Most of us take at least one supplemental nutrient, whether it’s to ease joint pain, make our digestive system happy, or get those Omega-3 and veggie nutrients we may have missed. But do these formulations really make us healthier? Or are they just a bandage over a bigger problem?
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Lucy adds a powder to her water each afternoon. Hayley and Khala put a scoop in their daily smoothie. Garland swallows his whole. I shake and chug.
Supplements in their many forms – packets, powders, pills, and drinks – crowd our medicine and kitchen cabinets. In fact, in 2021, 87% of us took at least one supplement – an almost 25% increase from 2013, according to Mintel‘s Vitamins, Minerals and Supplements Trends report.
Furthermore, almost a third of us stock up on specialty supplements, like probiotics and powdered veggie blends, many of which come recommended by nutritionists, friends, and our social media feed. But how can we tell if they’re actually doing something?
Does a quick nutrient fix even exist?
And, if so, which type is most bioavailable – or ready for our bodies to absorb and put those nutrients to immediate use? And – here’s the million-dollar question – can they really be as effective as their claims boast, like eating six servings of veggies a day in just three capsules?
I spoke with Dr. Dennis Savaiano, Professor of Nutrition Science and Director of the Purdue Clinical Research Center at Perdue University to get some answers. His knowledge is steeped in nutrition research, including the digestion and absorption of nutrients, and includes conducting numerous trials and peer-reviewed studies in this field.
The interview with Dr. Savaiano brought my brain back down to sea level after succumbing to over-optimism in a quick and easy health solution.
Simply put: there’s no magic elixir for long-term health.
All of these nutrients – vitamins, minerals, and specialty ingredients, like probiotics – require different modes of absorption in our system. As an example, the below chart demonstrates some key differences in vitamin absorption.
More broadly, some nutrients need water, others require fat. Some can only be absorbed when ingested with another nutrient, others may not get absorbed at all and just exit our bodies. Some need to be ingested multiple times a day to be effective, others require very careful dosing.
And, to make matters even more complicated, each one of us has a vastly different digestive system; what is easily absorbed for you may require a different diet or mode of ingestion for me. So when it comes to evaluating effectiveness, it’s pretty hard to make claims like having the best bioavailability on the market when test subject results vary so greatly.
Still hoping for a half-potent elixir? I get it. I have those days when I’m running around like a multi-tasking triathlete and eating anything I happen to stumble into between errands. And I, too, have drank my green drinks, hoping for some corrective measure to magically happen. But here’s the thing: supplements need a balanced diet to be properly absorbed in your body.
“Supplements are meant to be supplementary — meaning they enhance benefits already provided by eating a well-rounded diet.”
– Dr. Jeffrey Millstein, M.D., Internal Medicine at Penn Medicine
Food & fiber as medicine
What’s easier about going straight to the source is that whole foods naturally have the complement of nutrients to maximize nutrient absorption. For instance, many meats have the essential proteins that transport and absorb heme iron, the source of 95% of our body’s functional iron, making the direct source far more effective than taking a pill. And avocadoes, a source of heart-healthy omega-3 fats, naturally have fat-soluble vitamins E and K – it’s hard to find a better nutritive complement than that.
And another critical differentiator between supplements and food? Fiber.
Fresh produce naturally has fiber that aids in absorbing many key nutrients and is frequently a missing component in supplements. And when you eat a variety of fiber derived from fruits and veggies, your body absorbs nutrients even more efficiently.
More specifically, soluble fiber is particularly effective at slowing down digestion so your intestines have time to absorb more of the nutrients you previously ingested. As opposed to insoluble fiber, soluble fiber dissolves in water and is found in whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, and some fruits and veggies.
So if you want your body to get all the vitamins and minerals out of your food, like the ones shown below, be sure to couple them with high-soluble-fiber foods, like oats, black beans, spinach, and pears.
An added benefit of eating more fiber? A boost in the production of T-cells, a key part of our immune system health, including our system’s response to a Covid infection. You can read more about that here.
Bigger picture on health
What can we do right now to make our body ready to absorb more nutrients? Try out Dr. Savaiano’s simple recommendation: start filling half of your plate each meal with whole fruits & veggies (fresh, frozen, and canned are all great options).
When we eat whole foods, especially veggies and fruits, we feel fuller because of its high fiber and water content. We are more likely to reap the benefits of any supplements we take, are less likely to overeat, and, over time, make better dietary decisions.
On the other end of the nutrient-density scale is processed food, which leaves us hungry while nutritionally starving our body. This includes products touted as healthy or wholesome, like yogurt with added sugars, energy or protein bars, granola and granola bars, and really any kind of crunchy snack. When you eat products like these, supplements don’t stay in our body long enough to be properly absorbed. Instead, reach for a handful of nuts, an apple, or sprouted-grain toast topped with some almond butter.
So with a balanced diet, is there still a need for supplements?
High-quality supplements generally can’t hurt when, of course, taken with an already balanced diet.
Supplements can help fill any nutritional gaps that you’re not getting, like vitamin C or magnesium. And if you select your supplements based on the FDA’s nutritional guidelines, keep in mind that many of those daily value recommendations, like the ones seen on nutrition labels, come from dated studies that exclude more recent findings.
For instance, a meta-analysis of over a million Covid patients showed that those who had low vitamin D levels were statistically more likely to end up in the ICU for Covid or have respiratory distress. An increased intake of vitamin C and zinc have also demonstrated decreases in Covid severity, but findings like these have yet to be reflected on our nutrition labels.
If you go the supplement route, try sticking with a no-added-sugar veggie powder-based supplement to accompany your fiber-rich meal so you’re able to ingest both water- and fat-soluble nutrients for better absorption. We like Greens First and Athletic Greens, as products like these have a higher concentration of antioxidant-boosting polyphenols and have third-party verification of their efficacy. If protein powder is your go-to product, go for it…but if it’s plant-based, make sure to check its heavy metal toxicity.
And always check with your doctor before taking anything new – some of these can have harmful interactions with certain medicines and health conditions.
But most importantly, fill that plate up with greens. Need some help? Try some of our veggie-heavy recipes!
Steak & Veggie Soup | Spicy Sausage with Veggie Orzo | Healthy Breakfast Wrap | Pan-seared Salmon with Broccolini and Spaghetti Squash | Keto Mahi Mahi with Cauliflower Rice and Brussels Sprouts | Turkey Sausage Lentil Pasta with Veggies | Clean-out-the-kitchen Quiche | Strawberry Salad | Roasted Broccoli
The Bottom Line
A high-quality supplement can’t hurt, as long as it’s accompanied with a diet abundant in fresh produce and fiber-rich foods; otherwise, any anticipated benefits will go to waste. So strive to fill half of your plates with nutrient-dense veggies to increase your health and nutrient absorption.