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What you need to know before you pop that multivitamin pill

Popping a nutritional supplement without knowing your body's needs can be risky. Here are a few pointers that can help

Consulting a doctor or a qualified nutritionist on supplements to take can help you save time, money and reduce health risks.
Consulting a doctor or a qualified nutritionist on supplements to take can help you save time, money and reduce health risks. (Unsplash/danilo.alvesd)

When I first started working out, all I did was train hard in the mornings at the calisthenics park without paying any heed to my nutrition. Part of the reason was that the market was flooded with supplements, and I found the choices and their prices overwhelming enough to want to try them. While people in the fitness community seem to be open to try new supplements and magical pills, there are some questions one is wont to ask: Do we really need all those supplements to function in our day-to-day lives? Is good health meant to be this expensive? These questions are worth exploring but let's first acquaint ourselves with the word – bioavailability. 

Also read: How to incorporate wellness into your everyday routine

What is bioavailability?
World Health Organisation describes it as, ‘The ability of a micronutrient or a drug to be absorbed and used by the body.’ Wait, does this imply that the multivitamin pill or supplement we consume does not always get absorbed by the body? Short answer? Yes. If you’re popping multivitamin pills without understanding much about nutrition, you’re most likely peeing the nutrients out.

“The efficacy of absorption of the supplement depends on various factors like the gut health of the individual, the source of raw materials, the formulations used as well as the way the supplement was processed,” says Dr Dhairya Dalwadi, co-founder of Fitnat, India’s first online physiotherapy service based in Vadodara. Sometimes there are no strict regulations followed at supplement manufacturing units, so it'd serve you well to be aware of brands that promise fast results for generic problems such as sleeplessness, weight gain or poor immunity. The promise of quick results is a red flag because no one supplement can cure a specific problem if it's not accompanied with a change in lifestyle. 

Understanding micronutrients 

Micronutrients can be divided into two categories - vitamins and minerals. Vitamins are either fat-soluble or water-soluble. Now, this is important to note: if there is an excess of water-soluble vitamins B and C in your body, they will simply be excreted by the kidneys. On the other hand,  an excess of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K can build up in your body over time and lead to vitamin toxicity because they are stored in your tissues. 

Most over-the-counter supplements have a combination of these vitamins with an addition of minerals in different dosages or proprietary blends. These products are marketed to target groups like athletes, menopausal women, and the geriatric population. While it sounds like an easy solution to just blindly buy them, it's essential to remember that these supplements may work differently for each one of us owing to factors like our genes, the food we consume, and our lifestyles. Different bodies will have differing needs for micronutrients. For instance, an athlete would require magnesium citrate for performance while a woman over the age of 40 would require magnesium glycinate to help manage her menopausal symptoms. So, how do you go about deciding what supplements your body needs? Here are few pointers that will help: 

1. Get a micronutrient profile blood test 
“I believe that most deficiencies can be managed by adjusting your diet. A supplement should only be taken if consuming it through natural food sources is not sustainable,” says Dr Umesh Wadhavani, Bengaluru-based corporate wellness coach and nutrition expert. He recommends getting a ‘full body check-up and blood test’ if you are over 40 or a ‘micronutrient profile blood test’ if you are younger and in good shape. These tests will give you an idea about nutritional deficiencies in your body, based on which you can buy the required supplement(s) on a health professional's advice, Wadhavani says. 

Also read: A guide to eating healthy the naturopathy way

2. Gain an understanding of nutrition fundamentals 
Many nutritionists offer short courses that cover the basics of nutrition. This will help you understand how your body functions, and which supplements will be the most helpful to your chosen lifestyle. These courses will also help you figure out the basics of diet to manage your macronutrient needs like proteins, carbs, and fats.

3. Consult a health professional or a nutritionist
A health professional will not only take your blood report into account but also closely read clinical symptoms (brittle nails, pale eyes), lifestyle habits (sleep, alcohol consumption), amount of physical and mental activity as well as your present diet. “I always make my clients note down what they eat for a week or fortnight and then compare my evaluation of their health against it before recommending supplements or diet changes,” Dalwadi says. 

4. Choose your supplement brands smartly
Look for brands which are third-party tested in labs. This means the testing of supplements is done by an organisation that is not involved in the production and formulation of the product. It also means different batches of the same product are tested continuously, over a long period of time. While purchasing a supplement, read the label to see if the brand is declaring this information. Not just that, while choosing your brand(s), it is always good to run them by a certified nutritionist for a second opinion.

Generally speaking, most micronutrients are best absorbed by the body when they come from your food.  So, it is good practice to invest in an expert who can guide you to manage your food and spend only on supplements that are absolutely necessary. Not only will you be saving time and money, it'll also help you avoid risks involved in unmonitored intake of nutritional supplements. 

Anupama Shivacharya is an independent journalist and calisthenics coach based in Bengaluru. 

Also read: How much carb loading should you do before a marathon?





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