Introduction to How to Choose a Supplement
If you’re wondering how to choose a supplement, you’re not alone. The global market for dietary supplements is valued at over 151.9 billion (USD, 2021). This is obviously a huge business, however, not all supplements are created equal. Some supplements are excellent and others effectively useless. The sheer variety on offer is seemingly limitless. So, how to choose the best ones? Here, we outline our 5 key questions to ask when choosing the best supplement for you. They are:
- Do I need it?
- Is this the most bioavailable form?
- Is the dosage right for my needs?
- Are the ingredients good quality?
- If it’s a blend, do the ingredients complement or compete?
We also briefly look at a couple of other aspects which can make the choice easier.
Do I need a supplement?
Most of the nutrition the body needs, we can get from a healthy, balanced diet. The exception is Vitamin D, some comes from food but the majority forms from sunlight on skin. During autumn and winter, the sun isn’t strong enough for us to make Vitamin D (in the UK) and we are unlikely to get enough from food. So, the NHS recommends a Vitamin D supplement during autumn and winter. Those who are housebound should discuss with their GP whether they need a year-round Vitamin D supplement.
Pregnant women, those on restricted diets, children under 5, and those with a diagnosed deficiency may also need supplements. For further information, see this NHS page or speak to your GP. If you feel you could benefit from a supplement, or your GP instructs you to take one, read on to see what you need to consider when choosing.
Is this the most bioavailable form?
Many supplements come in different chemical forms. This is particularly true of minerals. Which form is right for you will depend upon why you need it. It’s important that the form is also highly bioavailable (meaning it’s absorbed well by the body) otherwise you won’t get the benefit.
For example, Magnesium comes in more beneficial forms when it is chelated (joined with a carrier) such as: citrate, taurate, malate, glycinate, chloride, carbonate. And less beneficial ones: sulphate, glutamate and aspartate. Magnesium taurate is best for people with cardiovascular issues as it prevents arrhythmias and damage caused by heart attacks. Magnesium carbonate turns into magnesium chloride when it mixes with the hydrochloric acid in our stomachs, so it’s useful for those with acid reflux and indigestion. The most common form available in pharmacies is magnesium oxide, but it is non-chelated and has poor bioavailability (absorption) compared to those listed above.
Do research to ensure you know which form is best for you, or ask for advice from your pharmacist.
Is the dosage right for my needs?
First, you need to know how much of each vitamin or mineral you need. Check with your GP if you receive advice to supplement, or look at the tables in Public Health England Dietary Recommendations. Tables 4 and 6 show the amount of vitamins and minerals needed by adult men and women.
How much of each vitamin, mineral or other active ingredient a supplement contains is given on the packaging. The types of units can vary, but there are 3 main types:
- Milligrams (a milligram is 1 thousandth of a gram) usually appear as mg.
- Micrograms (a microgram is 1 millionth of a gram, 1,000 micrograms is equal to 1 milligram) usually as μg or mcg.
- International Units, typically given for vitamins A, D and E, usually appear as IU. (the conversion of milligrams (mg) and micrograms (μg) into IU depends on the type of vitamin).
For some supplements you might need to take more than one tablet or capsule per day. If you’re needing to take a large number to meet your required dose, check if a high strength version is available. But, more isn’t necessarily better as it’s possible to experience serious adverse reactions from taking too much of a supplement. If you are supplementing because of a GP diagnosed deficiency, your GP should re-check your levels after you’ve been supplementing for a while. This ensures the supplement is working and the dose is appropriate.
Are the ingredients good quality?
Spotting a quality supplement can sometimes take a bit of practise. Often, regular use leads to finding favourite brands. Here are some tips on spotting the better quality supplements:
- Read the ingredients: are there things in there you don’t recognise? Low quality supplements often contain lots of additives (some can even block your body from absorbing the active ingredient!).
- Check the company website for details of their sourcing and manufacturing processes. If the brand doesn’t have a website or their website is not transparent that could be a red flag. The best brands will have nutritionists or pharmacologists advising on sources, forms and blends.
- Is it too cheap to be good? Price isn’t always the best indicator of quality, but it’s worth knowing what a typical price is for a similar quantity and strength of that supplement. If it’s comparatively cheap it’s likely reflected in the quality of the ingredients.
On this blog I’ve reviewed some of my favourite supplements from brands I trust. This includes: Unbeelievable Health’s blends for Sleep Support and Immune Formula, Better You’s oral iron spray, and probiotics from Cytoplan and Bioglan.
If it’s a blend, do the ingredients complement or compete?
A daily multivitamin seems like the perfect solution. One quick, easy pill and you get all the benefits. Except, sadly, it’s not that straightforward. Some combinations of vitamins and minerals are complementary, whilst others compete with each other.
Good Supplement Groupings
There are some well established mineral and vitamin pairings which maximise the absorption of the mineral. For example if you need an iron supplement, taking it with Vitamin C (e.g. orange juice) will help your body to absorb the iron. Similarly, taking vitamin D alongside calcium will help your body to absorb the calcium. You might find that if you buy a calcium supplement it also contains a bit of vitamin D to ensure you get the full benefit.
There are also supplements containing groups of vitamins, minerals and other actives which don’t interact or compete with each other. These are usually blends tailored to a particular problem e.g. energy, digestion, sleep, anxiety etc. These will contain a variety of ingredients targeted at solving a problem without impacting on each other’s absorption.
Bad Supplement Groupings
Some vitamins and minerals compete for the same receptor sites in the body. As the number of receptor sites is limited, it means only some of the minerals or vitamins get absorbed. The remainder pass uselessly through the body.
Some examples of competing pairings are: B1 and B2, B5 and B7, magnesium and calcium, zinc and copper. It’s best to take these pairs separately and space the doses so each gets maximum absorption opportunity. For more information on competing groups see this post from Calton Nutrition.
Other Considerations for How to Choose a Supplement
These are our 5 key questions for how to choose a supplement, however, they’re not the only ones that matter. Depending on your personal circumstances there may be other factors you need to consider. For example, shape and size (if you have trouble with swallowing), how they need to be stored (some might need refrigeration), how easy it is to open the container (a consideration for you if you struggle, or if you don’t want children taking them), how much they cost etc.
Have you thought about how to choose a supplement? What usually guides your choices? Let us know in the comments below.