Can Personalized Vitamins or Supplements Improve Health and Performance?

Photo credit: FotografiaBasica - Getty Images
Photo credit: FotografiaBasica – Getty Images

From Bicycling

As cyclists, we tend to be healthier than the average person, thanks to logging miles on the road, trainer sessions, and focusing on fueling workouts with smart nutrition choices. (That’s not to say we don’t indulge after a hard effort or once we cross the finish line of a goal race.) But because of this focus on nutrition, dietitians often tell cyclists to aim for whole foods—if we “eat the rainbow,” there’s really no need to supplement with vitamins.

And while that’s generally true, for some, there is a time and place when it might be beneficial to explore adding a vitamin or mineral supplement. When it comes time to choose one, it can be downright confusing, especially now that companies are rolling out “personalized” vitamins or pill packs that are catered to a specific person.

We spoke with two dietitians on how best to navigate the supplement aisle, or in the case of personalized vitamins, the online quizzes.

Do I Need a Supplement?

Your diet should cover your bases if you’re eating a wide variety of foods including colorful fruits and vegetables. But there are certain times when there might be gaps in your nutrition, explains sports dietitian Lindsey Pfau, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D, owner of Rise Up Nutrition.

“Supplements come into play if you’re in a specific situation in which you need extra support,” Pfau tells Runner’s World. “As an athlete, this doesn’t mean you always need it, but you might need support to help you out if you’re training for a marathon or stressing your body in a new way.”

These stresses might be training for a new distance, coming back from injury, training at altitude, or for some women, struggling with amenorrhea—the loss of menstruation. The only way to truly know if you’re deficient in a vitamin or mineral is through blood work.

Pfau says that if you’re having symptoms of a vitamin or mineral deficiency, like fatigue, it’s a good idea to get tested. If you’re not having any symptoms, routine blood work is a proactive way to keep your numbers in check. You might even find during routine blood work that you are deficient in something. This often happens with vitamin D, for example.

If you’ve found that you might benefit from adding a supplement to your diet, it should only be over the short term, Pfau says.

“Supplements should fill in the nutritional gaps,” she says. “But you should be asking, ‘Why are there gaps? Can I fill the gap with whole foods first?’ If I can’t, then I’d use a supplement to overcome that gap, but I shouldn’t rely on a supplement for my whole life.”

She also points out that while people might report feeling better once they start taking vitamins, follow-up blood work is the only way to confirm if levels are actually increasing.

“People who start taking vitamins might feel great, but is it really because of the vitamins, or is it because of this habit you’ve created, like waking up and drinking 16 ounces of water, taking vitamins, and doing yoga?” Pfau says.

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What Are Personalized Vitamins?

“Personalized” vitamins are a big trend right now but some of that buzz is marketing. Unless a supplement company tests your blood and produces a pill specific to your exact needs, a vitamin is not personalized.

That said, you will likely get a more personalized approach to a supplement regimen by answering a few questions from one of these companies than if you walk blindly into a store, Pfau says. “But unless you’re working with [a professional] one-on-one, these supplements aren’t going to be super personalized.”

Companies like Nurish by Nature Made and Rigr Centrum ask customers to answer questions about their sex, age, physical activity levels, whether they’ve been told they’re low in a certain vitamin or mineral, interests, and health goals. This information helps the company create a supplement pack for those individual needs. (It’s worth noting that the Rigr quiz does not ask whether a woman is pregnant, planning to become pregnant, or breastfeeding, which means she wouldn’t be given a critical prenatal or postnatal supplement. For Nurish, you are asked and are able to go back into your profile and make changes when you experience a lifestyle change like pregnancy.)

The algorithm behind Nurish was developed by the company’s internal science team, which includes Ph.D.s, research scientists, and registered dietitians, says Susan H. Mitmesser, vice president of science and technology with Nurish by Nature Made.

The company also uses other tools developed by healthcare professionals and scientists to determine nutrient gaps and core nutrient needs to inform the algorithm.

Frances Largeman-Roth, R.D., author of Eating in Color and a spokesperson for Nurish by Nature Made, says that without talking to a health or dietary professional, it can be hard for people to figure out what they need.

“What these quizzes and assessments try to figure out is what is unique about you that makes you potentially need something more than just a women’s or men’s multivitamin, or prenatal vitamin,” Largeman-Roth tells Runner’s World.

Nurish by Nature Made confirmed that the supplements it sells are the same supplements you would get if you purchased, say, a prenatal supplement from Nature Made. The personalization comes in the form of the pack.

In other words, a vitamin or mineral billed as “personalized” isn’t better than a regular supplement because they’re the same pill. But if you take a quiz it’s likely you’ll end up with a more catered supplement regimen. The packs also come packaged per day, which offers a level of convenience for travel or busy mornings on the go.

What Should I Look for in a Supplement?

If you’ve decided that your health and performance might benefit from taking a vitamin or mineral supplement, some brands are better than others. The supplement industry is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which means what you’re taking may not actually be what you think you’re taking—whether that’s the labeled ingredient or amount.

“[F]or many of these products that contain many ingredients, they are put together in proprietary blends where you learn the amounts in their combinations, but not individually,” Paul R. Thomas, Ed.D., R.D.N., scientific consultant for the Office of Dietary Supplements at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), previously told Runner’s World. “Without knowing the amount in individual ingredients, you can’t look up information as to if it will be effective or harmful.” And without this oversight, supplement companies can also make false claims about health and performance.

Pfau and Largeman-Roth recommend looking for brands that have third-party certifications, including United States Pharmacopeia (USP), NSF for Sport, Informed Choice, and Banned Substance Control Group. Pfau points out that the sports-specific certifications can help keep athletes from taking supplements that include banned substances for competition.

“The biggest red flag for me as a dietitian is when a supplement company says they’re certified in ‘good manufacturing processes’ but don’t have one of those four labels,” Pfau says. “If I see that you’re FDA-approved, you’re not, because supplements are not regulated.”

Supplement labels that claim, for example, to reduce the risk of cancer or shed weight fast should be avoided, Pfau says. “No supplement is a magic pill,” she says. “Be cautious of the claims.”

And Largeman-Roth emphasizes that a supplement should supplement your diet.

“People should be getting most of their nutrients from food,” she says, noting that most Americans do not eat enough fruits and vegetables. “Look at supplements as a way to cover your butt on days that are not perfect days.”

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