To Supplement or Not?
Do you take dietary supplements?
Apparently most of us do, just over half of Americans take some kind of supplement, usually a multivitamin. Yet we are exhorted regularly to get our nutrients from foods, espucially from vegetables, since multivitamin use is not without risks. What to do? To supplement or not to supplement? That is the question, whether ’tis nobler for the body to go beyond the minimum, or to eat lots of vegetables and ignore them?
I have a love/hate relationship with supplements.
I love the idea that the ease of swallowing a pill could solve a problem. I love the idea that the right combination of supplements could make me stronger, faster, or better in some way. So I have in the past made myself into a laboratory experiment turning myself into a case study of one. Some have seemed to work, but it was subjective perception possibly clouded by the placebo effect. Most were a waste of money.
We should not have to resort to supplements to get what we need. That really is the role of diet.
If we are deficient, we should tweak our diet, not pop a pill. Loking for better performance from chemistry might have unwanted consequences further down the road. Isolating certain nutrients from the their natural context may create imbalances that negate any other positive outcome in the end. Trying for a pharmacological effect from isolated nutrients really isn’t that far from relying on pharmaceutical drugs for health or even illegal doping. Indeed, some research suggests that even seemingly innocuous supplements like multivitamins may actually have long term negative effects.
Supplements can help if there is a true deficiency, but above and beyond that, it’s unclear whether there is a benefit. As for a performance boost, it’s mostly hype, but some supplements have that potential. It becomes a question of risk versus reward. And price. They can get expensive.
What do I do?
I supplement with vitamin D in the winter due to lack of sunshine. I have recently begun to supplement with vitamin B12 year round since I have not eaten meat in years. But as much as I want to believe that there are no performance benefits from supplements, I have often felt a positive difference when taking them. Can the placebo effect work if you don’t want to believe? I want to believe that my leafy greens are all that matters, but I have my doubts. This past week I restarted taking a simple multivitamin and separately added added chromium with my meals, and I feel a positive difference. The chromium especially did what was advertised in stabilizing my energy between meals. This is not the best experimental design, because I also tweaked my diet toward higher nutrient density by eating my five bunches of greens. So as I gear up for race season, I will continue to supplement. Then we’ll see.