Chances are, if you are interested in optimizing body composition and living a healthy life, you are open to supplementation. Even if you eat a varied diet filled with an abundance of whole foods, there are certain nutrients you probably lack.
It can be difficult to know where to start. We’ve come up with this list of supplements that we call the Foundation Five because they will give you the biggest bang for your buck so that your body has all it needs to get the job done.
#1: Fish Oil
If you can only take one supplement, most experts will agree that getting adequate fish oil is the way to go.
Why You Need It:
Fish oil, which contains the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA, is so powerful because it is incorporated into the outside lipid layer of all your cells, allowing for better signaling or “messaging” between cells. In practical terms, this means your body will be able to burn fat stores for energy rather than relying strictly on glucose from carbohydrates.
Additionally, insulin sensitivity improves and metabolic rate is enhanced. Fish oil has a very high thermic effect, triggering the body to burn more calories following digestion. For example, one study found that when men increased their fish oil intake from half a gram to 3 grams a day for 2 weeks, they increased their thermic effect by 51 percent.
Fish oil is also necessary to offset the inflammatory effects of processed vegetable and seed oils such as soy or corn oil that most Westerners consume in high quantities. In practice, this translates into less stress, better hormone balance, improved cognition, and lower risk of degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer’s.
How Much Do You Need?
Aim to get 1 to 3 grams of EPA and DHA daily. Quality is very important when it comes to fish oil because reports show that many fish oil brands are contaminated, rancid, or don’t meet label claims. To test for rancidity, take a capsule and chew it up when you first open the bottle. Safe fish oil should have a mild taste, but rancid fish oil will taste acidic.
To combat high inflammation, try a high-EPA concentration fish oil.
To promote cognition and brain health, choose a high-DHA concentration fish oil.
For body composition, get a combination of EPA and DHA in a 3:2 ratio.
Many health-conscious people believe you can get all your nutrients from food. Nutritional surveys don’t support this. “Most people do not consume an optimal amount of vitamins through diet alone,” write the authors of a 2002 review in the highly respected Journal of the American Medical Association.
Why You Need It:
This graph from the 2010 NHANES survey that recorded the diet of Americans found that adults of all ages didn’t come close to meeting the Dietary Reference Intake DRI for many of the 21 most important micronutrients for health. Deficiencies were above 80 percent for vitamin D, vitamin E, potassium, and over 50 percent for choline, potassium, and magnesium.
This really shouldn’t come as a surprise when you remember that the average American has a high consumption of low-nutrient, high-calorie processed foods. However, even diets rich in whole foods are coming in as nutrient deficient due to the following factors:
The large use of pesticides and herbicides on crops significantly lowers nutritional quality.
Modern day farming practices mean the production of high yield crops depletes the soil of micronutrients.
Prescription drug use drastically depletes nutrient levels. Simply taking an oral birth control can sap your body of much needed nutrients including CoQ10, DHEA, folic acid, magnesium, tryptophan, tyrosine, vitamins B2, B6, B12, C, and E, and zinc. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here is a list of drugs that diminish nutrient levels in the body.
Chronic stress depletes vitamins and minerals at an accelerated rate. High levels of cortisol and adrenaline increase the use and excretion of vitamins such as A, C, D, E, K, B complex, and minerals including magnesium, calcium, phosphorous, chromium, selenium, zinc, and potassium.
Virtually every vitamin and mineral is involved in energy production and carbohydrate metabolism.
How To Choose A Multi?
Because multivitamins combine so many nutrients into one, quality is often compromised. All minerals are bound with another compound for stability. An easy way for companies to decrease production costs is to use mineral salts for binding. Mineral salts, which you can identify as carbonate, oxide, and sulfate are very poorly absorbed.
Poor absorption can be largely avoided by choosing minerals that are bound with an amino acid because they are treated by the body like proteins and are easily digested. Examples include taurate, glycinate, orotate, arginate, lysinate, and citrate.
It's also important to keep an eye out for multis that have high levels of preformed vitamin A (called retinyl palmitate or acetate on the label) and manganese because these can be toxic at higher levels.
Finally, folic acid should be the bioavailable tetra-hydrofolate form because other forms of folic acid are not absorbed by the 50 percent of the population that have a specific gene variation.
#3: Vitamin D
Mountains of research show that achieving healthy vitamin D levels is one of the easiest ways to prevent disease, promote long-term health, optimize body composition, and reduce injury and illness rates.
Why You Need It:
Vitamin D deficiency is rampant at all latitudes due to sunscreen use (SPF 15 reduces vitamin D synthesis by 98%). You’re pretty much guaranteed to have low D unless you actively seek out daily sun exposure without sunglasses or sunscreen.
Tons of research link vitamin D deficiency to heightened risk of heart disease, cancer, cognitive decline, and obesity. What follows are just a few reasons everyone should get enough D:
Vitamin D is a key player in achieving optimal body composition by supporting metabolic rate and preventing fat infiltration into muscle.
A healthy vitamin D level is necessary for a robust immune system. It’s also protective against musculoskeletal injuries and fractures.
It is associated with muscular strength and power. For example, a recent study found that overweight adults who took vitamin D in conjunction with a strength training program increased their explosive power significantly more than a group that didn’t take vitamin D.
The likelihood of having depression and other brain/mood disorders is significantly higher in vitamin D-deficient individuals, most likely because vitamin D enhances the metabolic processes in brain neurons, protecting the brain from oxidative degeneration.
Vitamin D has been linked with fighting numerous cancers including lung, breast, colon, and prostate. In the case of lung cancer, supplementing with vitamin D may help offset elevated levels of an enzyme that is associated the development of aggressive lung cancer tumors.
How Much Do You Need?
It’s important to check vitamin D levels periodically due to seasonal differences. Testing every 3 to 6 months is recommended.
In order to maintain vitamin D levels from sun exposure, scientists suggest you need to be in direct sunlight for at least 20 minutes daily between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.
Supplementing with 2,000 to 5,000 IUs daily in order to achieve a blood value between 50 and 80 ng/ml is the easy alternative if you have limited sun exposure.
Magnesium is an often overlooked mineral that affects more than 300 processes in the body, which is why it can feel like your health (and life!) are falling apart if you don’t get enough.
Why You Need It:
Due to changes in diet and a drop in soil quality, magnesium deficiency has become rampant. There’s been a gradual decline of dietary magnesium from a high of 500 mg/day in 1900 to barely 225 mg today, which is well below the U.S. RDA.
Magnesium has a calming effect on the nervous system, making it critical for stress management and restful sleep.
Serotonin, the brain chemical that elevates mood, is dependent on magnesium. Most anti-depressant drugs try to improve serotonin levels, but getting your magnesium up is natural and may be just as effective since it solves multiple problems at once.
Best known as the mineral of insulin sensitivity, magnesium is key for healthy blood sugar levels. During episodes of high blood sugar, the kidneys are unable to retain magnesium, creating a downward spiral of magnesium deficiency and progression into diabetes.
Lack of magnesium sends the nervous system into overdrive, leading to high blood pressure and overwhelming stress.
Exercise increases magnesium needs by 10 to 20 percent—partly due to high sweat levels and partly due to its role in stress management, fighting inflammation, and allowing the body to clear cortisol.
How To Test For It:
Only 0.3 percent of the magnesium stored in the body is in the blood, with the rest of it in the bone, muscle, and connective tissue. This makes your typical serum blood test useless for assessing magnesium status. Instead, a red blood cell test should be done with optimal values between 5.6 and 6.8 mg/dL for RBC magnesium.
How To Take It:
Scientists recommend 10 mg/kg/body weight of magnesium daily (400 to 1,200 mg). Supplement quality is key because if you take cheap magnesium chelates like magnesium oxide, it will cause overrelaxation of the bowel, leading to urgency going to the bathroom.
Look for magnesium that is bound with any of the following: citrate, malate, glycinate, threonate, taurate, fumarate, or orotate. Best results will come from taking different forms of magnesium in divided doses. For example, you could take magnesium glycinate after a morning workout and a blended magnesium at subsequent meals.
Probiotics are tiny bacteria that naturally occur in the gastrointestinal tract. When consumed in adequate amounts, probiotics provide a slew of health benefits.
Why You Need Them:
Digestion & GI Health—Probiotics aid digestion and absorption of nutrients in the gut. Not only do probiotics ensure your body can absorb vitamins, minerals, and protein from food, but they also affect the production of neurotransmitters that are made in the GI tract, allowing for better cognition and motivation.
Fat Loss—Supporting the growth of anti-inflammatory microflora in the gut can promote reductions in body fat. For example, a Japanese study found that by increasing probiotic intake for four weeks, participants decreased belly fat by 8.2 percent. Researchers believe probiotic foods help people lose belly fat by improving metabolism and raising an anti-inflammatory signal called adiponectin that improves the body’s ability to burn belly fat.
Detoxification—Probiotics displace pathogenic, harmful bacteria and improve the body’s ability to eliminate waste products and foreign compounds. They also help prevent damage to the liver and other organs due to alcohol, antibiotics, or everyday painkillers like Tylenol. In a study of rats, researchers found that administration of a probiotic for 7 days prior to Tylenol use prevented toxicity and damage to the liver, which was observed in a placebo-treated group.
What To Look For:
A key factor when choosing a probiotic is that the supplement you buy actually contains live microflora bacteria. Many products are only guaranteed at the time of manufacture, which means that the majority may have died off by the time you get around to taking them.
Instead, only buy probiotics that are guaranteed through the date of expiration. Also, it’s important that you get products containing the species and strain that have been tested in research and shown to have worthwhile outcomes. Here are seven examples of what to look for:
• Lactobacillus acidophilus NCFM
• Bifidobacterium lactis BI-07
• Bacillus Indicus HU36
• Bacillus Subtilis HU58
• Lactobacillus rhamnosus HN001
• Saccharomyces boulardii