In an ideal world - none. Let's get straight to the facts - you can't supplement an unhealthy lifestyle. You can spend your hard-earned wages on fish oils and pop a dozen well-marketed pills a day but if your diet is poor, you're not getting enough sleep and your general lifestyle isn't healthy, you're basically pissing into the wind.
It's all in the name - supplement - "a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it". These products aren't there to solve your problems, they're there to optimise and enhance elements of your lifestyle should you need it. Beware of marketing tactics & scare-mongering, designed to empty your wallet - unless you actually suffer from a a deficiency, you'll survive just fine without them. There are a few however, that I would recommend - here's the what and the why:
Vitamin D's main function is that it strengthens your bones and teeth by enabling your body to absorb calcium. The best source of vitamin D is sunlight. This is great - if you live in a country with a decent climate and lead a lifestyle that allows you to soak up the sun. If you're like me, living in a poor climate and desk-bound most of the day, chances are you won't get your daily dose from the sun. Next, there's food as a source. 4 oz/115g of salmon gives you around 500IU whilst an egg will give 143IU. Daily recommendations vary wildly, depending on age, sex, race & lifestyle, but range from 500IU to 1500IU per day. The majority of people will struggle to consume this amount though diet and sunlight and so there's a vitamin D supplement. Necessary - no, not if your diet is on point and you're getting a daily dose of sun. Ideally - yes, most likely. You may not be aware of this deficiency, but over time your bones will likely feel it. For that potential benefit to you in your old age I would recommend popping a Vitamin D/fish oil capsule, especially in the winter months.
The building blocks of the body, protein is essential - and not just for gym-goers. Protein is made up of amino-acids; used to repair muscle, tendons, organs and skin and also used to make enzymes, hormones, neurotransmitters & carry out countless other functions. Daily recommendations vary, but at a very minimum 0.8 to 1.3 gram per kg is a reasonable target. This amounts to:
- 56-91 grams per day for the average male
- 46-75 grams per day for the average female
Those looking to gain muscle or lose weight would be closer to 2-2.5g per kg. Folk who may struggle to hit their daily goal or find their intake on the low side turn to protein powder. To stress, this is a supplement so still try to get your protein from whole foods. However, if you're aiming for 200g of protein a day, this may be difficult (and expensive). The most common protein powder is whey, which is a by-product of the dairy industry. Remember Little Miss Muffet? She loved her whey. People, for some reason, react to whey like they would to injecting steroids into your eyeballs. "Jesus, you're on protein?!!"... it's like saying "Jesus, you're on chicken!". An average chicken fillet contains ~22g protein, with an egg containing ~6g, so it can be difficult to get adequate protein into your diet. Here's where marketers have a field day, playing on people's lack of understanding on the basics of nutrition in order to sell them a well-packaged, over-priced, likely unnecessary product. MyProtein, the brand that I use, is the best and cheapest on the market. Independently tested and approved, it also happens to taste incredible. The reason for the low price vs brands like Optimum Nutrition is down to the packaging - inexpensive bag vs expensive plastic tub. I tend to mix it into my morning oats or have as a dessert with yoghurt or something adventurous as it's great for baking with.
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For those who eat a healthy diet, a multivitamin may have little to no benefit. A diet that includes plenty of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, quality protein & healthy fats should provide most of the nutrients needed for optimal health. Unfortunately, a lot of people don't have a balanced diet which is where a multivitamin can come in handy to supplement your diet. Most will contain most or all of the following: Vitamin A, C, D, E, Thiamin (Vitamin B1), Riboflavin (Vitamin B2), Niacin, Folic Acid, Iron. Because of the uniqueness of every person, and general differences between races, sex and age, research is constantly being carried out on what's "optimal". Tesco multivitamins claim to have 100% the recommended daily intake of Vitamin D @ 200IU. If you were to go by this however, you'd be at less than half of what's been recommended by several studies. So do yourself every possible favour by eating a healthy, balanced diet.
Fish oil contains essential fatty acids that have been proven by numerous studies to offer countless benefits. Anything "essential" has to be taken in through diet as our body cannot produce them. The two most widely researched and important are essential omega 3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA - your supplement needs to contain these. 300mg of omega-3 a day is recommended but bear in mind that most fish oil capsules contain only about 30 percent EPA and DHA. So a bottle that says “1,000mg” of fish oil on the front may actually contain 300mg of EPA and DHA. If you eat oily fish (salmon, mackerel) a few times a week then skip the fish oil. If you don't, consider supplementing.
Just because you take in a 500IU of Vitamin D doesn't mean you'll absorb 500IU. In order to process, absorb and utilise nutrients, the environment needs to be right. Magnesium is a crucial cofactor for the enzymes that convert Vitamin D to it's hormonal form, calcitriol. And in most cases, fat-soluble vitamins (like D) must be coupled with a protein in order to travel through the body. If your diet does not include healthy fatty acids your ability to absorb vitamin D may be reduced. Vitamin D increases absorption of both calcium and magnesium and inhibits excretion of calcium through the urine. Without vitamin D, calcium is very poorly absorbed. Calcium and magnesium are thought to compete for absorbtion when present together - meaning both aren't fully utlized. Copper is necessary for iron absorption, and a deficiency can lead to low iron levels. There are tens of thousands of dependencies and quirks in the human body so it would be madness to stress about all ofthem, but it's worth considering when buying expensive supplements - are they even necessary? And if so, are they engineered to overcome as many of these quirks as possible?
If you're eating a rich & varied diet, chances are you don't need to supplement with anything. Personally, as I've mentioned, I do take a few but only because I'm aware of my daily intake an know where supplementation may help. If you're on a restricted diet a) stop - there's absolutely no need to be and b) bear in mind you're likely depriving yourself of nutrients needed for optimum health.
A 2010 study (‘Prevalence of micronutrient deficiency in popular diet plans’), focussing on Atkins, South Beach, DASH & Best Life diets, found that:
- All four diet plans failed to deliver 100% sufficiency for the selected 27 essential micronutrients, based on RDI guidelines, when followed as recommended by their suggested daily menus.
- Six micronutrients (vitamin B7, vitamin D, vitamin E, chromium, iodine & molybdenum) were identified as consistently low or nonexistent in all four diet plans.
- A typical dieter on any of these four popular diet plans would be, on average, 56% deficient in obtaining RDI sufficiency, and lacking in 15 out of the 27 essential micronutrients analyzed.
So eat smart, train hard & be happy.
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FYI: here's what I take daily (typically one a day):
- £40-50 - Chocolate Whey Protein - 5kg (~200 servings)
- £2.95 - Vitamin D - 90 capsules
- £3.50 - Omega 3 fish Oils - 90 capsules
- £11.49 - ZMA - 90 capsultes
This works out at around £12 a month.