Nutritional supplement sales are a booming business. There are supplements available for just about anything you can think of, and many of them are quite expensive. You probably know people (or maybe you yourself) who take a few or even a lot of them every day. But are they really necessary? Read on to learn which are the most important for optimizing your health, which may be helpful in certain circumstances, and which are really just a waste of your money.
Let Food Be Thy Medicine
If you’re eating the standard western diet full of carbohydrates, sugar and processed junk foods, you most definitely are NOT getting all the nutrition you need. You could take a handful of supplements every day, but you will still never be your best if this is the way you’re eating.
One of the many great benefits of the keto way of eating is that because you’re eating whole, healthy, organic (as much as possible) foods, you’re already getting a great deal of the vitamins and minerals your body needs. And if you’re also implementing intermittent fasting (which I absolutely recommend), your body is able to recycle some of these nutrients, so your daily requirement may be lower.
There are definitely benefits to getting your nutrients from real food rather than from supplements. First, no nutrient is an island; they work synergistically – that is, they work together to enhance each other’s effectiveness and absorption into the body. They are also present in perfect proportion to one another in real foods. This is important because if you take a lot of one isolated nutrient, you often create deficiencies or imbalances in others.
Second is that a lot of supplements are made from synthetic ingredients rather than derived from real food sources. These are inferior to the “real thing” and may not even be in a form our body can use in the first place. Words such as “fortified” on a supplement package, for example, usually indicate that synthetic ingredients have been added.
And lastly, it’s important to know how and where the ingredients in your supplement are sourced. Are they obtained and produced in a sustainable, environmentally-friendly way? Do they use high quality ingredients? If imported, do they come from a place that has sanitary and ethical working conditions? Do they contain any genetically modified ingredients? I always say if the information about sourcing isn’t offered up front by a company (or at least given freely upon request), they probably have something to hide.
So, as much as possible, get your nutrients from real foods!
Which Supplements Are Most Important?
Despite your best efforts, some of the most vital nutrients can be difficult to get enough of through diet alone, so taking a good quality supplement is essential. Here is a list of what seem to be generally agreed upon by the experts as being the most important:
Vitamin D is necessary for bone strength, proper hormone function, and for preventing infection and numerous other diseases, including cancer. Unfortunately many people are deficient. Sun exposure is the ideal way to get Vitamin D, but unless you live in a tropical or subtropical climate and have the opportunity to get outside every day all year long, it’ll be difficult if not impossible to get enough this way.
There are some good food sources of vitamin D. Cod liver (the oil too, but I mean actual cod liver), seafood (especially fish roe, oysters, wild-caught salmon or shrimp, sardines, anchovies, herring and mackerel), grass fed butter, pastured egg yolks and liver (beef liver in particular) are all excellent choices.
Contrary to popular belief, milk is not a good source of vitamin D (and it’s not keto-friendly anyway). Milk is fortified with synthetic vitamin D2, not D3, which is the form the body can use.
We need 2000-5000 IU of Vitamin D3 daily. Choose a good quality supplement that contains at least 2,000 IU. If you can find one that also includes vitamin K2, all the better.
K2 enhances the absorption of Vitamin D significantly, and it’s essential for optimizing the health of your gut. It’s also needed to help mobilize calcium from the soft tissues of the body. Fermented foods and pastured egg yolks are great sources of Vitamin K2, or you can choose a good supplement.
There are different types of K2, most notably MK4 and MK7. There is some difference of opinion on which is better, but in general it seems MK4 is favored because it is more easily utilized in our body. To be on the safe side you can look for a full spectrum K2 supplement that has both. The recommended daily dose is 200 mcg.
Because the body controls the amount of magnesium in the bloodstream very precisely, testing for a deficiency is very difficult. If that amount gets too low, it will be pulled from other parts of the body in order to maintain the proper level.
Some good sources of magnesium are: organ meats (heart and liver), red meats, wild caught fatty fish, real cheese (not the shredded, pre-packaged, processed kind), leafy greens, seeds (especially chia and pumpkin), nuts (Brazil nuts, walnuts, macadamias, pecans), and avocado.
The best types of supplements are either magnesium citrate (which can have a laxative effect so is good if you struggle with constipation) or magnesium glycinate. Take 250-500 mg daily. Note that magnesium has a tendency to make you drowsy, so it might be best to take it at bedtime (although I don’t know that I would do this if you’re taking the citrate variety, given its laxative effects!).
We need about 4700 mg of potassium daily. Our body doesn’t store it for long, and many things deplete our supply quickly, so a good supplement is important. Look for one that has the highest amount you can find so you don’t end up using half the container just to meet your daily requirement.
Good food sources of potassium include avocados, red meats, liver and fish, cruciferous vegetables and dark leafy greens and (I like this one) coffee.
CoQ10 (Coenzyme Q10)
CoQ10 is important for heart health as well as for many other bodily processes. It is also helpful in preventing migraine headaches. While there are foods that contain this nutrient, it would be impossible to eat them in great enough quantities to get all we need.
As we get older we also lose our ability to absorb and utilize coQ10. There is a more bioavailable version called Ubiquinol; this is the version you will want to look for.
It’s important to mention that if you take any prescription drugs for conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes or cholesterol, supplementing with Ubiquinol is vital because these drugs deplete CoQ10 in the body.
The recommended daily dosage is 100-200 mg, but you probably need more if you take any of these types of medications.
Vitamin B complex
Getting a lot of variety in your diet is the best way to get all the B vitamins, since they are present in all different kinds of foods. They are great energy boosters, and since they are water soluble vitamins, you can’t get too much.
My absolute favorite supplemental source of B vitamins is unfortified nutritional yeast. It’s available in tablets or flakes that can be added to your food. B vitamins are a great energy booster, and by taking a B complex rather than just one isolated B vitamin you’ll be getting the proper ratio of all of them. Look for a source that has 1000 mcg of B12 per serving.
Maybe … But Maybe Not
There are some supplements you may be able to live without if you’re getting enough of that particular nutrient from your food. If not though, you might want to consider adding these as well, or – better yet – adding in more of the real foods that contain them.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If you include a lot of fatty fish and other seafoods in your diet, this one may not be necessary for you. We need about 2-3 g per day. Tracking your macros can be helpful if you use an app that measures the nutrients in the foods you eat to see whether or not you’re getting enough (I use Cronometer to track mine). If not, then a good supplement can be helpful.
My preference for these supplements if I do use one are cod liver oil or krill oil. Fish oils turn rancid very quickly, both on the shelf and in our body, and are often not very bioavailable (meaning our body can’t use it) anyway.
Zinc is required for proper immune system function as well as a host of other processes. It is an essential mineral, which means our bodies can’t produce it, and so it must be obtained from our diet. One sign of deficiency is the loss of your ability to taste and smell things. It’s recommended that women get at least 8mg daily.
There are some plant foods, and of course supplements, that have a good amount of zinc in them, but due to a couple of factors, our body can only actually absorb about 50-60% of it.
Other foods have much more bioavailable zinc; these include red meats, seafood of any kind, free-range chicken, and avocados. If you’re including a lot of these in your diet, a supplement may not be necessary for you.
It’s important to also make sure you maintain the proper balance of zinc and copper because too much of one will result in an imbalance. Grass fed liver is one good source of copper.
Some people like to take biotin (sometimes called Vitamin B7) supplements because they want to improve the health of their hair and nails. But the truth is that most biotin supplements don’t help much because they’re not readily absorbed by our body.
Food sources are a much better option: pastured egg yolks, pastured chicken liver or grass fed beef liver; red meat; wild caught salmon; nuts and seeds (walnuts, pecans). Eat these several times a week and you should get plenty of biotin.
These may only be needed in special circumstances, for instance if you have recently been sick or taken antibiotics. Some people also like to take them when they travel as an extra precaution. They may be helpful when you first start out on keto because they can help optimize your microbiome (gut) faster. But if you’re consuming fermented foods as a regular part of your diet these probably aren’t necessary on a daily basis.
Having a lower carb intake reduces our need for vitamin C, and if you’re eating organ meats and a good amount and variety of vegetables each day there is probably no need to add extra. However, when you’re sick, taking a supplement temporarily can be beneficial.
If you’re properly following the keto way of eating, your body is going to produce all the ketones you need. MCT oil is rather expensive and not really necessary.
Again here, if your carb intake is low and your vegetable intake high, you probably will not need supplemental fiber. If you do choose to use one, organic psyllium husk is a good choice.
It’s not hard to get enough collagen if you’re eating meats and fish regularly, and especially if they still have the bones, skin and cartilage. For example, great sources are salmon with skin on; chicken legs and thighs with the skin, eggs (that little membrane that’s inside the shell is pure collagen) and sardines and anchovies that have the bones and skin still in them.
Homemade bone broth is one of THE best food sources of collagen. Store bought brands will not be nearly as nutritious as what you could easily make at home yourself. Food sources will contain all the amino acids you need; most supplements do not, and most of them use poor quality ingredients that are not readily usable by the body.
If you do still choose to use a supplement, do your homework first to find the best quality product you can.
Your healthy keto diet should provide most of the nutrients you need. Most commercially sold multivitamins are made from synthetic ingredients and are of a form that the body can’t use. They often also contain unwanted ingredients and additives. If you do choose to use one, look for one that is derived from whole food sources. (Hint: any vitamin that says one capsule or pill will meet all of your daily requirements is not made from a whole food source.)
One To Avoid
I only really found one recommendation for a supplement that should be avoided altogether, and that is calcium. Yes, I know, you’re probably thinking “WHAT?!” A lot of people take calcium, and some doctors still recommend it.
Unfortunately the truth is that calcium supplements increase your risk of a heart attack in proportion to the amount of calcium you’re taking. There’s also a higher risk of developing kidney stones and ovarian cancer (or prostate cancer for men).
Another problem with taking added calcium is absorption. If your body isn’t able to absorb it properly to begin with, then it starts to be deposited in the soft tissues of the body rather than the bones, places like in and around your joints and in the heart. Arthritis pain, for example, can be caused by calcium deposits around the affected area. Adding more in the form of a supplement is just making the problem worse and is not helping with bone health.
It’s also worth noting that bone density is not the same as bone strength. Calcium increases the density, but not the strength of our bones. Because bone strength is the most important factor in determining how easily they will break, there are things you can do to increase it:
~ do weight bearing exercises like strength training, walking, running, yoga
~ get enough vitamin D
~ stop drinking milk (if you still do) and consume leafy greens, bone broth and meats instead
Enjoy The Possibilities
Being really healthy doesn’t have to mean putting out a small fortune for supplements. If you’re eating a good variety of healthy, keto-friendly foods, your need for supplements will be pretty small. And with so many delicious keto foods to enjoy, it should be pretty simple!
Keto on, friends!