Back when I was in college, I worked in a health-food store. Then, I was really into fitness, sports, and performance, so I just loved thinking about everything I could do to make my body as strong and healthy as possible. But at the same time, health-food stores were the ugly alleys of retail. Why? Because the names of their products often sounded like they belonged in a witch’s potion, rather than in your body. On the shelves, you might find yeast flakes or bee pollen or other things that—at that time—would make you say, “whoa, what is that?”
I, of course, loved it. I loved using my body as an experiment to see what made me feel better and stronger, and I think I ended up having more bottles at my home than we did at the store. I spent a lot of money, and I learned quickly that a lot of those items were, in fact, a waste of money.
Today, the industry, laws, and science have evolved—so we know much better now about what supplements may make sense to take and what may or may not have any effect.
That doesn’t take away the fact that the world of supplements can still be very confusing. There are a lot of choices, a lot of brands, and a lot of mixed messages being sent and received about safety and efficacy.
The key point I want to make is this: While it’s important to have a well-balanced and healthy diet, the fact is that most modern fruits and vegetables (where so many vitamins and minerals come from) are
bred and grown for large sizes. That is, they’re sold by the pound, not nutritional content. So even though someone’s diet may appear healthy, micronutrient deficiencies are very common, especially deficiencies of iron, iodine, zinc, folate, vitamin D, vitamin E, and vitamin A.
Just as importantly, research has evolved from beyond the basics of nutrient deficiencies to include more about the role of nutrition and diet in long-term health—how these micronutrients have an effect on everything from our heart and brain to our immune system and our joints.
It’s one of the main reasons why something that was considered a fad or weird decades ago is now a crucial piece to our biological puzzle.
If you list all the things missing in your life, you could name the practical (where is that other blue sock?). You could list the philosophical (a sense of peace on Monday mornings!). You could reflect on the aspirational (a 24-person hot tub in the backyard sure would be nice).
But you probably have less of an idea about what’s missing inside your body—where millions of people are deficient in some of the essential nutrients that help your body perform optimally and stay healthy. Here are some of the most common biological loss leaders:
Iron: Roughly two billion people do not have enough iron in their diet, making iron deficiency the most common micronutrient deficiency across the globe.
Vitamin A: This plays a role in vision, bone development, and immune function. Deficiency is linked to visual impairments (especially night blindness) and increased susceptibility to infection.
Zinc: In developing nations, improper zinc intake has been tied to higher mortality rates from diarrhea, malaria, and respiratory infections. Additionally, zinc deficiency is associated with increased maternal and newborn mortality rates.
Folate: Folate’s main role in the body is to help produce new cells, but it also plays an important part in fetal and newborn health in pregnant women. Folate deficiency in pregnant women increases the chances of premature birth, low birthweight, and neural tube defects such as spina bifida.
How to Get Started
Because my work world revolves around the science of nutrition, I get asked a lot of questions about food, diet, and supplements. Should I take this? Should I avoid that? Are potatoes good or bad for crying out loud?
Nutrition can be complex—and that’s not even mentioning the psychology that goes along with making good food decisions. So you can see why nutrition-in-a-bottle questions can induce some serious eyebrow action.
Here’s my advice: Instead of getting wrapped up in micrograms and IUs and all the different brands and kinds of supplements, start out simple. Most nurses and physicians, according to recent research, do recommend the use of supplements—with those stats significantly increasing over the past couple of decades.
Chances are, you’re probably deficient in something. So a good multivitamin just makes the most sense as a starter supplement. It will likely be gentle on your system, especially compared to what could happen if you cannoned down a bunch of pills every morning in hopes of supplementing your way to optimum health.
It can be a huge challenge to figure out what you may need and how much to take, so the best strategy is to go for a complete supplement brand that you know you can trust.
Start with one dose a day at your biggest meal (hopefully, breakfast or lunch). My experience is that people start feeling a difference very quickly, in terms of energy and improved sleep.
Pro tip: Watch your fingernails. It sounds trivial, but many people will notice increased nail growth, which is a sign of increased efficiency of protein synthesis in the body and that your body is working more optimally. After a few weeks, your body will be adapted to micronutrient supplementation, and you can increase the dose if necessary or add “optimizers” for targeted health benefits.