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!