So, you want to optimize your health and have heard that targeted supplements are the way to go. Or maybe routine blood work revealed a new nutritional gap you now need to fill. Armed with your specific supplement info from your doc, you swing into your local health foods store or do a quick search online—only to realize you have hundreds of seemingly reasonable options to choose from.
How do you pick the right one?
Turns out, there are several common mistakes people make when they're buying a new supplement to add to their daily routine. To clear these up once and for all, we spoke with Brittany Michels, M.S. RDN, LDN, and Rebekah Blakely, RDN. These important considerations can help you decide what matters most when choosing the best option for you and your well-being.
1. Not knowing your individual needs.
Dietary supplements are meant to help fill in nutritional gaps, according to Michels. So if you're shopping, it's important to first understand your individual needs.
Michels makes a good point: "Many calcium supplements share the structure-function claim that calcium is needed for bone health. That's true, but just because a supplement states its function doesn't mean that everyone needs it," she says and adds that the same goes for intriguing claims, like "more energy." Filling a nutritional gap for more energy is one thing, but it's worth knowing whether the nutrients provided by that particular supplement are truly needed for your health (or not).
The best way to know is by "visiting your health care professionals for a thorough review of your current health status," says Blakely. "Your doctor can order lab work to determine if you have any detectable deficiencies, while a dietitian or certified nutritionist can help you review your diet and lifestyle to look for missing nutrients. They can also discuss health issues you may be experiencing and suggest supplements that may help."
For nutrition coaching with a qualified nutritionist—without breaking the bank—The Vitamin Shoppe® offers free virtual consultations with a variety of certified nutritionists, including Blakely and Michels, as part of their Healthy Awards® loyalty program.
2. Adding too many new supplements at once.
"We can tend to be 'all or nothing' with our supplements," says Blakely, which might not be doing us any favors. "If you start taking 10 new items at once, you may not be able to tell what's working, what's not, and what caused that negative reaction you might have had," she says.
Her advice when trying a new supplement is to start slow. "Determine what items you need most, and start by adding only one to three items," she suggests. "Once those become habit and you have a chance to see how they're working—which is usually a month or so—reevaluate what items you might want to add next, if any."
3. Going for a higher dose.
Think a higher dose of ingredients will yield better, faster results? Think again. When comparing supplements, "some people believe the higher the dose, the better. This is not always true," cautions Blakely. "Although supplements can have real health benefits at the recommended dose, some can cause harm when you take too much."
Before buying, do a little extra research on the product to know what you're dealing with—you shouldn't have to look too far beyond a product's webpage if the brand is reputable. "Whenever possible, you want to choose supplements that have good research to back them up," advises Blakely. "Reputable supplement companies will develop their products around the forms and dosages shown to be most effective in research."
4. Buying based on the price tag.
Michels often sees people buying their supplements based on price, with not enough attention to the actual ingredients. "Look out for deals that seem too good to be true," she warns. If cost is a concern, Michels suggests sitting down with a nutritional professional to prioritize your supplement list. "It's more beneficial to take a couple of high-quality supplements than a bunch of poor-quality ones," she says.
On the flip side, "a high price doesn't necessarily equate with quality," either, according to Blakely. "Some supplement companies charge premium prices just because they can, not because their product is superior."
5. Buying based on a friend or family member's suggestion.
We'll keep this one short and sweet. We all have different needs (see point No. 1!). "Just because it worked for your mom's friend's sister's cousin doesn't mean that it'll work for you," says Michels.
6. Not considering the best delivery method.
The best delivery method will depend on the supplement. Here's a helpful breakdown, according to Michels and Blakely:
- Liquid and powders: These are typically the fastest absorbing (and most convenient for adding into smoothies). Powders usually suggest that a larger dose of nutrients is needed. For example, protein and collagen are often in powder form because it would require way too many capsules to meet the recommended serving.
- Chewables, capsules, and soft-gel capsules: These are usually easily absorbed, broken down by your stomach acid during digestion. Capsules protect ingredients from moisture and hide flavor and odor.
- Tablets: These often take the longest to break down and absorb. A sustained release of nutrients can also have benefits, depending on the supplement or ingredients.
- Ready to eat/drink (RTDs): These include vitamin-packed bars and shots. Perfect for on-the-go nutrition or for a healthy indulgence, snackified supplements are easier for some people to incorporate into their daily routine.
So how do you find a quality supplement?
- Third-party testing. This helps ensure potency, purity, and safety. For instance, to verify that all the supplements in Vthrive™ The Vitamin Shoppe brand—a line of premium health and wellness solutions—is truly clean-label, every product is put through 320 rigorous quality assurance steps, with ingredient efficacy verified by independent, third-party labs. Consumer Labs and Labdoor are two popular independent companies that test supplements and post their findings on their websites.
- Labels, certifications, and other quality indicators. Two popular certification seals to help ensure the quality of supplements include Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) and NSF International, an international public health and safety company. Other good signs include certified organic and/or non-GMO; a low percentage of fillers, binders, and additives; and no antibiotics or growth hormones.
- But watch out for false claims. "It's actually illegal for a supplement to claim it can treat or cure anything," says Blakely. "Ignore statements like 'all-natural' as they're not regulated and don't mean anything. Ultimately, if you want a natural product, you'll need to check out the ingredient list yourself."