After years of teaching people about supplements, I designed the Smart Supplement Map to answer this question.
We tend to make healthy living too confusing. New headlines are constantly leading us in new directions. For most of us, the avalanche of information is overwhelming. We need help navigating what to eat, how to exercise and what supplements we should take.
In fact, the supplement aisle can be one of the most confusing places in a grocery store. Everyone seems to know that healthy people take supplements, but when people want to take supplements – and be like those healthy people – they struggle.
I get it. There are a lot of choices. And on top of all the options, there is also conflicting information out there. What do you take? When should you take it? Why is it important?
With a decade of supplement experience and multiple nutrition certifications, a lot of friends and family come to me with supplement questions. They want to know how to get started or if they’re taking the right supplements.
I created the Simple Supplement Map based on years of having these conversations. The Simple Supplement Map is an easy way to walk through effective supplementation.
The Simple Supplement Map is a four-phase approach. The phases are designed in a specific sequence to build on each other. Once you’ve mastered all four phases, you’ll have confidence in supplementing your diet to meet your wellness goals.
We start the Simple Supplement Map by explaining that supplements are a process. In order to get the most value out of taking supplements, you want to work your way up – and test your way through – taking the right supplements for your needs.
Preflight Check List
Before journeying through the Simple Supplement Map, I like to collect some basic information to ensure I’m offering tailored recommendations. I want to make sure we are not putting anyone in harm’s way, so I need to know about any allergies, current medications (especially the prescription drug Warfarin) or serious medical conditions. Some supplements can interact with medications and cause harm to certain medical conditions.1 It’s important to discover any potential issues up front.
Next, I need to learn four main things about the person I’m helping:
- What does their diet currently look like?
- What is their primary wellness goal?
- Are they trying to lose weight? Train for a competition? Just feel better? Get off a medication?
- What’s their previous experience with supplements?
- What do they think worked in the past? What do they think didn’t work in the past? What did they like? What did they not like?
- What’s their budget like?
- How much are they currently spending? How much are they willing to spend? Are they spending money on other wellness solutions?
These four questions provide important context for making smart supplement recommendations.
They also get the customer thinking about their own health choices and reflecting on what they want to achieve with supplements.
Quick Note On Prices
At this point, I like to remind them that the price of supplements doesn’t always determine the quality. However, the more affordable the price, the more careful you want to be about the nutrient forms and bioavailability – “bioavailability” is nerd speak for ease of absorption in the body. Cheap supplements are often full of fillers and degraded nutrients. They can be a waste of time and effort.
Once we’ve discussed where they’re starting and where they want to be, we can start the first phase of the Simple Supplement Map.
Phase 1) Food First: What’s your diet?
Nutritional supplements are designed to do what they say they do: supplement. The best quality vitamins and minerals will come from eating a diverse diet with lots of plant-based whole foods. The vitamins and supplements you buy are designed to supplement your diet – not replace junk food for nutrients.
The first phase is looking at your diet and asking where are the gaps?
If someone tells me their diet is mostly fast and cheap food they buy in packages, I stop the supplement conversation, and I start talking about the Plant-First Diet® . I reiterate that supplements are a waste of money if you’re not eating the right foods. If they want to learn about supplements from me, they need to first prove they’re willing to learn about what to eat.
Most of the time, people are interested in supplements as an extension of their interest in diet and nutrition. They already have started making deliberate food choices. A lot of times, when people are seeking information about what to eat, it’s easier to try trendy diets or join – what I call – diet tribes.
The conversation about diet often fits into one of these buckets:
Whole-Food Plant-Based – Balanced diet of mostly vegetables, nuts, seeds and fruits. No dairy.
Ketogenic Diet – High protein. Low carbohydrate.
Vegetarian or Ethical Vegan Diet – Skews lowering protein. May also skew lower fat.
Paleo Diet – High protein. Higher fat. No dairy.
Standard American Diet – High protein. High carbohydrate. Moderate fat.
These diets are not only helpful for introducing people to nutrition concepts, but they also offer a framework for themes in macro and micronutrient consumption. These themes reveal gaps, and as we’ll see in phase 2, supplements are best used to help fill these gaps.
In phase 1, we think about the most frequent meals they are eating for breakfast, lunch and dinner. What do those plates look like? Are they made of most animal proteins? Do they all contain dairy? How much of the plate is full of fruits and vegetables?
After they describe what is on the plates, I ask them to think about what is not on the plates.
For instance, when discussing a…
“I didn’t hear you mention a lot of high-fiber foods. Let’s think about maybe adding fiber as we go through the map.”
Vegetarian or Ethical Vegan Diet
“I didn’t hear you mention any fish. These can be sources of micronutrients like Vitamin D3 and essential fatty acids like omega-3.”
“I didn’t hear you mention any diary or fermented foods. Let’s remember that when we’re looking at D3, Iodine and Probiotics.”
Phase 2) Add Essentials: Prioritizing The Basics
Phase 2 builds on smart eating choices by prioritizing – what I consider to be – the essentials. These supplements address the most common deficiencies in our diets and lifestyle. These are the supplements most frequently recommended by doctors and nutritionists:
1. A Whole-Food Multivitamin + B12
There is less food in our food. Even if you’re eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, our produce contains fewer nutrients than it did only a few decades ago. Scientists like to blame industrial agriculture for killing the soil as well as increases in atmospheric carbon that stimulate plants to grow faster and less nutrient dense.
You can learn more about the changes of food’s nutrient density in this post: Our Soil Sucks & Carbon Dioxide’s Impact On Nutrients
Especially B12, this micronutrient used to live in the soil, bioaccumulate (become more concentrated) in animals and then be delivered to humans by eating meat. However, there is less B12 in our soil and in our animals, so B12 deficiency is climbing across the country.
The bottom line: a good quality multivitamin helps replenish the vitamins and minerals that no longer make it into our food.
2. Vitamin D3
The best source of Vitamin D is simply spending time in the sun, but we now spend the majority of our time inside. Why is that a problem? Our genes haven’t evolved as fast as our modern lifestyle.
Vitamin D was discovered while researching bone disease. We know it’s critical to bone health, but in the last 20 years, we have also discovered Vitamin D receptors on other cells in the body – including in the immune system. Vitamin D’s role in our immune system might explain the high correlation between autoimmune diseases and Vitamin D insufficiency.
Unless you spend extended periods outside and live close to the equator, you are probably insufficient in Vitamin D. You can consume some Vitamin D from fatty fish, beef liver and mushrooms, but for most people, you need daily sun exposure or a supplement.
You can learn more about the details of Vitamin D in this post: Need Vitamin D? You do. Go Naked In The Sun.
3. Omega-3 DHA+EPA
The membranes of our cells are fat based. Omega-3 fats are helpful fats for keeping these membranes healthy. When our cell membranes are in the best shape to function, our cells can do their job better. Brain cells can transmit messages more easily. Muscle cells respond better to nutrients. Cells in our nervous and cardiovascular (heart) systems can work better. The benefits go across many areas of the body. We consume omega-3 fats in nuts, seeds, wild-caught fish and eggs.
You can learn more about Omega-3s and essential fatty acids this post: For Fat Sake: Essential Education In Fatty Acids
There are over 100 trillion bacteria cells in our microbiome. These microscopic bacteria live on our skin, in our mouth, in our digestive tract and other parts of our body. In fact, the microbiome contains 90% of our cells. Only 10% of cells in our body are human cells.
We need these bacteria cells, but as we sterilize everything to kill bad bacteria in our food and around our living space, we also kill the good bacteria in the process. We can help keep our microbiome healthy with a diet rich in fermented foods – which contain lots of good bacteria (a.k.a. probiotics) – as well as rich in prebiotics like onions and asparagus to feed the good bacteria.
Probiotic supplements can also help support a healthy population of the right bacteria.
You can learn about how wildly important our microbiome is in this post: Your Microbes Matter
Iodine is another supplement that is gaining popularity. Iodine is a trace mineral found in eggs and dairy products. New research is suggesting iodine offers considerable potential for supporting our health. However, because iodine interacts with your thyroid and millions of Americans are on thyroid medication, I don’t recommend supplementing with iodine unless you’re doing so under the care of a medical doctor or registered dietitian.
Start Here: The Best Quality Multivitamin
A high-quality multivitamin is the foundation of a smart supplement strategy. If you’re currently not taking supplements, the best multivitamin in your budget is the best place to start. An important part of successful supplementation is getting in the habit of taking supplements. Most people forget to take their supplements when they first start. A multivitamin is the perfect place to start creating the habit and ritual of consuming daily supplements. Once you’re in the habit of taking a multivitamin, you can move on to the next essential supplement as prioritized by your diet.
If you’re currently taking supplements, but not taking a quality multivitamin, you need to add a quality multivitamin to your routine or revisit your priorities.
A high-quality multivitamin (like this one) will fill the gaps in your diet across all your minimal needs. It’s a great insurance policy and we’ll help support the performance of other supplements you take.
Next: Prioritize Essentials Based on Diet & Budget
Think about the foods that are the most common sources of essential supplements. Were any of these foods discussed in phase 1? Prioritize the essentials based on the frequency in which you eat the least often foods.
Also, keep in mind that supplements can quickly add up. As you prioritize the supplements based on your diet, be realistic about how many supplements you can afford to purchase and will remember to consume on a daily basis. Some supplements, like Vitamin D, need to be taken with food since the nutrients are fat soluble. Some supplements can be taken on an empty stomach. Are you going to remember to bring you supplements with you?
Ideally, you can add as many of the essentials as your diet demands without compromising quality.
Phase 3) Add Enhancers: Seasonal and/or Specific Needs
Are you feeling comfortable with a routine of essential supplements that match your diet, lifestyle and budget? Now, you’re ready for phase 3.
You can start to explore the rest of the supplement aisle to meet seasonal or special wellness needs. These are the supplements I consider Enhancers.
My top enhancers include:
- Magnesium – A mineral great for supporting heart and cell energy
- Zinc – A mineral great for supporting the immune system, hormones and growth
- Melatonin – A naturally produced hormone for promoting sleep
- Creatine – An organic compound used to produce energy in your cells and great for supporting strength training and cognitive function.
- Plant-Based Protein – A great way to help manage weight, build muscle, repair tissue and support immune system
- Maca – An adaptogenic root vegetable used traditionally for energy, strength and stamina
Enhancers are great for when you’re managing stress from work, life or exercise – intense training. These are supplements you incorporate into your diet when you’re transitioning into new routines, new environments or new stages of life.
For instance, during flu season or traveling abroad, I make sure I’m taking 25 mg of zinc and often use 5 mg of melatonin to help battle jet lag.
Phase 4) Listen To Your Body: Pay Attention to Changes
Most people can’t afford regular blood panels, so the best thing to do is to listen, learn and test.
We all are such unique organisms. What works well for one person, might not fit another person. Pay attention to your energy, sleep, mood, hunger, focus and measure what you can. Isolate one choice in your diet, lifestyle or supplement selection and see if changing this variable improves your wellness.
The Point Is…
Food First – There is not a supplement in the world potent enough to compensate for a diet of fast, processed foods.
Start With A Multivitamin – Your multivitamin is the best bang for your buck. It’s the foundation of your supplement routine. Make it count.
Mind The Gaps – Prioritize the essentials based on gaps in your diet. Go as far as you can with your budget. And incorporate enhancers for seasons of stress and/or transitions.
Still have questions?
If you still have questions about supplements, I’m always happy to help. Shoot me a DM on Instagram.
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DISCLAIMER: Always consult with your physician before taking supplements if you are currently taking medications or treatment for a medical condition.
These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any diseases.
Also published on Medium.