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Should You Take Supplements?

'Sup, supplements? Photo by Mary Reed.

You’ve honed your training regimen and you closely watch your diet. Now, what about dietary supplements – vitamins, minerals and amino acids? Supplements are unregulated, so it falls on you to learn about them; don’t simply ask friends and the person at the health food store about what you should take.

“I am very pro-food,” says registered dietitian Lisa Cicciarello Andrews of Cincinnati’s Sound Bites Nutrition, meaning: get your nutrients from your diet, not dietary supplements. Lisa says you don’t really want more nutrients than necessary in your diet. “The risk of toxicity is really a risk,” she warns. For example, studies have shown popular supplements like folic acid and beta carotene to be too much of a good thing, actually increasing risks for some diseases.

Here’s the lowdown on where to start – and non-starters – when it comes to dietary supplements:

Multivitamins. “In general, probably a multivitamin – an age- and sex-appropriate multivitamin – is a good place to start,” Lisa says. This means if you’re a woman, taking a women’s multivitamin will give you the iron you need, and children should be taking children’s vitamins with lower amounts of vitamins and minerals. Look for a multivitamin with 100 percent (not more) of the recommended daily allowances (RDA).

Iron. “Female athletes are at more of a risk for iron deficiency than non-athletic women,” Lisa says. Athletic training raises the demand for red blood cell production and iron in the blood. Heavy sweating, menstruation and dieting all decrease iron levels as well. Women athletes can eat two to three modest servings of red meat a week and should make sure their multivitamin has 18 milligrams of iron – the RDA.

Calcium and Vitamin D. Calcium, which is important in keeping your bones strong when you tumble ass-over-handlebars, needs vitamin D to be properly absorbed. Most outdoors people get plenty of vitamin D from the sun but still need the calcium from dairy and dark leafy greens. If your diet contains these plus that multivitamin, you shouldn’t need additional calcium or vitamin D.

B vitamins. Some people – vegetarians and vegans especially – have restricted diets that might leave them lacking in calcium and iron plus B vitamins. Animal foods – meat, milk and eggs – are the only natural source of vitamin B12. Vegans need to supplement their diets with foods fortified with B12. Vegans also need to be careful about getting enough calcium and vitamin D (see above).

Fish oil. For athletes, Lisa says, fish oil supplements are a good idea – they have anti-inflammatory properties, have been shown to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and provide omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids. These essential fatty acids are often lacking in the modern American diet, which tends to include highly processed foods and lack much fish. Try Barlean’s brand refrigerated fish oil gel capsules to avoid fishy-tasting burps.

Sports drinks. Designed for extreme athletes and marketed to the general public, sports drinks don’t provide anything more than drinking water and eating food provide. If you’re trying to lose weight, sports drinks mostly just give you extra calories.

Weight loss supplements. Avoid these like the plague, Lisa says, and once again rely on proper diet and exercise. (Did you really need a professional to tell you that?) She points out that often weight loss supplements contain diuretics, which simply flush water out of your system, or even prescription medications at lower dosages.