The Essential Guide to Nutritional Supplements – the Basics

This post is Part 1 of a 2 part guide on nutritional supplements. In Part 2, I cover Vitamin C, Supergreens supplements, Resveratrol, Creatine, Nootropics, Herbal Tonics, Soylent, Colloidal Silver and D-Mannose. Both guides are independent and unaffiliated. 

Supplements are quite often the afterthought of human nutrition. We put so much thought into what to eat and the best ways to exercise, only to totally neglect the basics.

But not having a strategy for meeting your nutrient requirement makes you a little like a Quentin Tarantino movie – all style, no substance. We need to lay the foundations first! Plus, being deficient in vital nutrients makes working out and looking hot even harder work. And no one likes hard work.

Below is a proposed strategy for meeting your nutrition requirements, reflecting what we (the health community, science and research) currently know.

I’m not going to talk about any new-fangled super greens supplements that assist with meeting micronutrient requirements (great if you can afford them), or synthetic vitamin pills (probably a waste of time and money). I’ve just limited the discussion to the really essential stuff.

  • Fish Oil
  • Vitamin D
  • B12
  • Probiotics
  • Whey protein and plant based protein powders

A reminder on what nutritional supplements we actually need

Okay, pretend like you’re in human biology class at school, and you’re actually listening instead of fantasizing about a pash with your teacher.

The human diet needs calories (energy/carbohydrates), amino acids (protein), fat (essential fatty acids), dietary fiber (a form of carbohydrate), vitamins and minerals, and chocolate. Oh alright then, not the last one!

The nutrients are categorized as either ‘macronutrients’ (needed in relatively large amounts) or ‘micronutrients’ (needed in smaller quantities). The macronutrients are carbohydrates, fats, fiber, proteins, and water. The micronutrients are minerals and vitamins.

You’ll never ever need to supplement calories and water – if you’re low in either, just eat or drink more. Being dehydrated is never a good idea. Lowering calories, however, might be – but more on that another time.

If you are eating a varied and healthy diet based on wholefoods, and you aren’t affected by an absorption issue, you shouldn’t need to supplement vitamins and minerals and fiber either. The exceptions (for reasons I go into below) are B12 and Vitamin D.

However, unless you are super diligent with your diet, and have access to all the right stuff, you probably need to supplement in order to meet your needs for fatty acids and protein.

Lesson over. Now let’s get to the practical stuff.

Fish Oil – Balancing the Scales

Even your old dad has heard that a fish oil supplement might be a good idea.

Staggering numbers of studies have been done on fish oil and human health (it is probably one of the most tested areas in nutrition).

The upshot of the studies is that including fatty fish in our diet is one of the key things we can do for healthy ageing and particularly for a healthy brain. If you need further convincing, one cool recent study even showed that fish oil supplementing improves metabolism.

Chewing the fat

Our need for fat in our diets is specifically in the form Essential Fatty Acids (‘EFAs’), Omega 3 and 6.

As our bodies can’t make those, we need to either get them from our diets or a supplement.

Getting Omega 6 into our diets isn’t usually a problem as they are so commonly available in food. That’s why you don’t hear about Omega 6 supplements.

We need an optimal balance of Omega 3 and 6 (1:1), so your nutritional strategy should reflect that. I talk more about that below. Basically, you can’t go too far wrong if you avoid the processed foods and oils that are high in Omega 6, and opt for the wholefoods sources such as hemp seed.

EPA, DHA and ALA – the acronyms you can’t live without

These three are your friends.

EPA and DHA (the ‘long chain’ fats) are found in fish (and therefore fish oil). Specifically, they are found in fatty fish from cold northern waters – wild salmon, mackerel, herring, sardines and bluefish.

ALA (‘short chain’ fats) is found in non-meat based sources such as flaxseed and walnuts.

With ALA, the body needs to convert it to DHA and EPA before it can be used, and that process is inefficient. This is the reason that fish and fish oil is said to be the superior source of EFAs, and the same reason why veganism gets a bad rap sometimes.

Controversy with supplementation

Studies on whether the benefits of eating fish transfer to using fish oil supplements aren’t conclusive.

There is also a big issue with contamination with certain fish oil supplements.

Experts have flagged up concerns that those following a vegetarian or vegan diet don’t get enough of the health promoting DHAs.

Vegans reluctant to use fish oil argue that they are able to get enough through plant sources, and DHA supplements that have been extracted from algae (i.e. plants of the sea). However, research suggests these might not be ideal unless combined with other sources.

Some health experts have reported that they have improved their blood work by incorporating fish into their diets after eating a vegan diet.

Best strategy

Here is a good approach to meeting your need for EFAs:

  • If you have access to coldwater fish (wild salmon and mackerel) and know you’ll eat it three times per week (by steaming or poaching, and not overcooking), then don’t bother with a supplement.
  • In any other case, source a high quality fish oil supplement. Around 4 grams a day is optimal and you take it with your meal.
  • Go for a daily source of ALA. Throw flaxseed in your pancake or smoothie.

You don’t need to actively minimize Omega 6 if you avoid processed foods in your diet.

If you eat a vegan diet, supplement with an algae-based DHA, which might be as good.

Note it is now possible to test for Omega 3 deficiency, but it is not as easy as sourcing other tests. (Another test that you could do to point towards a deficiency in EFAs is a C-Reactive Protein test).

If you’re not going to get tested, then the biggest clue is skin dryness.

Vitamin D – it’s not all sunshine and flowers

For a ton of reasons, a growing number of us are deficient in this micronutrient.

Deficiency has been linked to lots of disease, but the studies do not definitively prove that lack of Vitamin D causes disease – or that supplements would lower risk.

Probably the most important issue is that constant low levels might compromise our immune system. On that subject, there is a growing body of research investigating the use of Vitamin D to address various states of disease.

You’re said to be at increased risk of deficiency for all sorts of reasons, including if you have dark skin, but the only sure way to know is to get a blood test.

Shower-dodgers victorious

Vitamin D is produced by the body in response to skin being exposed to sunlight (it’s that oily film you get). That is the way we are designed to get it.

Problematically, research has shown that Vitamin D that is formed is on the surface of your skin does not immediately penetrate into your bloodstream. One study even showed that it takes up to 48 hours before you absorb the majority of Vitamin D made on your skin. That’s a long time not to wash!

Our ability to make Vitamin D is affected by a lot of other factors, too.

Although Vitamin D does occur naturally in a few foods, it’s nearly impossible to get enough – so don’t even try.

Best strategy

Here’s how to supplement Vitamin D:

  • Supplement with an oral spray. We need around 5000 IU per day (stands for ‘international units’).
  • Get out in the sun (free of makeup and with as much skin on show as is decent) each day between 11am and 3pm.

Guidelines for sensible sun exposure

We are taught to avoid the sun so as to diminish the risk of skin cancer. The link between sun exposure and skin cancer is a topic of debate but that will be covered in a future post.

In terms of some guidelines for safe sun exposure, experts recommend roughly estimating the amount of time it would take for your skin to turn slightly darker, and reducing that time by 50% if you have fair skin, and 25% for darker skin.

Get that amount of exposure between 11am and 3pm, 2 or 3 times per week.

Don’t wash right after sun exposure. Yes, even if you have a party or a date to go to. If anyone asks why you look so moist, you can give them an education in Vitamin D.


Your B12 wellness affects your brain health, and is critical for optimal health in various ways. There are a few clues that point to deficiency, but the definitive way to know whether you’re low is to get a blood test.

If you are eating enough good food sources of Vitamin B12 (see below), and your digestion works properly, you might not need to supplement.

Why is deficiency such a problem?

Due to the denaturing of our soil, B12 is no longer available in plants (aka veggies), so is only available in animal food sources. Ideal sources are raw dairy, eggs and fish. There are other food sources, too.

Therefore, vegetarians and vegans are particularly at risk of deficiency and should supplement. 

While B12 is found in some plant sources including soy, we lack the ability to absorb it in that form. If you’re a veggie and you don’t want to rely on fortified (i.e. processed foods), then a B12 supplement is the answer.

Best strategy

Because there are complicated absorption issues regarding B12, you need to select your supplement carefully. My advice is:

  • Look for an oral spray.
  • Start at around 1000 mcg (short for micrograms) daily.

Protein powders – not just for athletes

The inclusion of this on a list of supplement essentials might raise a few eyebrows. Let me explain why it has made the cut.

Along with fatty acids, which we have discussed, amino acids – aka protein – form the foundation of our nutrition requirement. It is just about the most important thing.

Not getting enough protein affects the healthy functioning of our neurotransmitters, which in turn affects our experience of life. Plus, a neurotransmitter deficiency makes us fat. So by not getting enough protein, you’ll be simple, sad and fat.

There are certain giveaway signs of a protein deficiency. On that subject, Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple has some interesting stuff to say.

Not all protein is created equal

Our bodies don’t store protein: we need a steady and reliable daily intake.

If you can meet your protein needs with wholefoods, then fine. Just don’t assume you are, because we know what assuming does.

Generally 1.3 grams of protein per kilogram body weight is considered optimal in terms of ideal body composition (so if you are a 63 kg woman, then that’s 81 grams of protein. To give you an idea, an egg has 6 grams. ) That amount is at the upper limit. If you aren’t particularly physically active, then you might only need around 0.8 to 1 gram per kilogram of your weight.

Meeting your protein requirement with food alone involves taking a quality wholefood source of protein, 3 or 4 times a day. When I talk about quality protein, I am referring to the quality as in overall health effect and bioavailability (our ability to absorb it).

Decent options for food sources of protein are lean organic (grass feed) meats, fish, goat cheese, and organic eggs (the protein is even better when the eggs are raw).

Nuts are OK occasionally, but not one to rely on as they are calorie dense and can be difficult to digest, although there are ways to improve their digestibility.

Dairy products simply aren’t a good food source of protein – there are too many pitfalls associated with consuming dairy to ignore. The exception to that are fermented dairy products, such as milk kefir.

I haven’t included vegetarian protein sources here as many of them are highly processed foods. Even wholefoods versions – such as lentils, chickpeas and other legumes – are less ideal protein sources both in terms of the protein availability and nutrient density. Chickpeas (or garbanzo beans), for example, have around 8 grams of protein per 100 grams.

Hemp, chia and pumpkin seeds are high quality vegetarian sources of protein, but you’d struggle to meet your protein requirement with those without far exceeding your calorie needs. Trust me, I’ve tried.

Drawbacks with getting your protein from food

It’s challenging (not to mention inconvenient and potentially expensive) to meet your requirement for protein from food.

Here are a few other considerations:

  • Eating a diet high in meat might be acid forming, which just means making your body a more hospitable host for disease. (This might only apply to diets high in poor quality, processed meats).
  • Nutritional degradation occurs when you cook meat (so the protein quantity is slightly less). But a much bigger issue is…
  • …there is a link between the chemicals (HCAs and PAHs) in meat cooked at high temperatures and cancer.
  • Cooked foods including cooked meats might accelerate the ageing process.
  • Even if you are eating enough protein, you might not be absorbing what you are eating.
  • Vegetarians will find it tough to get enough protein without eating too many calories.

Because of all of these considerations, protein powders are super useful.

The best protein powders out there for overall health are high quality whey and bioavailable plant protein powders.

Weighing up whey

By far the most well-known and popular form of protein powder is whey. It’s especially popular with the body building set for reasons I discuss below, but its health properties make it a potentially useful supplement for everyone.

Whey protein is one of the two proteins found in milk. The other is casein which has also enjoyed popularity as a supplement, but has been snubbed in favor of whey because of its inferior efficacy in building muscle. It’s also been heavily discredited in natural health circles.

Even people that prefer not to consume dairy products for health reasons or are lactose intolerant/dairy protein intolerant might be OK with using whey.

Whey is high in protein – 1 scoop contains around 25 to 28 grams (using the 63 kilogram woman as an example, that meets almost 1/3 of her protein needs).


The key benefit of whey aside from its high protein content is its ability to be absorbed.

A second related benefit is the speed at which it is absorbed – which is only really interesting for the weight-lifting lot (I’ll talk about this more below).

Note that the superior absorption rate of whey only seems to apply when the body is in a fasted state (first meal of the day). It does not seem to be significantly better when protein is added to a long-term exercise regime.

Research indicates that whey has other benefits too.

Specifically, it has anti-inflammatory properties and raises glutathione levels. Glutathione is a useful antioxidant and detoxification agent, and potentially a potent anti ager. Natural glutathione production can be disrupted by stress, poor diet, medications, infections and toxins.

Whey is also touted to increase fat loss, but this appears to be a function of it being protein rather than specific whey benefits.

The two main forms of whey protein are ‘isolate’ and ‘concentrate’, and debate rages on as to which is the better. Isolate is higher in protein, and fans herald its superiority at speedy absorption. Concentrate fans say that doesn’t matter, and you’re better off having a less processed form of whey.

Speed of protein absorption

As I mentioned, this is only likely to be interesting for you if you are in the market for building some muscle.

Much better gains in strength are associated with whey isolate supplementation (probably due to its higher protein content). However, concerns have been raised about the use of isolate (stemming from it being highly processed). Consequently a lot of respected natural health experts recommend the concentrate.

By the way, it is controversial whether fast absorption is even preferable at all – Arnie says not.

Farting and other drawbacks

My boyfriend uses whey a lot, and there is a lot of farting going on. That isn’t particularly unusual.

It indicates some kind of digestibility issue and possibly lactose intolerance. If you are experiencing a lot of gassiness with your whey product, it is probably time to upgrade to a higher quality of supplement and/or alternate between whey and a plant based protein (see below).

If you are using high amounts of whey, then (as with eating a diet high in animal products), you also need to be mindful of your overall acidity levels. Basically you can counter any negative effects of that by eating lots and lots of alkalising vegetables.

Other issues with whey powders are that you lose the nutrition in the process of heating it, and that many products contain the hormones and antibiotics that they fed the cows. Yikes.

Which whey to go

It seems like the choice is between a low quality, heat processed alkalinity stripping whey protein isolate, or a cold processed whole food whey concentrate made from organic fed cows not treated with growth hormones or antibiotics. Tricky.

If you decide to use whey, look for these things:

  • 100% certified organic whey protein concentrate (rather than isolate).
  • GMO free.
  • Cold processed.
  • From cows that are grass fed and pasture raised without the use of pesticides or fertilizers.
  • Does not contain added hormones, steroids or antibiotics.
  • Does not contain artificial sweeteners.

Read this from those good people over at Food Matters for more detail on why those things are important.

Plant based protein powders

By the way, when I talk about a protein powder being ‘plant based’, I just mean not coming from animals.

Plant based protein powders aren’t as high in protein (on average they are about 17 grams per scoop as compared with whey’s 28 grams). They are also a processed food.

However, plant based protein powders are still relatively high in protein, won’t contribute to an acid state in your body, combine well with smoothies and digest easily.

There are some really impressive products on the market these days. Good choices are sprouted hemp, brown rice and pea protein powders (don’t bother with soy). If it has had the benefit of a fermentation process – then even better, as generally that will make the product easier to digest (actually that goes for whey products too).

They are a lot less tested in terms of muscle growth, but still a decent option.

Possibly the most awesome thing about hemp and other plant protein powders is you can use them to make smoothies containing other health enhancing ingredients – you could blend in a scoop or two into your cold pressed juice, for example. That makes them more convenient to use – meaning you’re more likely to.

Best strategy

Protein supplementation doesn’t have to be complex – here’s how to approach it:

  • For general health, select either a high quality whey protein powder or a high quality plant protein powder, and meet the rest of your protein quota through good food choices.
  • If you are muscle gaining, then use high quality whey before and after workouts, and a plant-based protein powder the rest of the time.

Probiotics supplements – the new Vitamins

It’s true that we don’t have a dietary need for probiotics supplements.

However, the presence of good microbes in our bodies affects absolutely everything, including our ability to absorb food or supplements. In fact they are just so impactful on health in general, that some experts have termed probiotics as ‘the new vitamins’.

We have weakened our microbes with our poor diets and over use of antibiotics. Probiotics are therefore a good idea if you have taken even one course of antibiotics in your life.

I have yet to come across a highly esteemed preventative health expert that doesn’t include daily probiotic supplementation within their recommendations. One convention of longevity experts recently all agreed that they were an essential part of an anti-ageing (i.e. disease avoidance) strategy.

Best strategy

When selecting a probiotics supplement:

  • You need a mixture of the different strains of bacteria. A combination of the three main groups is ideal: ‘lacto’, ‘bifido’ and ‘soil bacteria’.
  • You want at least 8 million of bacteria cells per gram.

Tablets can be taken once per day at bedtime.

Some probiotics require refrigeration.

Here are some additional guidelines on selecting a probiotic.

In addition to supplementation, you could include functional foods (such as kefir, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut) in your diet, which will maximize your beneficial bacteria.

NB If your baby has been born via a C section, there is good science to suggest that the baby’s microbial health is weakened from the start. You should seriously consider a baby probiotic. Alternatively, look into ‘seeding’, which is just on the verge of becoming a thing.

Those with gut conditions

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, the whole discussion is premised on your being able to absorb the nutrients you are putting in.

Having any gut impairment condition – ranging from food intolerances, leaky gut syndrome, Colitis and Crohn’s Disease – requires an individualized approach. It may also take a lot of frustrating self-experimentation. My personal view on that is that health challenges are painful, but can be a gift too.

I am familiar with the groundbreaking work done by Dr Natasha Campbell around GAPs, and would recommend this book to anyone suffering with Colitis and Chrone’s Disease. For food intolerances, my first port of call would be an elimination diet.


  • Unless you are eating the right kind of fatty fish three times per week, purchase and use a high quality fish oil supplement. Take around 4 grams per day, and always eat with meals.
  • In addition to sensible sun exposure, purchase and use a Vitamin D oral spray. 5000 IU per day is the ideal target quota.
  • If you are a vegetarian or vegan, or else you aren’t eating enough animal foods with B12, purchase and use a B12 supplement (oral spray best).
  • Purchase and use a high quality whey or plant protein powder. If you’re focused on building muscle, use whey before and after workouts. The rest of the time, use a good quality plant based protein powder.
  • Purchase and use a good quality probiotic. Take one at bedtime every night. Also, eat probiotic rich, fermented foods.

Click here to read Part 2, ‘The Essential Guide to Supplementation – the Extras’. In Part 2, I cover Vitamin C, Supergreens supplements, Resveratrol, Creatine, Nootropics, Herbal Tonics, Soylent, Colloidal Silver and D-Mannose.

Okay folks, you are now officially up to speed with all things supplementation! Got any questions? Get in touch!

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