Supplements: All my questions answered by a Registered Dietitian!

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Ever wonder which supplements you should take? Are they even healthy and safe? Is there a need or benefit for protien powder or crazy cleanses in your life? I sure did! So I was so excited when Elizabeth Somer, a Nutritionist, Editor-in-Chief of Nutrition Alert!, public speaker, and author of a variety of books including The Essential Guide to Vitamins and Minerals and Eat Your Way to Sexy, offered to answer some of my questions!

So let us get right into the Q&A session:

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1. Do you recommend calcium supplements for women? Why or why not and how much calcium would we have to eat to equal a daily calcium supplement?

Elizabeth: Yes. The vast majority of women do not consume 3 glasses of milk or 18 ounces of plain, nonfat yogurt every day and consequently, their diets are low in calcium. Granted, anyone worth their weight in nutrition credentials will tell people to turn to food first, but the reality is that 99 out of 100 people, according to national nutrition surveys, don’t meet even minimum standards of a balanced diet. For calcium, I recommend 500 milligrams a day, since most women get at least some calcium in their diets, so this just fills in the gaps. They also need 1000IU of vitamin D to get that calcium absorbed and into the bones. Diets also are low in magnesium. Since most multis contain only a smattering of calcium and magnesium, I recommend a cal:mag supplement with about 500mg calcium and 250mg magnesium.  

2. When and why would you recommend a person take supplements?

Elizabeth: I recommend everyone take a moderate-dose, broad-range multi, a cal:mag, and a omega-3 DHA supplement for the reasons stated above. For example, according to the March of Dimes, 1 in every 2 pregnancies is unplanned. Folic acid is critical in the first few weeks of pregnancy before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. For that reason alone, all women of childbearing age should take a multi with at least 400mcg of folic acid. But, as said above, most diets are low in nutrients such as chromium, magnesium, iron (for childbearing age women), zinc, omega-3s EPA and DHA, etc. If a person doesn’t consume dark greens every day, the phytonutrients - lutein and zeaxanthin -  known to help protect against the major causes of vision loss, cataracts, and macular degeneration, are low. I would love it if everyone ate spinach salads every day, but they don’t. So make sure your supplement also has those phytonutrients.  

3. Is there a particular brand of supplements you would recommend over another and why?

Elizabeth: I choose the major brands who meet my criteria (supplies a broad range of nutrients in 100% to 300% of the Daily Value) or brands with the USP seal. That guarantees that what is said on the label is actually in the tablet or pill. You needn't spend a month’s wages. In fact, you shouldn't have to pay more than about $15 a month for supplements. That’s pretty cheap nutritional insurance!  

4. Are there any supplements out there that you feel have NO place in the human diet?

Elizabeth: Most of them! There is tons of junk on the market touted to solve your every health problem from heart disease to impotence. Most will drain your pocketbook without providing any benefits. Some are even dangerous.  

5. I have heard some men (mostly in the gym) talk about taking creatine, is there ever an instance that this would be recommended?

Elizabeth: First - Creatine is an amino acid found mostly in the muscles as creatine phosphate (phosphocreatine), a high-octane chemical that supplies the energy (ATP) needed for muscle contractions. Creatine also helps reduce lactic acid that otherwise accumulates in muscles during intense exercise (lactic acid is what causes that burning sensation and limits the amount of intense exercise an athlete can do). Creatine has been touted as “Nature’s muscle builder.” During intense exercise, a drop in muscle creatine and ATP levels are factors that contribute to fatigue in athletes. Taking creatine supplements apparently boosts the levels of (phospho) creatine in muscles by 20% to 30%, possibly making creatine more available for energy production. As a result, more energy (ATP) is formed, an athlete doesn’t tire as easily, and recovery from intense exercise is quicker.

Second - But will it improve athletic performance? Several studies show that taking creatine supplements might improve short-term muscle strength and the body’s ability to perform intense athletic events that require 30-second bursts of energy, such as competitive basketball, soccer, sprint swimming, weightlifting, hockey, and football, as well as short track and field events. For example, in one study, competition cyclists were able to pedal more intensely for short bursts if they supplemented with creatine. A recent study from Penn State found that men who supplemented with 25 grams of creatine lifted greater weights and boosted their number of repetitions. Sprinters jump higher and athletes can perform at top capacity longer before succumbing to fatigue when supplementing with creatine. Of course, other studies, such as one from the University of Northern Iowa, report that creatine has no effect on athletic performance.

However, the improvement in performance is relatively small. Most studies involved only young, highly-trained athletes, and not all studies show beneficial effects. There is little evidence that creatine is useful for recreational athletes. It won't improve aerobic or endurance performance, such as walking, swimming, jogging, or bicycling.  

6. What is your stance on whey protein powders? Does the average American need more protein?

Elizabeth: While there is evidence that whey might aid in athletic recovery in professional athletes, there is no benefit for someone who just works out at the gym a few times a week. Protein is the only nutrient that Americans already get too much of. Everything from vitamin A to zinc has been found low at one time or another, or in some cases repeatedly over decades, but never protein...except maybe the elderly woman who eats a tea-and-toast diet. In my opinion, it is silly to supplement with even more protein and a total waste of money.  

7. What would a typical day in eating (types of foods, vitamin content, calories) look like that included everything our bodies needed so that a supplement would not be needed?

Elizabeth: You need at least 8, preferably 10, colorful fruits and vegetables, including at least 1 serving of dark greens and 1 citrus. 5 to 6 servings of 100% whole grains, 1 serving of legumes, 2 to 3 servings of nonfat or low-fat milk products or soymilk, and a few servings of iron/zinc rich foods. Twice a week or more, you need a serving of fatty fish, such as salmon. No one eats that! Even then, your diet will be low in vitamin D and likely low in vitamin E, too.  

8. If a person is dieting and severely restricting food intake for a few weeks, would a supplement be beneficial during this time?

Elizabeth: Absolutely! Same ones I recommended above. Plus maybe fiber, depending on what diet they were on.  

9. How do you feel about cleanses (3 days juice cleanse, salt water cleanse, etc.) and are supplements recommended if someone is doing a cleanse?

Elizabeth: To be told you are a ‘toxic time bomb’ is alarming, but there is no definition of what that term means, let alone any scientific evidence that the body needs cleansing or the digestive tract needs a rest. The body already has an amazing system for breaking down and ridding itself of anything harmful. (For example, bacteria naturally present in the gut metabolize and detoxify substances in food, while the liver works 24/7 to neutralize anything making it through the gut and into the body.) Ironically, fasting itself generates toxins. For example, as protein is broken down for energy, levels of toxic nitrogen substances such as uric acid are formed, which tax the kidneys and increase risk for gout. Lead and pesticides stored in the body are released slowly with moderate weight loss, allowing the body to detoxify and eliminate them safely. However, these levels rise too rapidly when weight is lost too rapidly on any restrictive diet, such as a detox regimen, raising blood levels above safe ranges. Anyone who is obsessed with food might benefit from a short break from eating - a step- back-from-the-plate moment to review the role food plays in your life. But, gaining control of your eating habits by starving is an extreme measure that hints of a potential eating disorder, so watch out you don't take the next step by feeling that post-fast eating signals a loss of control or failure. There’s nothing wrong with short fasts for religious reasons, as Jews do on Yom Kippur. A one or two day fast is also safe for healthy people, even if its effectiveness for cleansing and weight is questionable. Just take it easy on those days, drink lots of fluids, and don't expect to accomplish much or even drive. Medical clearance is warranted before beginning a lengthier fast and a person shouldn’t fast at all if she’s pregnant, nursing, or has any health condition, including diabetes, cancer, compromised immunity, ulcers, or liver, kidney, heart, or lung disease. If a fast helps at all with cleansing, those benefits are sustained only if you follow it with a healthy diet and lifestyle. That’s because the real secret to managing your weight, and feeling and looking your best is healthy eating every day, not a quick-fix crash diet.  

10. Is there anything else you would like to address regarding general nutrition or supplement use?

Elizabeth: They are called supplements, not substitutes. You need to eat really well AND supplement responsibly.   

Thank you Elizabeth!

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