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Nutritional supplements: what you need to know

Written by Lindsay Smith

When it comes to using nutritional supplements, the available information can be overwhelming. Karen Fung, registered dietitian on Sunnybrook’s Academic Family Health Team, breaks it down and gives some insight into supplements, their purpose and what to keep in mind before taking any new nutritional supplements.

The purpose of supplements

It’s important to remember the purpose of supplements when considering whether to start taking them.

“They are designed to supplement when you’re unable to meet nutritional requirements or needs, or if you have changed needs,” says Karen. “It could be certain medical conditions like cancer, or higher protein intake because of dialysis, or if there are certain dietary restrictions.”

In many cases, though, supplements are not a necessary addition.

“Most Canadians can get what they need from a healthy, balanced, full-variety diet,” says Karen. “That’s what Health Canada and Canada’s Food Guide are meant to do—make sure that most Canadians are able to meet their nutritional needs without having to take anything else.”

And when it comes to meeting nutritional needs, Karen says it’s not about hitting numbers perfectly.

“It’s not that we have to hit a certain level [of nutrients] or that our bodily functions significantly suffer if your daily intake is not meeting daily requirements every single day. We are quite adaptable.”

And even if there are restrictions because of tolerance or preference, Karen says with some creativity and organization, there are likely ways to get nutrients from other foods.

For individuals with strong preferences, allergies or other restrictions, Karen recommends seeing your doctor and or dietitian to find out if a supplement could help you meet your nutritional needs.

What to consider before starting a new supplement

Even though nutritional supplements can be purchased at any grocery store, health-food store or even online, Karen says it’s still important to do your research, including visiting your family doctor or a dietitian, before starting a new supplement.

There may be possible interactions for you to consider, for example.

“Supplements can interact with each other. A classic example is iron and calcium compete for absorption,” Karen says. “So, a woman in her child-bearing years might want to replenish iron, but if she’s also supplementing with calcium, she’s at risk for not absorbing as much iron as she’d want to.”

Omega-3 fats 

Supplements are also an added cost and don’t necessarily undergo the same regulations as medications, which can affect the quality and effectiveness of active ingredients. That means you might not be getting the nutritional boost you want.

So, for Omega-3 fats, which many Canadians pay attention to for heart health and are readily available in capsules, Karen says —for heart-health benefits— the best option is to get Omega-3s from food. There have been recent updated recommendations (from the Canadian Cardiovascular Society) that over-the-counter Omega-3 supplements are not recommended for cardiovascular disease.

“Our best sources of Omega-3 are from fatty fish, but if we don’t eat fish, we can definitely get enough from plant sources,” Karen says.  “We just need to intake it daily [from plant sources] because we need to convert it into a slightly different format for its health benefits.”

Plant sources of Omega-3 fats can include flax seeds (or oil), chia seeds, hemp seeds or walnuts.

“This is an example of having a preference restriction. You might not like fish, you might be allergic to fish, but there are other ways to consume the nutrients without having to add a supplement,” Karen says.

Vitamin D

Karen says the one supplement that is recommended for all Canadians is vitamin D.

“You should supplement in a pill or drop form,” she says. “Health Canada recommends it as a supplement for Canadians.”

For advice on the proper dosage, you can speak to your doctor.

About the author

Lindsay Smith