Revisiting Supplementation

23 09 2013


Earlier this year I started up a short series on vitamin supplementation. Since this time I’ve read numerous additional articles and studies and thought it would be a good idea to post my latest thoughts on vitamin supplementation.

As I said in my first post, vitamin supplementation is not absolutely necessary for everyone and most vitamins and minerals should be achieved through eating a well-balanced diet of whole foods. Take the term supplementation literally; you should really only supplement with something if you cannot get adequate amounts from your diet. With this in mind, let’s start with the most commonly used supplement out there: multivitamins.


Earlier this year, my general stance on multivitamins was that they were a good way to ensure intake of all vitamins and the benefits surely outweighed the risks. Even the Harvard School of Public Health agreed: “Looking at all the evidence, the potential health benefits of taking a standard daily multivitamin seem to outweigh the potential risks for most people.” However, the more I read, the more I become skeptical of effectiveness of multivitamin products. The major issues?:

  • Most multivitamins provide levels around the recommended daily allowance (RDA), which accounts for a minimum level of health, not an optimal level.
  • Most multivitamins contain a majority of micronutrients that are readily met through even the poorest of diets. You end up getting very little of what you actually need, and too much of what is unnecessary.
  • Multivitamins lack the other compounds of real food which are necessary for absorption and that contribute to optimal health.
  • Too much focus on including a plethora of vitamins and minerals, not enough focus on the necessary vitamins and minerals, nor optimal dosing.

I have multivitamins in the house, but I stopped taking them earlier this summer. When I stopped, there was no noticeable change in my energy levels, general well-being, or overall health. Instead, I began to concentrate on individual vitamins and minerals that are difficult to get through a balanced diet, which is now the recommendation that I would make for others. Multivitamins are great in concept, but their effectiveness has not been proven. Due to this, most people will be much better off spending their money on only the vitamins and minerals that are the most difficult to get, which include…

Vitamin D

The RDA for vitamin D is roughly 400-800 IU, but the optimal level is, at minimum, 2000 IU; as I mentioned in my post on Vitamin D earlier in the year, daily intake of closer to 4000 IU is recommended. The only people who do not need to concern themselves with vitamin D are those that live within the tropics and have frequent sun exposure with bare skin (wearing a t-shirt and shorts is not enough). For the majority of my readers, those of us in the northern hemisphere, vitamin D supplementation is absolutely necessary for optimal health, especially in the winter. Don’t overlook this important vitamin!!!


Vitamin K

The RDA for vitamin K is roughly 60-120 mcg, and the optimal level is roughly 1000 mcg. The problem with getting enough vitamin K is that most foods containing the vitamin have very poor bioavailability, or in other words, the human body is simply unable to extract the full amount from the food. Due to this, supplementing with vitamin K might be necessary.However, if you eat a diet that contains a lot of leafy greens (kale, spinach, collards, broccoli, brussels sprouts, etc.) and lean animal protein (especially whole eggs), you likely needn’t worry about additional supplementation.


A friend of mine recently told me that she was thinking about getting an iron supplement. My reaction: Why? Her answer: Because a friend of mine said it helped with her premenstrual cramps. Okie dokie. Here’s the thing about iron: yes, it is a common deficiency (especially among women) in our society, but you shouldn’t start taking an iron supplement on a whim. I suffered from an iron deficiency for years, supplemented with over-the-counter pills and liquids for a few years, and since my levels returned to normal I have been able to maintain healthy levels of iron through my diet. The cause of my deficiency remains a mystery, but those typically at risk include children and pre-menopausal women, most notably those with diets restrictive of animal sources (vegans and vegetarians). If you suffer from the symptoms below, please consult your physician to see if iron supplementation is right for you:

  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • pallor
  • hair loss
  • twitches
  • weakness


Deficiency is common in older people and those with low dairy intake. If you do not consume dairy and do not eat a lot of kale, collard greens, broccoli, or other greens, you will almost surely be calcium-deficient. These whole foods contain far more bioavailable calcium than their supplemental counterparts, so increasing these foods in the diet should be option #1, but supplementing with a high quality calcium supplement could be a secondary option. My first suggestion would be to start with a whey protein supplement, as whey contains 20% of the RDA for calcium and also provides additional protein- something that will only benefit the body. If you are considering a calcium supplement, please first consult your physician; multiple studies have linked calcium supplementation with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease and several forms of cancer, so proceed with caution. Again, whole foods are the best choice.


I covered this in-depth in its own piece a few months ago, but long story short:magnesium supplementation can be quite beneficial for athletes. For the general population, if you don’t consume a diet that contains ample amounts of nuts, seeds, beans and/or leafy greens, you may very well be magnesium-deficient.

Fish oil/Omega-3

Yep, fish oil is important. Do it.

Yep, fish oil is important. Do it.

Essential fatty acids (EFAs) omega-6 and omega-3 are essential to human health and must be consumed in the diet. The North American diet contains a plethora of omega-6 foods, but very few omega-3s. An optimal ratio of the two EFAs is 1:1, so everyone should make an effort to eat fatty fish a few times a week or to supplement with a fish oil supplement. I covered this supplement here.


Often thought of as a supplement for bodybuilders and gym junkies, creatine has gotten a weird reputation. Creatine is naturally produced in the human body and is a major component in supplying energy to cells, namely muscle. Yes, creatine has demonstrated reliability when it comes to things like overall power output and strength, but it is also very beneficial for people who do not frequent the gym. Non-meat eaters are a population that should surely be supplementing with creatine. As roughly half the creatine stored in the human body comes from the diet (which can only be derived from animal sources), vegetarians and vegans have significantly lower levels in their bodies. This can result in poor energy levels and decreased cognition. Creatine supplementation studies have shown a significant increase in cognition/intelligence, as well as the ability to ward off the symptoms of depression, most notably in vegetarian/female populations. If you are a meat-eater, you may not need creatine supplementation (unless you have personal strength goals at the gym, in which case you should definitely be supplementing), but for non-meat eaters, creatine supplementation should be seriously considered.

Aside from these supplements listed above, there really aren’t many other that I would advise looking into. One of my favourite online images will serve to give you a very good idea of which supplements can be trusted for what:



The graphic isn’t perfect- for example there have been reliable studies conducted on magnesium demonstrating an increase in serum magnesium in the body, a decrease in blood pressure and an increase in aerobic capacity and muscle oxygenation- but it’s a nice overview with fairly accurate indication of what you should and should not spend your money on. In the end there are tons of supplements on the market claiming to do many things, but the reality of the matter is that most are good in theory, but poor in practice. Eat whole foods, do your homework, and if you are taking a supplement, be honest with yourself and listen to your body- are you actually getting any benefit from the supplement? If not, save your money and improve your diet!

For more information on nutritional supplementation, or for questions related to specific supplements, please feel free to post a comment below!

Happy Monday!




Supplements 101: Magnesium (Athletes Take Note!)

22 03 2013


What is magnesium?

Magnesium is an essential mineral required by the body for maintaining normal muscle and nerve function, keeping a healthy immune system, maintaining heart rhythm, and building strong muscles and bones. Magnesium is also involved in at least 300 biochemical reactions in the body, including ATP production (energy!) and protein synthesis. (Athletes, are you listening?) Although magnesium deficiency is relatively rare, only about 1/3 of North Americans meet the Recommended Daily Amount (RDA). These low levels can lead to muscle spasms, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, anxiety disorders, osteoporosis, and cerebral infarction, and can worsen symptoms for problems like migraines and premenstrual syndrome (seriously, ladies, get your magnesium). Conversely, consuming too much magnesium typically causes diarrhea as the body attempts to excrete the excess. The current RDA for magnesium is about 400 mg, which does not seem hard to meet with a healthy diet, but the human digestive system only absorbs 20-50% of the magnesium we ingest. It is an incredibly important mineral for healthy human functioning.

What are the benefits of supplementing magnesium?

Aside from preventing the diseases and issues mentioned above, adequate magnesium levels are beneficial for the following reasons:

  • Increased energy and endurance
  • Increased, healthy metabolism
  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Improved immune function

Who should be supplementing with magnesium?

Well, anyone deficient in magnesium (roughly 2 of 3 people in the general population) can certainly benefit from magnesium supplementation, and it can greatly improve your quality of life. How to tell if you are deficient? Do you suffer from these symptoms?:

  • Magnesium can help.

    Magnesium can help.

    Constipation/irregular hard bowl movements (This is a dead giveaway; healthy people have 2 soft bowel movements daily.)

  • Fatigue/general lethargy
  • Hard time falling asleep/Poor quality of sleep
  • Cramps and muscle twitches
  • High stress levels
  • Obesity/Diabetes/Hypertension/Osteoporosis
  • For women, having severe premenstrual syndrome symptoms (extreme bloatedness, wild mood-swings, extreme irritability, etc.)

I am also willing to wager that you have low magnesium levels if you eat a lot of processed white flour and high-sugar products, have a low intake of green leafy vegetables, don’t eat many nuts, seeds or beans, drink alcohol on a regular basis,and/or have a low-protein diet. If you fall into this category, you are at a high risk for magnesium deficiency and almost certainly suffer from some of the symptoms listed above.

Athletes should take special notice, especially if they have any of the above symptoms. Due to the fact that magnesium is critical in protein synthesis and ATP production, athletes (especially those who train with weights or train for endurance sports) have a much higher magnesium requirement. Additionally, high-protein diets inhibit magnesium absorption, further compounding the problem and making magnesium requirements even higher for athletes. Magnesium is also essential for the detoxification of cortisol and increases insulin sensitivity, glucose homeostasis, insulin action and insulin secretion. It is arguably the most important mineral for athletic performance.

How much magnesium should we take?

As I mentioned above, the RDA is roughly 400 mg per day. I am not an expert on magnesium, nor have I ever taken a magnesium-specific supplement (I’ve made efforts to increase dietary magnesium and a few of my other supplements contain additional magnesium as well), but 400 mg seems low to me. As we all have unique bodies and diets, ingested magnesium will be handled differently by everyone. I would make two separate recommendations (after first increasing your whole food magnesium intake by making better food choices, of course):

General population: Up to an additional 400 mg daily. Start with 100 daily, then 200, etc. Slowly add it to your diet and see how it improves your symptoms. If you start having diarrhea, you’ve taken too much.

Athletes: Up to an additional 400-1000 mg daily. Nowhere on the internet could I find concrete evidence on how much magnesium should be supplemented for athletes. This is a topic that is currently being heavily investigated, but not enough research has been done on the topic. The bottom line is that we know athletes have a higher need and that athletic performance is compromised when magnesium levels are low. Competitive athletes should absolutely be supplementing with magnesium, and should take as much as their bodies can handle.

Additionally, it is essentially impossible to overdose on magnesium as the body is very good at getting rid of the excess quickly; worst case scenario is that you have to make a few extra trips to the bathroom.

I'm guessing that they're referring to transdermal...

I’m guessing that they’re referring to transdermal…

When should we take magnesium?

Here a some general guidelines for supplementing with magnesium:

  • Magnesium is best absorbed on an empty stomach
  • Vitamin C and calcium can increase magnesium absorption
  • Carbonated drinks, especially soft drinks, prevents magnesium absorption
  • Alcohol can cause you to excrete magnesium
  • High-fiber, protein and/or fat meals can inhibit magnesium absorption; again, magnesium is best to take on an empty stomach.
  • Magnesium is best absorbed in small, frequent doses; it is therefore advisable 100 mg doses a few times daily.

I recommend taking small doses between meals. Take your first dose first thing in the morning and your last dose right before going to bed. The smaller, more frequent the doses, the better your body will absorb the mineral.

How do I find a high-quality magnesium supplement?

There are two main ways to supplement magnesium: orally and transdermally (through the skin).

With oral supplements, magnesium chloride is the most absorbable (~50%) and magnesium oxide is the least (~4%). Magnesium oxide is the most commonly found ingredient in supplements, so you’ll probably have to do some searching before finding the best supplement. I will always recommend liquid or enteric-coated capsules over tablet form. Magnesium complexes and amino acid chelates can be as good or better than magnesium chloride, especially if you can find a supplement that contains multiple forms (faster results can be obtained when multiple forms are supplied). Acceptable forms include:

  • astronutrition_com-Nutricology-Magnesium-Chloride-Liquid---8-fl_oz-31Magnesium Ascorbate
  • Magnesium Citrate
  • Magnesium Fumarate
  • Magnesium Gluconate
  • Magnesium Lactate
  • Magnesium Malate
  • Magnesium Pidolate
  • Magnesium Glycinate
  • Magnesium Lysinate
  • Magnesium Orotate
  • Magnesium Taurate

** Avoid magnesium glutamate and magnesium aspartate, as they break down into glutamic acid and aspartic acid respectively, which without being bound to other amino acids become neurotoxic. Both glutamic acid  and aspartic acid are also components of aspartame, and you know how I feel about that…)

Transdermal magnesium should be delivered using magnesium chloride due to its stability, bio-availability and naturally occurring abundance. Magnesium chloride is the most soluble and absorbable magnesium and is derived in a natural state from seawater sources. Available in spray, lotion and bath salts (just don’t eat the bath salts). Transdermal supplementation does not have any adverse gastrointestinal side effects, and is therefore a preferable choice for many people.

For the best combination of convenience and bioavailability, I recommend a combination of whole foods containing magnesium, a transdermal magnesium chloride product for convenience and a dosage of oral magnesium chloride that does not produce side effects.

As always, look for well-reputed brands that haven’t had major product recalls.

BONUS: Vitamin D3 can help increase magnesium absorption, so take your oral magnesium supplement with your liquid vitamin D supplement, or spray on some magnesium oil and go play in the sun!

Other considerations

As always, consult your physician before supplementing with a new substance Magnesium supplementation is extremely safe, so there isn’t much else to consider!

For additional questions on nutritional supplementation, you know how to find me!


Supplements 101: Creatine

28 02 2013


What is creatine?

I could get really scientific here, but I’m going to try to keep this as simple as possible, while still explaining what happens in the body. Creatine is naturally produced in the human body from the breakdown of amino acids, half of which we create, half of which we get in our diet through animal meat (save for vegetarians, who have lower levels of stored creatine than non-vegetarians).  It is transported in the blood to supply energy to all cells in the body, primarily muscle (95%). Energy is made available to cells when adenosine triphosphate (ATP) is broken down into adenosine diphosphate (ADP) and a phosphate molecule (P). Creatine supplies energy by transporting ADP so that it can reform into ATP. It does this by interacting with an enzyme called creatine kinase (CK) (which is located on the body’s energy-producing organelles, mitochondria), taking a phosphate molecule from the mitochondria and releasing energy. Creatine then becomes creatine phosphate (CP) and in turn takes this extra phosphate to the area of work, re-interacts with CK, and releases the phosphate to join with another ADP molecule, creating an ATP molecule ready to release energy.

Long story short, creatine is the substance that efficiently keeps all our cells supplied with energy. Creatine is natural, helpful and very important.

What are the benefits of taking creatine?

Although creatine is mostly used for strength and mass gains, it has also been proven to be useful in other areas as well.

Before addressing the benefits, I’d like to touch on a commonly discussed question: Does supplementing creatine actually lead to strength and mass gains? The short answer is that yes, it does work- for most people. Unfortunately, creatine supplementation does not affect us all in the same way. Individual variables dictate the effect of the supplement, but the reasons that creatine works for some and not others is still up for debate. Research suggests that these “non-responders” either have very few type II muscle fibers, eat a lot of meat and already carry high levels of creatine, lack certain catalytic enzymes, or are simply not taking a high enough supplemental dose. With that in mind…

Creatine has shown to be beneficial in the following areas:

– Performance gains in anaerobic power movements (NOTE: this does not apply to aerobic exercise, and may even be a performance impediment in this case)

– Strength gains

– Mass gains (by increasing muscle protein synthesis and decreasing muscle protein breakdown)

– Improved body composition (some studies have shown increases in lean mass even in the absence of a resistance training program)

This photo is accurate.

This photo is accurate.

– Improved cognitive function and fluid intelligence (notably of vegetarians and vegans who have lower levels of creatine than meat eaters, as well as in the elderly)

– Increased muscle strength in people with muscular dystrophies, and potentially improved functional performance.

– Increased life span (creatine essentially allows our energy-producing mitochondria to work at a slower pace, producing less byproducts that can be harmful to cells)

When should we be taking creatine?

Some people think you should take creatine in small doses throughout the day. Some people think you should take it before, during or after working out. From what most research suggests, it doesn’t necessarily matter when you take it, as long as you put it in your body. The one variable to consider is that ingesting carbohydrates can increase the retention of creatine levels within muscle, so if you take creatine with carbs, you’ll get more bang for your buck.  With this in mind, I would say that the best time to take creatine is immediately following a workout, with your 3:1/4:1 carb:protein shake.

NOTE: Avoid taking creatine with caffeine. The interaction between the two substances has shown to prevent a rise in intracellular creatine levels. So don’t take creatine in the morning if you’re a coffee drinker.

How much creatine should we consume?

This is another topic that is up for debate. General recommendations are to have a loading phase of about a week where roughly 20 g (arbitrary supraphysiological number determined years ago) is taken daily, followed by daily consumption of 2-3 g for the rest of time. However, some do not believe that this protocol is optimal. The human body produces 2 g of creatine daily (1 g through diet, 1 g through synthesis), and an average person burns through roughly 2 g daily. We know that the body can only store a certain amount of creatine; average humans carry roughly 1 g per pound of lean muscle and we can optimally stuff in about 1.5 g per pound of lean muscle (therefore the more lean muscle mass you have, the more creatine your body can store). If we think about how much we create/consume daily (2 g) and the amount we can actually store (1-1.5 g per pound of lean muscle, which can be roughly 50 g in an average male), supplementing at 2-3 g per day doesn’t seem like it will give much of a creatine boost (even if you do supplement at 20 g daily for a week). Logically, it would seem that we could benefit from much higher dosages of creatine (some literature suggests supplementing with 20 g every day).

NOTE: For what it’s worth, I took creatine on a daily basis for 5-6 years, supplementing at about 5 g daily. I did it without thinking, because studies told me that it would help me be big and strong. I honestly don’t recall seeing huge improvements in my strength when I began supplementing. Last year I stopped taking creatine and I saw absolutely no change in my physique or strength. For the past year I’ve been creatine-free, I’ve dialed-in my nutrition and both my physique and strength are better than ever. In hindsight, I don’t think I was supplementing with a high enough dose.

Don't be this guy.

Don’t be this guy.

Who should be taking creatine?

Most people can derive some sort of benefit from supplementing with creatine. Power, strength, and figure athletes should certainly be supplementing. Vegans and vegetarians should be supplementing. The elderly should be supplementing. If you want your cells, both physical and cognitive, to fire on all cylinders, you should consider supplementation. Much like fish oil and vitamin D, creatine offers many positive benefits without any risks. It is also a very affordable supplement, which is nice. As always, consult with a physician before beginning to supplement with any new substance.

How do I find a high-quality creatine supplement?

Creatine monohydrate is the supplement you are looking for. In your search you will likely also come across creatine ethylester and Kre-Alkalyn, but don’t waste your time. In contrast to the others, creatine monohydrate is the supplement used in nearly every clinical study. It is one of the most stable and neutral forms of creatine in solution (and creatine comes in powder form, so you have to mix it with liquid), it is not degraded into harmful creatinine during normal digestion, and 99 percent is either absorbed by muscle tissue or excreted through sweat or urine. It is also typically the cheapest form you will come across.

As always, look for well-reputed brands that haven’t had major product recalls, and I would advise buying pure creatine monohydrate instead of pre-manufactured “stacks” combining creatine with other “helpful” substances. Take control over what you are putting into your body and stick to the simple stuff that works.

Other considerations

People with with kidney disease should avoid use of creatine, for risk of compounding the problem. Reports of damage to healthy kidneys by creatine supplementation have been scientifically refuted.

Long-term oral intake of 3 g pure creatine per day has shown to be risk-free. Additional research has shown that oral creatine supplementation at a rate of 5 to 20 grams per day appears to be very safe and largely devoid of adverse side-effects, while at the same time effectively improving the physiological response to resistance exercise, increasing the maximal force production of muscles in both men and women. A meta analysis performed in 2008 found that creatine treatment resulted in no abnormal renal, hepatic, cardiac or muscle function.

There is a lot more science to discuss, but I’m going to leave it at that! For additional questions on creatine supplementation, don’t hesitate to post a comment below or contact me personally! Also, after writing this article, I think I may begin to re-supplement with creatine at a higher dose (15-20 g daily). If I do so, it will be a very controlled experiment and I will follow-up on this post with my results.


Supplements 101: Vitamin D

23 02 2013
Of course I used this picture.

Of course I used this picture.

What is Vitamin D?

Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin that exists in various forms. There is an animal form (vitamin D3 aka cholecalciferol) and a plant form (vitamin D2 aka ergocalciferol). Vitamin D2 and D3 are not biologically active; they must be modified in the body to have any effect. Once in the body, the active form of vitamin D is a hormone is known as 1,25-dihydroxyvitamin D3 aka calcitriol.

Foods that contain vitamin D are extremely rare. It is found in only fish, cod liver oil, mushrooms, liver and eggs, as well as fortified-foods like milk and cereal, but never in substantial amounts (except in cod liver oil). Due to this, getting enough vitamin D from whole foods is virtually impossible.

Natural sunlight is our fuel for creating vitamin D. Spending 20 minutes riding your bike outside in the summer sun produces 100 times more vitamin D than you need to survive. Activated vitamin D has a serum half-life of 2-3 weeks and its production in the skin is limited to 10,000-20,000 IU each day; once serum levels reach 150 nmol/L, any excess is inactivated, so the human body generates what it can use and destroys the rest to prevent us from overdose.

What are the benefits of taking a Vitamin D supplement?

Almost every tissue and cell in our body has a vitamin D receptor. Without enough activated vitamin D in the body, dietary calcium cannot be absorbed. Calcium is essential for the signaling between brain cells and the development of bone and teeth; it is very important.

Studies also reveal that low vitamin D levels in the body are associated with:

  • Increased loss of muscle strength and mass as we age
  • Lower levels of immunity
  • Higher blood pressure
  • The development of neurological disorders
  • The development of diabetes

An even more recent study also suggested that vitamin D can help prevent cancer. The researchers write: “Raising the minimum year-around serum 25(OH)D level to 40 to 60 ng/mL (100–150 nmol/L) would prevent approximately 58,000 new cases of breast cancer and 49,000 new cases of colorectal cancer each year, and three-fourths of deaths from these diseases in the United States and Canada… Such intakes also are expected to reduce case-fatality rates of patients who have breast, colorectal, or prostate cancer by half. There are no unreasonable risks from intake of 2000 IU per day of vitamin D3 , or from a population serum 25(OH)D level of 40 to 60 ng/mL.”

In summary, we need vitamin D for our brains to work properly, for our bodies to properly maintain themselves and it also acts as a powerful defender to chronic disease.

Vitamin-D3-Weight-LossWhen should we take a Vitamin D supplement?

A vitamin D supplement should be taken once daily, at any time.

How much Vitamin D should we consume?

Our circulating 25-hydroxyvitamin D [25(OH)D] concentration lets us know how much vitamin D has been produced in our body from sun, food and supplements. Its half-life is 15 days. The most advantageous serum concentrations of 25(OH)D seem to begin at 75 nmol/L, with the optimal levels being between 90 and 100 nmol/L. Most people will be unable to reach these levels with an intake between 200 and 600 IU of vitamin D. An intake of greater than or equal to about 1000 IU may be needed for most of the population.

For infants at northern latitudes, studies suggest that 200 IU vitamin D per day may not be enough to prevent vitamin D deficiency.  A recent study on women in Maine found that 800 IU of vitamin D per day was enough to reach and maintain adequate blood levels during the winter (for most of the women).

Blood level classifications for 25(OH)D:

  • Vitamin D intoxication: >/= 375 nmol/L
  • Preferred range: 75-100 nmol/L
  • Insufficient range: 50-75 nmol/L
  • Mild deficiency: 25-50 nmol/L
  • Moderate deficiency: 12.5-25 nmol/L
  • Severe deficiency: <12.5 nmol/L

The total requirement for vitamin D (sun and food) is about 4000 IU/day to keep 25(OH)D levels above and/or around 100 nmol/L. Treating deficiency can require more. To normalize stores, adults require 3000-5000 IU per day for 6 to 12 weeks. For those of us in Canada, here are the guidelines to follow:

From March – October:  15-30 minutes of mid-day sun (15 for those with lighter skin, 30 for darker) OR  4,000 IU supplemental vitamin D2 daily

From November – February: 4,000 IU supplemental vitamin D2 daily

Who should be taking a Vitamin D supplement?

As the recommendations indicate, a Vitamin D supplement is recommended for everyone during the winter when we take in no sunlight, and should also be taken on days in the summer months when you don’t get more than 20 minutes of direct sunlight. I take a 4,000 IU every morning in the winter. I get enough sun in the summer time so I don’t worry about supplementing until late October/November. If you think that you are vitamin D deficient, please consult your physician before beginning to supplement, as the risk of toxicity is possible (albeit extremely hard to achieve).

Despite the importance of vitamin D, it’s estimated that anywhere from 30% to 80% of the U.S. population is vitamin D deficient. It’s likely worse among people with darker skin living in northern zones, as their skin pigmentation screens out the relatively limited sunlight more effectively. If your skin is darker, consider more time in the sun.

Vitamin D levels can also be affected by age and body fat levels. As we age, our ability to make vitamin D is reduced by 75%. For postmenopausal women and older men, 25(OH)D concentrations of less than 30 to 80 nmol/L are associated with negative health outcomes. Furthermore, vitamin D can get trapped in body fat, leading to a 55% reduction in blood levels for those who are overweight or obese.

As indicated by the Canadian guidelines above, Vitamin D production via the sun also changes throughout the year depending on where you live. If you live north of Atlanta, GA, you will make zero vitamin D from the sunlight between November and March (for those of you that are geographically-constipated, that’s us Canada!). If you live below Atlanta, GA, you’ll be all right. It is possible to build some reserves of vitamin D, but these reserves won’t last longer than a few weeks.

** Bonus facts: Glass blocks virtually all UVB, preventing vitamin D from being made. Applying sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will decrease the amount of vitamin D made in the body by about 99%. In conclusion, you have to be outside, during the summer/south of Atlanta and without sunscreen in order to produce any vitamin D!

How do I find a high-quality Vitamin D supplement?

27931275Here are some things to look for when shopping for vitamin D:

– You want to take the supplement most like the form you make in your skin: vitamin D3, or cholecalciferol. This supplement is formed by extracting 7-dehydrocholesterol from lanolin (yes, like sheep’s wool).

NOTE: Some strict vegetarians may prefer D2 since it’s not derived from animals, but because it’s less potent, higher doses are needed to get the same effect as D3.

– Liquid is the best form to take (most readily available and absorbed by the body), followed by capsules (like liquid with a coating), followed by less pure tablets (which may not dissolve properly).

– Taking a multivitamin for the purposes of getting vitamin D is a poor idea because by the time you take enough pills to reach your recommended dose, you will already have a toxic dose of other vitamins; particularly vitamin A.

– Try to pick a reputable brand that hasn’t had any of their products recalled; good companies also test all raw materials individually for carcinogens like arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury.

Other considerations

There are few adverse effects with vitamin D supplementation- it is very safe to supplement. Intakes of up to 10,000 IU per day have not been associated with adverse effects. If you take more than 10,000 IU per day of vitamin D orally for more than 6 months, you run the unnecessary risk of becoming vitamin D toxic. Taking 50 or more times the recommended daily allowance (RDA) per day for several months can cause toxicity and a high calcium level in the blood (hypercalcemia). This can lead to calcium deposits in the organs of the body. Like with most things, take only what you need and don’t be an idiot.

That’s it and that’s all! For additional questions on vitamin D supplementation, don’t hesitate to post a comment below or contact me personally!


Supplements 101: Fish Oil

20 02 2013


What is fish oil?

Fish oil (otherwise known as oil that comes from fish) is rich in two omega-3 essential fatty acids: docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Much like omega-6 fatty acids, we cannot make omega-3 in our bodies, so we need to get them from our diet.

To refresh your memory (you’ve obviously already read my post on dietary fat), it is very easy for us to get omega-6 fatty acids in our diets as these are found in plant oils and corn-fed factory-raised animals (ie, most of the meat consumed but the average North American). Unfortunately, it is much more difficult for us to get omega-3 fats from dietary sources as we eat a lot more processed foods and a lot less wild game and plants than we did centuries ago. We evolved with an omega fat ratio of about 1:1; now it is closer to 1:20, in favour of the inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. Due to the fact that omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids compete with each other for space in cell membranes, and also for the attention of enzymes, this ratio matters far more than the absolute amount of omega fatty acid consumption.

NOTE: Eating a healthy diet of whole foods is more important than supplementation, but many whole fish sources are contaminated with environmental pollutions and offer lower-quality omega-3 fatty acids. Eating fish once or twice a week is still a good idea, but additional fish oil supplementation is recommended.

What are the benefits of taking fish oil?

DHA and EPA are very important for overall health, improving the functionality of the cardiovascular and nervous systems, as well as the brain. Omega-3 fatty acids have also shown to improve overall immune health. Low DHA consumption has been associated with memory loss, lack of concentrating, Alzheimer’s disease and other mood disorders.

Fish oil can help.

Fish oil can help.

Essential fatty acids also have an integral role in promoting cell health. Cell membranes in the human body are composed of a semi-permeable layer of fat (meaning it allows certain things into the cell but not others). If the ratio of omega-3 to other fatty acids is skewed in the direction of trans and saturated fats, the fluidity of cell membranes will be compromised. Neurochemicals like serotonin (which makes us happy) will therefore have a much more difficult time being properly transmitted. Sad face.

Cells also require omega-3 fats for optimal repair and regeneration (a continual and constant process in the human body), and DHA and EPA have also shown to increase metabolism by raising the levels of enzymes that boost calorie-burning ability and also to increase the insulin sensitivity of muscle cells (theoretically allowing the body to divert more nutrients to muscle tissue instead of fat cells, which also decrease in the presence of omega-3 fatty acids).

When should we be taking fish oil?

Fish oil can be taken in either liquid or capsule form. I prefer capsules, because the taste of the liquid can be rather overpowering- although there are some liquids on the market that taste less offensive than others.

The timing of when to take fish oils is irrelevant. Some people find it easiest to take a few capsules with every meal. I prefer to take mine exclusively after work, as I’ve found that they can sometimes leave a bit of a fishy smell on my breath.

How much fish oil should we consume?

It appears that even 1 g per day can be beneficial, but the generally recommended amount is 2-3 g per day- this is the amount I would recommend to the average person. However, I try to get 5-10 g daily and my friends over at Precision Nutrition recommend aiming for 6-12 g daily (about 3-6 grams of both EPA + DHA). These recommendations are more in line with people who are obese or severely overweight, or for people who are extremely active and put more strain on their body than most people (ie, athletes).

NOTE: Until quite recently I thought that 1 fish oil capsule (which contains 1 g of oil) equated to 1 g of EPA + DHA. This is incorrect. 1 capsule actually contains 180 mg of EPA and 120 g of DHA, or 300 mg of active omega-3 fish oil per capsule- which is standard. I was therefore only getting 1-3 g of fish oil per day until I made this realization. I am now taking strides to consume 20+ capsules per day to try to get the dosage I desire. 

The only time Arnold has ever been wrong.

The only time Arnold has ever been wrong.

Who should be taking a fish oil supplement?

Fish oil is one of only a handful of supplements that can literally benefit everyone. Again, we all typically consume too much trans fat, saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids, so taking fish oil will help us balance out our dietary fat ratio and lead to an improvement in overall health, both physical and mental. I honestly recommend fish oil supplementation to everyone.

Aside from the benefit to the general population:

– People with coronary heart disease can benefit greatly from taking a fish oil supplement (please first consult your physician, especially if you are already taking heart medication)

– Athletes can benefit from the advantages in body composition and muscle synthesis provided by fish oil

– People suffering from arthritis should be taking fish oil for joint lubrication

How do I find a high-quality fish oil?

Here are some things to look for when shopping for fish oil:

– Make sure the oil comes from small-fish-based formulations (e.g. herring, mackerel). Small fish are lower on the food chain and less likely to accumulate environmental toxins. Another option is to choose krill oil or algae oil (these are the true source of omega-3, as they make up the diet of these small fish).

– Add up the amounts of EPA & DHA listed on the back of the product and make sure the total is at least 300 mg per 1000 mg capsule (30%)

– Choose a supplement company that doesn’t contribute directly to the depletion of fish (ie, they use primarily fish discards).

Other considerations

Find a liquid fish oil supplement that you can tolerate the taste of, otherwise you won’t use it. Capsules are another way to go, but you have to be prepared to take 10+ capsules a day to get the recommended dosage (or 20+ if you want the dose recommended by some nutrition experts).

Fish oil is one of the safest supplements on the market (people on blood-thinning medications should consult with a physician before use; fish oil toxicity can lead to severe bleeding).

You can also improve your omega-3:omega-6 ratio by doing the following:

– Avoid trans fats; they have nothing but detrimental effects on the body and can interfere with EPA & DHA, compromising cellular function and overall health.

– Use fewer omega-6 rich vegetable oils, which will negatively alter your fatty acid ratio.

– Eat less corn-fed factory-raised animals (buy local!)

That’s it and that’s all! For additional questions on omega-3 fish oil supplementation, don’t hesitate to post a comment below or contact me personally!


Nutritional Supplementation: An Introduction

16 02 2013

tumblr_mbcp4n8Y7s1red8aeo1_500I’m going to start a small series on supplements, as there are a million different pills out there that claim to be beneficial to health and/or performance. I have tried many supplements in the past decade, but have now tapered things back for a variety of reasons.

Do I believe in supplements? Absolutely. In this day and age I believe it is incredibly hard to get all the nutrients, vitamins and minerals we need through eating whole foods. The problem is that supplementation is too often associated with people obsessed with health and fitness, but this is simply not the case. The average person can benefit greatly from the supplementation of certain vitamins and minerals, but this average person simple doesn’t know where to look, or what to look for. I hope to make this easier in the coming weeks by laying it all for my readers.

Ultimately, there are two types of nutritional supplementation: essential nutrients and nonessential nutrients.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty, I’d just like to say my piece on supplements. Firstly, it is 100% possible to go through life without ever taking a supplement. The human body is an amazing thing and can adapt if certain essential nutrients are missing from time to time. However, I have realized over time that I feel a lot better when I am eating right and ensuring that I have all the essential nutrients covered in my diet on a daily basis.  Despite what we may think, malnutrition has far from been eliminated in North America. Half of all hospitalized patients in urban areas show signs of malnutrition. Anywhere between 40 and 80% of nursing home patients are malnourished. Finally even amongst healthy active and athletic populations, vitamin and mineral deficiencies run rampant and clinical signs of malnutrition continue to present themselves.  Life is short, so I’m going to make sure my quality of life is as high as possible every day- taking the right supplements gives me the chance to do so.

Essential Nutrients

These are nutrients present in food that we need for normal physiological functioning; our bodies cannot produce these nutrients.  Essential nutrients include:

– Certain proteins/amino acids

Essential fatty acids

– Vitamins

– Minerals

– Phytochemicals/phytonutrients from plants

By definition, essential nutrient supplementation is far more important that nonessential nutrient supplementation. However, prior to supplementing, efforts should be made to improve whole-food intake as a first line of defense.  Only after optimizing your whole-food diet, given the restrictions of your unique lifestyle and schedule, should you consider adding a supplement to your diet. These dietary additions are called supplements for a reason: they are only intended to supplement a healthy diet, they are not intended to comprise a large part of your essential nutrient intake!

Many of you reading this post will not have a dire need for daily essential nutrient supplementation. However, we all have busy days and our nutrition can suffer as a result. Most people can definitely benefit from part-time supplementation, which is why I recommend that households have supplements for when they are needed. Supplemental protein, greens powder, a multivitamin/multimineral supplement and fish oil caps are great products to have in the cupboard for hectic days or travel. For special populations like vegans and vegetarians, the scope of supplements to keep in stock can also be a bit more extensive.

Lesson 1: Don't stealLesson 2: Know what you're putting in your body

Lesson 1: Don’t steal
Lesson 2: Know what you’re putting in your body

Nonessential Nutrients

Most supplements on the market fall into this category. These are supplements that either the body has the capacity to create or that are not needed for normal physiological functioning.  Some of the most popular nonessential supplements include: caffeine, creatine, beta alanine, glutamine, tyrosine and all those fancy fat-burners you see on the market. At one point or another I have supplemented each of these products, but now only supplement caffeine pre-workout.  I’m not saying that these other supplements should be ignored, because they absolutely shouldn’t be, but I simply didn’t reap the purported benefits of these supplements like others do- and that’s the thing about nonessential supplementation: our bodies are unique and nobody will react the same to a given supplement. The key is to understand what physiological system you are intending to enhance, try a supplement that targets this area, and have a quantitative way to measure the response of your body.

Nonessential supplements are typically marketed far more effectively than are essential supplements and promise consumers all sorts of benefits.  Whenever you find yourself thinking about adding a supplement to your diet, don’t focus on the marketing promises but instead investigate the mechanisms by which the supplement works. If the supplement does target the proper physiological system and research has shown that people can benefit from the supplement, don’t be afraid to give it a shot- but again, make sure you have a way of measuring this benefit.

Supplement Risks

Supplements sold in Canada are safer for the public than in other countries, like our neighbours to the south.  Before a supplement hits the shelves in Canada, the product must first be cleared by the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) ensuring that the manufacturer has a proper license and follows good manufacturing practices (GMPs), that there is thorough adverse event reporting, that clinical trials support claims and safety and that standard labeling conventions are used.

** Special note for athletes: the NHPD does not ensure that all supplements are free of banned substances. If you are concerned that a supplement may contain a banned ingredient, you can check at


It is also prudent to double-check how supplements interact with any medications/drugs that you may be taking. Merck offers a Manual of Medical Information online and this reference can be found at

Other good websites to use when checking the validity/safety of supplements include:

In summary, prior to supplementing you should make sure that your you whole-food diet is already optimized for your lifestyle and that you know how the proposed supplement is intended to affect your body. Do your homework, determine your needs and do what’s best for you!

As mentioned, I’m going to write a few pieces over the next weeks detailing specific supplements and their applications, but if there is a supplement that you would like me to discuss, please don’t hesitate to contact me and I’ll make sure to get you the information you are looking for!

Enjoy your long weekend!


Why almost everyone should be taking a protein supplement

10 01 2013

66443_479176188786292_1055220510_nI was recently asked by a vegetarian friend of mine if I thought she should be taking a protein supplement. She mentioned that she didn’t think she was getting enough protein in her diet; that alone was a giveaway that she almost certainly needed supplementation. The majority of my male friends supplement protein, but I know very few women who have taken this step. There is unfortunately an ignorant stigma around protein, but we need to overlook this and concentrate on the facts.

What is protein and why is it important?

Protein is composed of amino acids. There are 12 non-essential amino acids (the human body has the ability to make these) and 8 essential amino acids, those that we must get from our diets. Why is protein so important? These amino acids are responsible for nearly every metabolic activity and compose our tissue structure (contractile proteins and fibrous proteins), non-steroid hormones, enzymes, immune chemicals (immunoglobulins and antibodies), transport proteins, and much more. Getting adequate protein from our diets is not simply important for guys that lift weights- protein is the macronutrient that keeps us all functioning on a daily basis. Without adequate protein in the diet, things like enzymes and structural proteins are cannibalized, and vital human functions begin to fail.

Are all proteins created equal?

The answer is no. The Food and Agricultural Organization/World Health Organization (FAO/WHO) uses the measurement of Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS) to determine protein quality in the food we eat. Take a look at the chart below:


You’ll notice that animal proteins rank highest on the spectrum, while plant proteins rank lower. Women tend to consume less animal protein than men, and vegetarians don’t consume any animal protein at all; based on the chart above, you can see why vegetarians have a difficult time getting enough protein in their diets, and why protein supplementation should definitely be considered by more women, and certainly by vegetarians and vegans (or better yet, why all people should simply eat a balanced diet including both animal and plant proteins…)

How much protein do we need?

The recommended minimum amount of protein for sedentary (inactive) adults is 0.7g per kg of body weight. Please note: this is the minimum amount (to prevent deficiency and vital protein cannibalism) for an inactive person. As I stated above, amino acids are vital to our health and function, so why limit ourselves in any way?  Recent research has shown that higher levels of protein in the diet can be vital to immune function (think health), metabolism (think fat-burning), satiety, weight management and overall performance. Due to this, many experts recommend protein levels that meet or exceed 1g per pound of body weight for both men and women.  If weight-training or another type of high-intensity exercise is part of your lifestyle, don’t be afraid to consume upwards of 1.5g of protein per pound of body weight.

What about my kidneys?!?

Fact: High-protein diets do not harm kidneys.

Fact: High-protein diets will not turn women into men.

Fact: High-protein diets do not lead to calcium loss.

Fact: High-protein diets have not been shown to have any negative health effects.

Do you require additional supplementation?

Before running out and buying a tub of whey protein, take an honest look at your diet. If you are getting enough protein from whole foods, supplementation is unnecessary- and you’re in great shape because lean, whole food options have a more complete micronutrient profile (think vitamins and minerals) and have a slower absorption rate than supplements. However, if you can’t seem to get enough protein from food sources, protein powder will be a great addition to your diet. Even if your protein intake is borderline, keeping a protein supplement in the house is highly recommended- that way, you can supplement when you need it and concentrate on getting enough whole food protein when you have the time.

A few final comments

If you now realize that you need more protein in your diet, make sure you decrease your carbohydrate intake as you increase your protein intake. Protein has the same number of calories per gram as carbohydrate, so if you are already at a neutral calorie balance (not gaining or losing weight), make sure you adjust your carbohydrate levels accordingly. Secondly, don’t think of protein supplementation as simply protein shakes. There are all sorts of protein powders (whey, egg, hemp, etc) and they can be all used in cooking and baking, and can also be mixed in with things like yogurt and sprinkled on berries and chopped fruit. Get creative- where there’s a will, there’s a way!

For more information on protein supplementation and if it’s right for you, don’t hesitate to drop me a line.

Happy Hump Day!