So you’re embarking on a weight loss journey, ready to upgrade the quality and selection of your food choices, and you start ramping up your physical activity and formal exercise to stimulate changes in your physique. What (if any) supplements should you take to support your progress?
I’m a big fan of trying to get as many nutrients as you can from food alone. But in my experience, it’s rather difficult (if not impossible) for most people to even come close. Reviews of the research suggest that micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) inadequacies are widespread to a point where they could be hurting our chances of maintaining optimal health[i].
Even among healthy people with relatively well-planned diets, it’s not always possible (or likely in my experience) to get adequate amounts of all essential micronutrients to avoid the chronic nutrient shortfalls that can lead to health problems[ii].
Some researchers refer to this conundrum as “hidden hunger” because we can so easily consume enough (or too many) calories before we achieve adequate intake of several vitamins and minerals[iii], [iv].
On top of these challenges, there’s the consideration that weight loss efforts almost always require a prolonged period of cutting back on calories, which often means cutting back on nutrient intake.
And there’s evidence that suggests it could take between 2,425 to 5,000 calories per day to supply the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA*) for 21 of 27 essential vitamins and minerals, depending on which type of diet you choose[v].
If I asked you to eat 5,000 calories per day of the DASH diet to lose weight, (selected as the best overall diet by a panel of experts two years in a row[vi]) you’d think I was completely off my rocker. But that’s how many calories of the “best diet” it takes to meet the RDA for all 21 nutrients.
(*Note: the RDA is the amount of a given nutrient required to prevent deficiency syndromes, not necessarily the amount you need to achieve optimal function.)
Multivitamin (of high quality)
Although recent reviews of multivitamin studies have questioned multivitamin supplements’ effectiveness for preventing chronic disease and mortality, they also recognize there is “moderate to strong” evidence that multivitamin use should be considered to improve micronutrient status, enhance cognition, memory, anxiety, stress, or depression[vii].
As one group of researchers argues,
“Inadequate micronutrient intake, sometimes at borderline levels of deficiency, has been linked to stunted growth and neurocognitive deficits, as well as increased risks of various symptoms and conditions. Most nutrients act in all tissues, and all tissues need all nutrients; therefore, inadequate intakes may adversely affect every body system, but with more pronounced effects in some than others[viii].”
So what could happen if you just “take your multivitamin” like you may have heard at some point from your mother, doctor, or trainer?
A six month, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study of obese Chinese women showed the multivitamin group lost the most weight, reduced waist circumference, lost the most fat, retained lean mass, increased resting energy expenditure, improved fat metabolism, decreased blood pressure, lowered fasting glucose, reduced fasting insulin, lowered total cholesterol and triglycerides more than the other groups[ix]. All of these changes we attributed to simply having a consistent supply of essential vitamins and minerals from the multivitamin/mineral supplement.
Another 8 week randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed simple micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) supplementation increased fat oxidation, total energy expenditure (metabolism), and improved vasodilation and cerebral blood flow during cognitive performance tests[x]. The cool thing about this study is that the subjects were considered to be “healthy” and at a nutritional status representative of the average population – the very folks that many doctors may not encourage to take a multivitamin.
Perhaps the wide variety of multivitamin formulations and extreme variations in quality of ingredients are preventing researchers from observing the possible benefits of multivitamin use for overall metabolic health or disease prevention?
At Life Time Fitness, we feel it’s our responsibility to offer the most efficacious forms of the nutrients in our formulas. We use vitamin and mineral forms that have shown superior absorbability (i.e. methylated folate and B12 instead of synthetic folic acid or cyanocobalamin for B12, and minerals as bis-glycinate chelates to name a few). We also make it a point to package our multivitamin formulas in easily digestible capsules that don’t require the use of binders, fillers, or ‘pharmaceutical glaze’ (shellac) to hold them together.
Omega-3 Fish Oil
Omega-3 fatty acids are frequently in the news regarding their health benefits (or doubts about their benefits). Two types of omega-3 fatty acids in particular - eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docohexaenoic acid (DHA) – are known to be essential fatty acids. “Essential” refers to the fact that our cells need these fatty acids in order to function normally. But the body cannot make them from other fats, which means it’s “essential” we supply them in our diet or through supplementation.
Just as it’s important to supply our cells with adequate vitamins and minerals to function, it’s also imperative that our cells have adequate omega-3 fats to maintain cell membrane health – the part of the cell responsible for allowing nutrients in and waste products out.
Most U.S. adults fail to consume adequate amounts of foods rich in EPA and DHA on a regular basis (at least 8 ounces of fatty fish per week is recommended)[xi], and probably consume too many omega-6 fats in comparison (soybean oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, etc.). This omega-3:omega-6 imbalance can have a negative effect on inflammation patterns and may also be implicated as a contributing factor to other processes related to cellular metabolism, hormone signaling, and even weight regulation.
So, whether it’s low intake of fatty fish or higher than optimal omega-6 intake I see in clients, there’s enough good reason to recommend taking supplemental omega-3 fish oil, especially with weight loss or fat loss is the goal.
A six week, double-double study on fish oil supplementation for body composition showed that the group taking 4 grams/day of fish oil (contained 1600mg if EPA & 800mg of DHA) experienced a significant increase in lean body mass and significant decrease in fat mass compared to a group that took safflower oil (an omega-6 oil)[xii]. The fish oil group also saw a tendency for decreases in cortisol, a hormone associated with belly fat gain when elevated.
Fish oil supplementation to pad the omega-3 intake of the diet also appears to be helpful for reducing fat mass and improving lipid markers in subjects with Type 2 diabetes or insulin resistance as well[xiii],[xiv].
There’s evidence that points to the mechanism behind the effects of fish oil on body composition, showing that fat burning at rest is increased with 6 grams/day of fish oil supplementation[xv], and additional research suggests that higher omega-3 levels may be helpful for enhancing satiety during weight loss efforts[xvi]. Other evidence suggests that fat loss may be a side-effect of the reduction in inflammation that fish oil can help with. Any way you look at it, supporting your dietary habits with 4 or more grams of fish oil per day is probably a good idea.
As with other supplements, when it comes to quality, you get what you pay for. Life Time Fitness sources its omega-3 fish oil (both capsules and liquid) from sustainable fisheries off the coast of Chile. We only use oils from small, cold-water anchovy, sardine, and mackerel. It’s molecularly distilled to be sure it’s free of mercury, PCBs, and heavy metals. If your fish oil brand doesn’t name the species of fish it’s sourced from, or it lists larger, predatory species, the quality and purity of the oil could be less than optimal.
What happens if you ask ninety overweight people to add two supplement beverages per day to their normal eating pattern and not change anything else? One research group found that it depends on what is in the beverage.
Volunteers were asked to drink equal calories of either whey protein, soy protein, or carbohydrate as beverages added to their normal diet for 23 weeks. The whey protein group ended up losing about 4 pounds while the soy and carb supplement groups saw no change in weight or body composition. The whey group actually lost an average of 5 pounds of fat (but added a pound of lean tissue)[xvii]. The beverages differed in their effect on appetite control hormones as well – the whey protein group had lower levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin compared to the soy and carb groups.
The hunger-curbing effects in the above study is in line with other evidence that shows higher protein diets can reduce cravings by up to 60% and it suggests that adding protein in the form of a supplement like whey can be as effective as extra food protein[xviii].
If you’re afraid of adding extra protein for some reason (the “added” calories or the misunderstood effects on bone health), there’s evidence showing that consuming 5.5 times the RDA of protein doesn’t have any negative effects at all in healthy, weight-lifting adults. In fact, the data suggest that if you’re going to overeat and care about body composition, you should eat extra protein as it’s least likely to be stored as fat[xix].
Whey protein use is also beneficial for blood pressure, blood vessel function, controlling inflammation, normalizing blood sugar, and improving mood under stress [xx],[xxi],[xxii],[xxiii].
In strength training individuals, whey protein has shown superiority to another dairy-based protein, casein, as well. Those using whey protein (1.5g/kg/day) had greater gains in strength and greater loss of body fat over the 10-week study[xxiv]. It’s believed that the high branched-chain amino acid content of whey and easy digestion make it one of the highest quality sources of amino acids (building blocks for protein) available.
High quality whey should be sourced from grass-fed cows as it may offer additional health and immune benefits due to its lactoferrin, alpha- and beta-lactalbumin content[xxv]. Life Time Fitness sources our whey from grass-fed cows in New Zealand, where dairy industry standards are considered best in the world.
Of course, if you can’t tolerate dairy, you could substitute with a similar complete protein supplement like our Vegan Protein or Vegan Protein Plus All-in-One.
In health, Paul Kriegler, Registered Dietitian and Life Time Fitness - Nutrition Program Development Manager.
This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.
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Q: Can a multivitamin improve my fitness results and sports performance?
A: In a roundabout way, yes. Improve your overall health and your performance will follow suit. “Taking a daily multivitamin isn’t going to increase your sports performance right away, but it will help over the long term,” says Mike Roussell, PhD, author of The Six Pillars of Nutrition: A Simple Diet Solution for Permanent Weight Loss, Better Health, and a Longer Life (Dream Big Publishing, 2011). “Multivitamins can help fill any essential nutrient gaps in your diet and correct deficiencies that could compound over time and work against your fitness results,” he explains. If you’re an athlete, Roussell suggests considering an additional mineral supplement that provides extra zinc and magnesium. These minerals are readily depleted during intense activity, and magnesium depletion in healthy people has been shown to decrease cardiovascular function during exercise. But don’t megadose on any supplement unless you’re following the advice of your health professional. And, keep in mind that the natural form is always better than synthetic, so whenever possible, eat real food instead of relying on a laboratory-based chemical process.