If you take a glance at supplement store shelves, you might imagine that getting into great shape requires buying a boat load of powders, pills, and potions.

I’m not against taking supplements. I’m just not in favor of taking every boost under the sun, especially if someone hasn’t yet mastered the basics.

The vast majority of people will be able to get amazing results for goals like burning fat, becoming more athletic and strong, preventing disease, and staying full of awesome by doing a few key things:

1. Eating mostly whole foods. These are stuffed with vitamin and minerals and make you feel good.
2. Eating a diet with adequate protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs.
3. Getting plenty of sleep.
4. Managing our stress in healthy ways.
5. Moving our bodies often.

If you’re a competitive athlete or have very high expectations for carving up your muscles like a Thanksgiving turkey, then you’ll likely need to dial those things in even more finely. You’d benefit from certain supplements more than the rest of us.

But what about the rest of us? Is there stuff we can take to make ourselves be more of a badass in and out of the gym?

There are, but they’re not what you might expect. Here are two common ones that you can safely skip:

1. BCAAs: branch chain amino acids, usually taken in powder form. Most of us get enough of them anyway if we’re getting adequate protein in our diet, and the latest research seems to show that our bodies don’t utilize the isolated BCAAs the same way we do when they’re in food.

I don’t see protein powder as a supplement – it’s just a highly concentrated food.

2. Fat burners. With a few exceptions, they’re mostly bunk.

But what about vitamins and minerals: can they help us with our body comp and performance goals, and can we get enough from just eating food?

In some cases, our bodies don’t do so well when we try to get a vitamin from a supplement instead of from the food itself. We’re not really sure why, exactly, but it’s not just about a nutrient – it’s how that nutrient plays with the other ones as they’re digested and absorbed by your body.

Plus, when we eat those foods, we get a whole bunch of other benefits other than just one nutrient.

We also get boosts from things like carbohydrates, fats, and proteins; plant chemicals that play a role in our overall health; and like I said, the intricate and still mysterious interactions that make nutrition best suited to coming from our diets.

Still, there are certain vitamins and minerals that are hard to get adequately even if we follow a rockstar diet. Vitamins K, D, Zinc, and Magnesium are very commonly lacking in our diets. I have to work at getting enough omega-3s, those fatty acids that help blood flow, decrease inflammation, and may lower risk for heart attacks and strokes.

So eat lotsa nutrient-packed foods. But for active people in particular, there are a few to really zero in on to improve our health AND our fitness.

Also – ALWAYS check in with your M.D. before taking a new supplement, particularly if you have a medical condition. Deal? Ok, cool.

Vitamin D
Why to supplement: it’s actually a hormone. Your body can make it from exposure to the sun, except we sit inside all the time or wear sunscreen when we go out. Doh. Some foods contain it, but it’s tough to eat enough of them to take care of your body’s needs.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see a sunset I make a heart around it. Just kidding, this is weird.
Roughly 40% of American adults are deficient in Vitamin D, so it’s worth having your doctor check you out on this one. Aside from all kinds of critical hormonal functions, bone health, and possible disease prevention, new research is showing that vitamin D may help you build muscle. Higher doses may also improve testosterone levels. That can help you out with those gym gainz.

How much: the upper limits on this one are generally much higher, but the standard adult dose to prevent a deficiency is 1,000-2,000 IU/day.

Why to supplement: here’s the kicker. If you don’t get enough of this mineral, it may be harder for your body to use Vitamin D. Magnesium has an important role in many processes that directly impact our body composition and athletic performance: stuff like hormonal balance, helping to regulate insulin, and has also been linked to making athletes perform more explosively and recover more easily.

Meanwhile, not getting enough of it carries risks too. Low levels have been linked to inflammation that increases risk for certain diseases, diabetes, and cancers. It also may put you at risk for osteoporosis.

How we get it: you can eat things like dark leafy greens, beans, peas, potatoes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. But most of us just don’t eat enough to make the grade.

How much: More is not better here, with too-high levels being linked to everything from diarrhea to um, death. The standard recommended adult dose for a supplement is 300-350 mg/day, with citrate better than oxide for absorption. This is also used to treat constipation, so ease into this one to avoid unpleasant surprises.

Why we need it: sometimes we think we’re overtraining, and we might actually not have enough of this nutrient.

Iron deficiencies can lead to anemia and generally feeling like crap. If you’re finding that you’re tired all the time, cranky, and have lost your gym mojo, looking at your iron intake is one box to check: it might be worth tracking your intake of iron and having your levels tested.

Around 20% of women and 50% of pregnant women don’t have enough iron in their body. Yikes! Athletic folks have more red blood cell mass. And so we have a higher demand for iron.

Foods: you can get iron from plant sources, especially beans and dark leafy greens. Fortified cereals and breads contain iron too. Heme iron, the kind found in beef, turkey, and chicken, is particularly good because our bodies absorb it more efficiently.

You can just eat it: if you’re eating plenty of these sources, you may be just fine. If you don’t eat a ton of calories each day, you may find your diet falls short, however.

When to supplement: ONLY after you’ve checked with your doctor. Taking iron can screw with absorbing other nutrients and also make you feel lousy too.  Check out this article!

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