering the game. It may be more worth your time and money to learn some more effective approaches to health and wellness if you’re not sure of the reliability and effectiveness of a supplement.

  3. Know what you need:

     Supplementing in excess of nutrients we are not deficient in is not effective. An example is water soluble vitamins which includes C and B vitamins, the excess of which are eliminated from the body through the urine after your needs are met. That means your B complex vitamin may just be flushed down the toilet - literally.

  4. Check for Third Party Testing labels!

    OK so I told you that there is no mandatory regulation of supplements BUT what I’m telling you now is that there is voluntary third party testing. That means that honest companies can choose to be certified and labeled by organizations that do test the products prior to distribution. Look for emblems on products that are NSF or USP certified before you buy to make sure what you’re paying for and what you’re getting are the same thing.


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One You Nutrition dietitian Courtney Hager believes all of us should be fueled for whatever adventure awaits us.

About the Author

I’m Courtney Hager, one of the registered dietitians from One You Nutrition LLC. I am an endurance sports addict and love to learn about how the body and mind use nutrition to help us perform. I’d love to hear from you so leave a comment, subscribe to our newsletters, or better yet, set up a call with me to chat about your nutrition goals!

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