You don’t have to be a dietitian or nutritionist to have a general idea these days of what you should be eating. For one thing, the old food pyramid has been replaced by MyPlate, a simple visual tool reminding us about the best food groups and relative portion sizes to consume.
Nonetheless, to say maintaining a healthy diet is challenging would be a colossal understatement. According to the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, about 75 percent of the population has the following eating pattern: low in fruits, total grains, protein foods and vegetables and high in added sugar, saturated fats and sodium.
While the results of a study reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association show Americans eat healthier compared to several years ago, many use supplements to help fill nutritional gaps their poor diets can’t. This has led to a massive growth in the dietary supplement market over the last few decades.
What are dietary supplements? The Food and Drug Administration classifies dietary supplements as a type of food, not a drug. It’s a product designed to add nutrients to your diet that could help keep your body at optimal condition or lower your risk of health problems. Supplements come in many forms, including capsules, extracts, gel tabs, liquids, pills and powders.
Common types of dietary supplements include:
Vitamins. There are 13 essential vitamins, a list that includes vitamins A, C, D, E, K, Thiamine (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Vitamin B6, Biotin (B7), Folate (B9) and Vitamin B12. Except for vitamin D, which our bodies make with adequate sun exposure, we need to get vitamins either from the food we eat or by taking supplements. Multivitamins offer a good source if you’re certain of the absorbability, potency, purity and safety.
Minerals. Essential nutrient minerals are sometimes divided into macrominerals (those needed in larger amounts) and trace minerals. Macrominerals include calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorus, sodium, sulfur and chloride. There’s some debate over how many trace minerals are essential, but a partial list includes iron, zinc, manganese, copper, iodine, chromium, molybdenum, selenium, boron and cobalt. Most women of childbearing age need iron to make up for losses during menstruation. It’s difficult to find an iron source that doesn’t cause constipation, but they’re available.
Proteins and amino acids. Proteins are chains of amino acids, an essential part of living organisms. Nine amino acids are considered essential because our body can’t produce them, including histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan and valine. Because of the recommended dietary allowance, protein typically isn’t provided in supplement form, but rather in a food form such as a bar or shake.
Fatty acids. Linoleic acid (LA), an omega-6 fatty acid, and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid, are considered essential fatty acids because they can’t be synthesized. Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can be synthesized from ALA. Because of a low conversion efficiency, it’s best to obtain them from dietary sources as well. When choosing a omega supplement, make sure it provides a full spectrum of seven ultra-pure pharmaceutical-grade omega-3 essential fatty acids, primarily EPA and DHA. Most people get more than enough omega-6. Rather than seeking additional omega-6, read labels to reduce omega-6 while increasing omega-3.
Probiotics. Often referred to as “good bacteria,” probiotics are live microorganisms that help keep your digestive system healthy. You already have trillions of these in your gut. Having too many of the “bad” bacteria — often as a result of an unhealthy diet — can cause an imbalance that could lead to weight gain, skin conditions, constipation, diarrhea and various chronic health conditions.