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How to Know When to Supplement Your Diet

Sometimes your intentions are there but your work, family, and lifestyle demands get in the way of you eating the way you would prefer.  If there was only a pill you could take to make up for it.  Well, there is not unfortunately.  Nothing fully replaces good nutrition from food, even though there are many supplements that claim to do so. But there are certain foods that you can likely never eat enough of to get their full health benefits, and that is when functional food supplements can play an important role when used along with proper nutrition habits.

Supplements are especially beneficial in situations where eating the amount of food necessary to achieve a desired health benefit is challenging. Four examples of when supplements are usually a must to help you achieve the desired outcome are: Nitric Oxide, vitamin D, vitamin B-12 for older individuals, and Omega-3, especially for non-fish eaters.


To get the healthy blood pressure support benefits of high nitrate foods as well as the many other proposed benefits, you really need to eat about 2 cups or more every single day. High nitrate vegetables include kale, arugula, spinach, swiss chard, and beets. Even the most practiced vegetable eaters likely don’t consume 2 cups or more of these vegetables every single day, even with juicing. If this is you, a beet supplement may benefit you, especially if you are over the age of forty when nitric oxide production in the body plummets. Look for a beet supplement that is pure dried and concentrated whole food. It should have a nutrition facts label instead of a supplement label because it is a whole food product. These powders can be mixed with water or may be added into a smoothie to be easily consumed daily, or just on days you can’t quite meet your 2 c. quota of high nitrate veg.


Vitamin D exists naturally in very few foods.  It is mainly in egg yolks and fatty fish. Most people think you get it in dairy products as well.  In the 1930’s the US government began mandating that Vitamin D be added to milk in order to prevent deficiency and aid calcium absorption in our country. Dairy products do not naturally contain much Vitamin D. So why is Vitamin D so important that almost every cell in the body has receptors to use it, but it is hardly found in many foods?  We are supposed to get all we need from sunlight. However, most of us are not spending thirty minutes every day with a majority of our body in direct sunlight. Especially as we get older, we are more concerned about protecting our bodies from the sun and relaxing in the sun is the last thing we have time for. Living at certain latitudes where sunshine is more limited also is a major restraint for getting vitamin D the natural way. Studies show that about half of Americans are deficient in Vitamin D and those that aren’t may still have inadequate levels for ideal health. All of these reasons make an easy case for Vitamin D supplementation. It takes a long time and a lot of Vitamin D supplementation to even bring you to normal levels if you are deficient. The IOM recommends about 800 IU Vitamin D daily for those over 50 years old.


Since age decreases the stomach acid necessary for Vitamin B-12 absorption, eating more of it may not alleviate a deficiency. Even though it is a water soluble vitamin, your body actually stores several months’ worth of B-12 in order to help prevent shortage related complications. This is because B-12 is essential for proper red blood cell formation, which your body must produce billions of each day. Low B-12 levels are commonly associated with fatigue and weakness. Getting extra B-12, above your needs will not necessarily give you more red blood cells or more energy. But ensuring you are not deficient is important for optimizing all of those functions. This is why it may be necessary for many older adults to supplement B-12. In fact, the IOM (Institute of Medicine) recommends that adults older than 50 years get most of their B-12 from vitamin supplements or fortified foods instead of relying on their normal diet. Since 1% of oral B-12 supplements can be absorbed without the aid of stomach acid (or intrinsic factor), a high dose of B-12 supplement may effectively prevent deficiency in older adults.


If you do not eat at least 7 oz. of fatty fish (salmon, lake trout, albacore tuna, herring, or sardines), per week, you may benefit from an Omega-3 fish oil supplement daily (1000 mg/day EPA and DHA). Omega-3 from marine based sources provides the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA. These fatty acids are called essential because they are just that. Your body cannot make them, yet they are required for several physiological processes. These two fatty acids have been found to help reduce inflammation and may help support cardiovascular health. Although plant based sources of Omega-3 (nuts and seeds) are beneficial, they do not provide the same benefits as the marine based sources of Omega-3. Getting the minimum amount of Omega-3 may meet your essential needs, but it may not be enough for the cardio-protective and anti-inflammation benefits. The more Omega-3 you get from food, the greater your chances are of reaping the extra benefits. If you are supplementing Omega-3 Fish oil, you may not want to exceed 3000 mg/day without doctor supervision as it may have a blood thinning effect.


As with all supplements, be sure you talk with your doctor first before you beginning taking them. Always aim to get as much of your nutrition as possible from whole food sources. However, you may find that certain supplements may benefit you above and beyond what you are able to actually consume via food.


Clarke R, Birks J, Nexo E, Ueland PM, Schneede J, Scott J, et al. Low vitamin B-12 status and risk of cognitive decline in older adults. Am J Clin Nutr 2007;86:1384-91. [PubMed abstract]

ODS Vitamin B-12 Dietary Supplement Fact Sheet. National Institutes of Health. Accessed Oct. 2016

Gebauer SK, et al. n-3 Fatty Acid Dietary Recommendations and Food Sources to Achieve Essentiality and Cardiovascular Benefits. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. June 2006. 83(6 Suppl.):1526S-1535S.

Simopoulos AP. The Importance of the Ratio of Omega-6/Omega-3 Essential Fatty Acids. Biomed Parmacother. Oct. 2002. 56(8):365-79.

Author Mari-Etta Parrish RD, CSSD, LDN

Mari-Etta Parrish RD, CSSD, LDN, RD and endurance athelete

MariEtta Parrish is a Registered Dietitian, Exercise Physiologist, and endurance athlete. She is also a board certified Sports Nutritionist. After working in clinical and community nutrition for a decade, she combined her passion for nutrition and exercise by founding her own sports nutrition consulting company, called Healthlete. MariEtta has co-authored medical text books and been a keynote speaker for multiple conferences. She is currently the team dietitian for the two professional sport teams in Nashville, as well as an adjunct professor at Lipscomb University. She provides an effective evidence-based approach to help individuals achieve their goals using: focus, food, and fitness- from the weekend warrior to the professional athlete. Most importantly, she “practices what she preaches.”

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