“People always ask me what supplements I take, but really I wish they’d ask me what food I eat.” – Dr. Chris Mohr
A while back, Galya attended the Perform Better Functional Training Summit. I couldn’t attend, but I lived vicariously through text messages, Facebook posts, and the tweets of the various fitness professionals both presenting AND attending.
On the final day, traffic was light, so I arrived to pickup Galya a little bit early, catching the last few minutes of of the Expert Panel/Q&A. My favorite line came from Dr. Chris Mohr, who was asked what important questions people failed to ask him. I’m paraphrasing, although I did write it down, so forgive me if I missed a word, Dr. Mohr – “People always ask me what supplements I take, but really I wish they’d ask me what food I eat.”
I’m asked what supplements I take all the time, and I’m sure most trainers, coaches, and nutritionists are, too. There are several problems with this question…
Not so good: “What supplements do you take?”
Everybody is different; from genetics, to health history, to goals, to body weight, to level of body fat, age, sex, etc., etc…
Knowing what I take (or what Galya, Mark Sisson, or Dr. Mohr takes) is of little value to you, especially when you don’t known why. Just consider the word “supplement” for a second. A dietary supplement’s goal is the make up for something that we aren’t getting in our diet, right?
Supplements aren’t magic – Supplements can bring up deficiencies, but they can’t erase dietary indiscretions, like a diet that has cheesecake as the base of its pyramid. Until you know more, the answer to this question is meaningless.
Better: “What supplements do you recommend?”
This a little different, but still not great. I do recommend several supplements to many people, but it’s not 100% the same recommendation for everyone.
Fish oil – In general, most people can benefit from fish oil, assuming they aren’t eating a lot of fatty fish (salmon, sardines, herring). There are benefits to fatty fish that aren’t covered by fish oil; fish oil doesn’t fix everything, but it’s a start.
Multivitamin – Most of us don’t eat enough vegetables or high quality meat, fowl, and fish. As a result, most of us don’t get enough vitamins and minerals from our diets, so this can help to fill in the gaps.
Best: “What foods do you eat?”
This is a great question, because it sets the stage or establishes a baseline for an ongoing conversation. What a person eats on a regular basis is more important to know than what supplements they take.
First, you can see if you two are even on the same page; if he or she starts the day with low fat foods and egg whites, you’ll know to find another source for your information…
Second, our bodies are setup to absorb and digest nutrients from dietary sources (aka FOOD!). Getting your nutrition primarily from your food is preferential to eating in a less nutritious manner and filling in the gaps with pills, powders, and drinks.
Third, many ailments (like autoimmune conditions, joint pain, migraines, GERD, etc.) are better treated by focusing on NOT eating the foods that are problematic, first. Only after you’ve eliminated the items that are thought to be a big issue should you look to add a supplement to attack that same problem. One example is a client who asked about cinnamon capsules to help with blood sugar control, yet still ate meals filled to the brim with sugars and carbs.
Four, eating healthy foods in the proper amounts can eliminate the need for many supplements and pills, even things like fish oil and vitamins.
I eat 2-3 cans of sardines a week, and hardly take any fish oil. Studies have shown that some of the most important elements of fish oil (EPA & DHA) are absorbed better from whole fish than from a supplement, so even if you think you’re taking less omega-3, you’re actually getting more. Plus, fish just has so many ‘good for you’ aspects, in addition to better absorption of omega-3s. Cool, right?
People often tell vitamin poppers that they are just making expensive urine, and sometimes you can actually see the color of your pee change! Yet, no one laughs at you for eating a lot of veggies, which is getting vitamins from the source! I’m not saying not to take the vitamins; it can’t really hurt to pop that multi, but to give those vitamin pills a better chance, always take them with food, ok?
So, what do I eat?
The base of my personal food pyramid starts with vegetables and quality protein sources, and goes up from there.
Veggies – more than the 5 recommended servings, too. Galya and I measured them before, and we tend to each get 4-5 servings per meal! We eat a mixture of raw and cooked veggies every day.
Protein – whole eggs, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fish, plain yogurt, etc
Fats – coconut, animal fats, some nuts and seeds, olive oil
Fruit – I don’t eat a lot of it, but I do eat some each week.
Starches – roots, tubers, bananas and plantains, and smaller amounts of rice and corn tortillas
What do I minimize or avoid?
Vegetable oils – Soybean oil, corn oil, ‘vegetable’ oil, canola oil, most nut and seed oils are in too many processed and packaged foods to track, and have caused more health issues than they were once thought to prevent. I don’t have these fats at home, and I keep them to a minimum when I’m out.
Sugary foods – I have the occasional dessert, and the cravings have gotten better over the years. Regular, large doses of sugar simply aren’t good for us.
Starchy foods – I don’t crave them as much, either. I view breads, beans, grains, and things like this as barriers to having more of the foods that I really want. Calorie per calorie, these foods don’t stand up to the nutrition in non-starchy foods. They are optional, although many people simply can’t take wheat and legumes in their diets, despite the government (USDA) proclaiming them to be healthy for all.
Drinks with calories – Yes, even milk and juice are minimized around here. It’s not that milk is inherently bad, but most people don’t need it. Juice, despite the marketing, is mostly sugar, and lots of it. You can easily slurp down 400 calories of
sugar juice from a bottle, but go and try to eat 400 calories of apples. Bottom line – People who are dieting tend to not be ‘filled up’ by these drinks, so they drink the calories and are still hungry. Too much sugar, too many calories, not enough nutrition or satisfaction. Not a good situation.
For a good list, check out our Good Guys, Bad Guys post.
“Why isn’t ____ on your list?”
To be frank, I take ____, but that doesn’t mean that you should.
There are a lot of great supplements out there, but as supplements, they should be taken to supplement a hole in your diet, and only after dietary changes have been tried first.
Supplements like vitamin d3, magnesium, fermented cod liver oil, protein powder, turmeric, kombucha, cinnamon, etc. have tremendous value to many people, zero value to some, and can have health and weight consequences to others. No list is universal.
I have used protein powder in the past, but I also found that it was not satiating, so I had to eat solid food an hour after a protein shake. Not good for a diet, but good for someone who’s trying to gain weight.
I have used D3 before, but my blood levels of vitamin d were low, I didn’t get outside enough, and when I did, I was covered up from head to toe.
The list of quality supplements that you could take is long, and before you start popping pills and blending powders, ask yourself these questions:
- Is your diet is in order? This is key.
- Do you have a deficiency that can be truly helped by a supplement?
- Are you trusting the marketing of the supplement over the science behind it?
- Is the supplement safe?
- Is it cost effective compared to real food?
- Is its convenience enough to justify the potential “lesser” quality of its nutrition?
Supplements aren’t magic, and simply can’t make up what’s lacking in a bad diet. In addition, supplements can’t erase damage from too much overindulging. Can they help? Sure, but they aren’t the magic that the marketeers would like you to believe. Food first, supplements later.