Written by Chelsea Boissonneault, Certified Personal Trainer & Nutritional Counsellor

These days, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t pop a vitamin or supplement as a part of their diet, especially in the fitness community. Health and fitness supplements are legion, from the basics like multivitamins and fish oil, to more specialized sports products like L-carnitine and glutamine.

Depending on your goals, many supplements can provide some kind of a benefit to your health and even your fitness. But is more necessarily better? Does cost reflect quality? And how often should you change them up?

If your head starts spinning every time you step in the vitamin aisle, read on. With the help of Bruce Bonner, a registered nutritional consulting practitioner who runs the Living Science Wellness Centre in Ottawa, Ontario, we’ve got your questions answered so you can be smart about supplementation.

A:  This really depends on your health and fitness goals. The key thing to remember is that a supplement, as it’s name implies, is intended to supplement a quality diet of wholesome, whole foods. It is a way to optimize your intake of vital nutrients and optimize your metabolic function. Supplements are not substitute for eating poorly.
A:  Just because you may be taking supplements that can accelerate weight loss with exercise, or build more muscle mass with weight training, doesn’t mean you should increase your time in the gym. Your body needs time to replenish itself with the supplements you are taking. Keep your intense training sessions to approximately 45 minutes and allow for adequate rest days to avoid overtraining.

A:  Anytime that you don’t understand how it works and what effect it may have on your body, says Bonner. It’s easy to be seduced by colourful advertising and bold product claims, but everyone’s body chemistry is different. What works for you may not for someone else, and vice-versa.

For example, some women can’t tolerate the daily-recommended dosage of calcium. Instead, they may require more magnesium. Failing to keep the intake of these two supplements in balance can lead to achiness and disrupted sleep.

Another example is Vitamin D.
“Some people think it’s OK to take 5,000 IUs a day because it emulates sunlight,” says Bruce. “But if someone is taking a dose that high or greater for prolonged periods of time without enough Vitamin A and K2, imbalances will occur that can lead to conditions like osteoporosis.”

A:  It depends on the supplement and how it interacts with the body. Again, it comes back to taking the dosage that is appropriate for you based on your body chemistry.
Some common supplements can have toxic side effects if taken in excess. Zinc is a perfect example. It can cause stomach pain, fever, fatigue and coughing, and even contribute to prostate cancer in men if you overdo it. And yet, it is an “essential trace element” vital for human health. If the product label or fact sheet warns you against taking a supplement for an extended period, take it to heart.

In other cases, it is important to rotate the source of a nutrient. Eating the same form of the same nutrient for an extended period can lead your body to build up an intolerance that reduces how well your body can absorb it. Protein is a great example. Whether it’s red meat, poultry, or protein powders derived from either whey or vegan sources, it’s important to change it up.

A:  Supplements may not be prescription medications, but there can still be interactions. At the very least, one type of supplement can negate the benefits of another.
“I find a lot of clients are taking a supplements with medication or excess fibre, which means you can’t absorb them well,” says Bruce.

It’s all too easy to start with a few supplements, then add more as you learn about others. In no time, you could be taking a cocktail of them every day before breakfast.
Instead, stagger your consumption throughout the day. Consider which supplements are best taken in the morning or before bed, with food or without, or before, during or after a workout.

A: Pay close attention to the list of non-medicinal ingredients. This is where poor-quality supplements will betray themselves with cheap binders, fillers, sweeteners and artificial colours and flavours.

The next place to look is the list of vitamins and minerals for their sources. Cheap forms of minerals, for example, such as those identified as carbonates or oxides, are often more difficult for the body to absorb.

A:  Studies have shown that 90 percent of people can get the full and proper balance of vitamins and minerals through diet alone, assuming they have a healthy and clean one.
Whole foods have the edge on supplements for three key reasons:
• Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs
• Whole foods provide essential dietary fibre
• Whole foods contain other substances important to your health, such as phytochemicals, which may help protect you against cancer.

Of course, if you are engaging in strenuous physical activities such as weight-training, that are forcing your body to adapt and change, the right supplementation at the right time isn’t only beneficial, it may be necessary to your body’s recovery. So if you’re training consistently, you’re likely doing yourself a favor by sipping those branch chain amino acids during your tough workouts, and following up with a protein shake right after (although it’s always a good rule of thumb to get cleared from your doctor first).