Whether in pill, capsule, gummy, powder or drink form, dietary supplements can include vitamins, minerals, herbs or botanicals, amino acids and more. But they are only intended to supplement a healthy diet, not replace it.
Supplements can fill nutrient gaps that may arise due to dietary restrictions (such as Vitamin B12 for vegans) or health conditions such as folic acid deficiency in pregnant women.
Vitamins are nutrients that perform a variety of functions in the body and protect against disease. They are found mainly in food and play an important role in many of the processes of life. Vitamins are also available as dietary supplements.
Most people can meet their requirements for vitamins through a diet that includes whole foods from all of the food groups and limits empty calories, including those in sugary drinks.
In addition to consuming a wide range of fruits and vegetables, be sure to include lean protein sources, whole grains, low-fat dairy and fortified foods in your daily meal plan. Most importantly, be careful not to take more than the recommended amounts of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E and K) or water-soluble vitamins (B vitamins, vitamin C and folate/folic acid). These high doses can be toxic.
Minerals are naturally occurring, inorganic substances that enable life processes. They are critical to the formation and structure of cells, proteins, bones, and glands. Minerals also play vital roles in cellular energy production and the regulation of blood pressure and immune function.
A mineral is a homogenous solid that can consist of a single native element or more usually a compound. The term can also be applied to a crystalline substance with a fixed chemical composition and highly ordered atomic arrangement (such as mackinawite, which is a sulfide of iron and nickel).
Minerals are divided into two groups, major minerals and trace minerals. We need the major minerals, such as calcium, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium and sulfur, in large amounts (100 milligrams or more each day). The trace minerals we need are iron, iodine, zinc, selenium and copper.
Often called the building blocks of protein, amino acids are organic compounds that combine to form proteins and play many critical roles in body functions. They’re used for making enzymes, hormones and neurotransmitters and are involved in many metabolic pathways. They are divided into essential and nonessential amino acid categories based on the need for them in the body.
Amino acid supplements are used by athletes to enhance muscle development and recovery after intense exercise. Leucine supplementation stimulates muscle protein synthesis and branched-chain amino acid supplementation enhances glycogen resynthesis during moderate steady state exercise after depletion of protein. Tryptophan is an essential amino acid that supports mood and sleep. It’s also used to produce serotonin, which affects brain function and regulates neuronal circuits that influence mood. Threonine promotes skin, hair and nail health and isoleucine helps regulate fat metabolism and accumulation. Histidine is an important amino acid for maintaining the integrity of myelin sheaths that protect nerve cells and promote brain function, muscle coordination and calmness.
Essential Fatty Acids
There is considerable consumer interest in foods and dietary components that can provide health enhancing benefits beyond basic nutrition. Essential fatty acids (EFA) are polyunsaturated fats that cannot be synthesized by the body and must therefore be supplied in the diet. They can be divided into two families, omega-3 (o-3) and omega-6 (o-6) based on their structure.
Fish, fish oils and some vegetable oils are rich sources of o-3 PUFA. Studies have correlated o-3 PUFA intake with reduced cardiovascular morbidity and mortality, infant development, optimal brain and eye function, cancer prevention, hypertension and diabetes mellitus. Beneficial effects may be mediated by changes in cell membrane composition, gene expression and production of eicosanoid hormones.
Alpha linolenic acid, found in flax seeds, hemp, safflower and soybean oil is a source of o-3 PUFA. It is converted to EPA and DHA by the enzyme ALA desaturase in the liver.
Herbs are low in calories and fat and offer an abundance of nutrients. Vitamin K, for example, helps with blood clotting and bone density to reduce the risk of osteoporosis.
Herbals may also be helpful in lowering sodium, salt and saturated fat intakes by increasing the palatability of healthier foods, according to research. Herbs may also contain phytochemical compounds with potential health benefits — although there is limited research on this, and the results of the McCormick Science Institute Summit indicate that further work is needed.
Adding herbs and spices to meals is easy and affordable. But remember, just like vegetables and fruits, they should be consumed as part of a healthy diet. And when preparing, keep in mind that some herbs can be toxic in large amounts, so be sure to use them sparingly and under the supervision of a doctor or registered dietitian.