Supplements are sources of nutrients that don't come from food.2 They allow us to literally supplement3 our diet by getting more of a specific nutrient without having to eat more of the foods that contain it. For example, several different kinds of fish are high in Vitamin D,4 but you probably don’t have the time (or the budget!) to hit up the sushi bar every day just to meet your vitamin quota. That’s where supplements come in. Popping a Vitamin D supplement can save time and money by keeping your Vitamin D levels on track when you can’t work a delicious slab of salmon into the schedule.
Unfortunately, people keep getting the wrong idea, thinking that they can replace food with supplements. WRONG. Supplements are not a magic pill or a replacement for eating5 sufficient, nutritious meals. If you’re not already eating, sleeping, and exercising enough (not to mention keeping your stress at a manageable level), you haven’t earned the right to worry about supplements yet.
You read me right. If your life and physical health are a dumpster fire, put down the fish oil and pick up the fire extinguisher. Using supplements to try and shortcut your way to weight loss success is like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol—it’s not going to get you very far at all.
Taking supplements can be excellent,6 and even essential for those with certain medical conditions (like taking Vitamin B12 if you have pernicious anemia).7 Here’s a personal example that happened to me (and is similar to what many of our clients have experienced):
Three years ago, I was getting so exhausted by midafternoon that I could barely function. I thought I might have a hormonal problem, or something even worse because of how bad it was. I made an appointment with a practitioner, and in the meantime she had me buy a product called Adrenal Cocktail.
This product is just the electrolytes8 sodium and potassium along with vitamin C.9 I drank ONE of these the next morning and it was like I was a new person—all day energy! Minerals (electrolytes are minerals) are the spark plugs of the body; we aren’t going anywhere without them. When we’re stressed (so always), we’re burning through our minerals, which leaves us feeling depleted and dehydrated, even when we’re drinking enough water. Almost all of us could stand to have more electrolytes in our lives.
Targeted supplementation of dietary weak-spots can be life-changing. For example, if you’re not willing to eat liver, you’re definitely missing out on some vital nutrients without a supplement (desiccated liver or a multi-organ supplement would be best). That said, it’s important to keep in mind that supplements in the US aren’t regulated by the FDA,10 so they need to be 3rd party tested for purity before you bother taking them. You should also know that many practitioners push supplements because they make hefty commissions11 on them. Supplements often have massive markups, meaning a lot of people can make a lot of money off encouraging you to take them (whether they will truly help you or not).
No single supplement, or combination of supplements, can boost your metabolism12 to its full potential. A healthy metabolism is a result of all of your bodily processes working together at their best; anything claiming it can accomplish this in pill or tincture form is a scam. The lack of FDA regulation of supplements means that the claims supplements make about themselves are usually not put to the test or held to a standard, meaning you’re hypothetically free to slap a label on plain old water pills and market them as Metabolic Miracle pills. Will taking these water pills “boost your metabolism”? Well, kinda—but why pay $19.99 for those when you could just, y’know, drink water…
Some supplement ingredients like caffeine13 have been found to increase thermogenesis,14 which is heat production within the body. In theory, thermogenesis speeds up our energy usage (aka burns calories) and will “increase our metabolism” as a consequence. But that raises the same question—why take $49.99 “Cool-Kid Caffeine Capsules” when you could make yourself a protein coffee or a coffee bean smoothie in the morning for way less?
Bottom line: supplements don’t15 “boost your metabolism” any more than the foods which contain their ingredients do… but they’ll definitely boost the amount due on your next credit card statement!
There are an almost bewildering amount16 of supplements on the market today. Whether they’re capsules, gels, powders, liquids, or gummies, you can find a supplement that claims to do just about anything except file your taxes (and even then it’s probably only a matter of time before Essence of IRS hits the market).
Of course, what they claim to do and what they actually do17 are two very different things. Most junky supplements just don’t do much of anything and are pretty much just an elaborate alternative to feeding your money into a shredder. However, it is possible for supplements to be dangerous, usually because they deliver an unhealthy or unsafe amount of an otherwise healthy nutrient. Apparently grandma was right all along - you can have too much of a good thing. Who knew?
Let’s take a closer look at this marketing equivalent of the Wild West.
Supplements can improve your health by giving you sufficient amounts of essential nutrients that are hard to get from a modern diet. Even when you’re consciously focused on eating whole, nutrient dense foods, you might still come up short in the Vitamin A,18 D,19 and K220 departments, for example.
Products that offer these nutrients in their naturally occurring form—the form that our bodies are made to synthesize—may be an excellent addition to our health routine. In other words, every supplement you take should have “whole food” nutrients. In effect, these are just mortar-and-pestle versions of the actual food our body knows how to absorb. These can be a valid compromise for people who are on the road a lot or are going through a season of life where building nutritious meals can’t be given the time it deserves and requires.
The other side of the subject is paying a lot for synthetic or non-natural supplements, such as most multivitamins, only for them to either have almost no effect, or—even worse—for them to have negative effects by giving you too much of a nutrient.
A great example of supplements Gone Wrong is folic acid. 40% of the world population have the MTHFR gene mutation, and folic acid is toxic to anyone with this mutation. And while we haven’t examined every label of every supplement containing folic acid, I have a hunch that most of these products don’t tell you to go get your genome sequenced before taking them. See what we mean?
Even though vitamins are good for us, popping a “multivitamin” every now and then just doesn’t cut it. It’s crucial to get most of your 13 essential vitamins21 from the foods you eat—not to mention getting at least some of your Vitamin D from an ancient method called “sunlight exposure” (which many Americans seem to have forgotten all about).22
There are some nasty consequences for missing out on essential vitamins. Too little Vitamin C can cause scurvy;23 too little Vitamin D can cause rickets.24 Vitamin C is one of our favorite examples of a good vitamin supplement to consider, not because scurvy is a common threat these days (unless you’re a pirate, and we really hope you’re not a pirate), but because it’s just really effective for extra immune support25 during cold and flu season!
Herbal products are supplements made from plants and plant oils, including their roots, seeds, berries, and flowers. They’ve been used since ancient times for medicinal purposes.26 A couple of famous examples that have been shown to have benefits include aloe,27 which can be used to treat skin irritations and burns, and flaxseed28 (Linum usitatissimum), which provides a nice source of fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.
Like the rest of the supplemental space, herbs have downsides29 to accompany their success stories. A big one is that herbs can interact dangerously with prescribed medicines. Taking a garlic30 (Allium sativum) or ginkgo31 (Ginkgo biloba) supplement while on anticoagulant medication can cause excessive bleeding. Taking licorice root32 (Glycyrrhiza glabra) while taking heart medication can cause a life-threatening rise in blood pressure. These are just a couple examples of MANY.
There are times in life when supplementation is necessary versus just relying on food. Pregnancy is a big one—it’s essential to get the proper nutrients for yourself and your baby, and eating that much food may just not be plausible. But even in this example we have to add a caveat—we generally don’t recommend prenatal supplements specifically.
Instead, this is where those green/red powders or fruit/veg capsules may have their appropriate place; they contain a lot of phytonutrients33 that you’ll miss out on if you can’t bring yourself to down sufficient fruits and vegetables each day. But they still need to be 3rd party tested for safety and efficiency, and you still need to get fiber somewhere in your diet—fiber supplements don’t have all the benefits34 of real food-based fiber.
Amidst all the “miracle cure” “weight loss pills” on the market, there is one combo involving a supplement that actually works: taking creatine35 while lifting weights. Creatine is not a “fat burner” on its own; instead, it increases lean body mass and strength, allowing you to lift longer and heavier and put on more muscle while shedding more fat.
The popular alternatives to this, which we definitely don’t recommend, are either appetite suppressants (which you’re not going to take forever, meaning they can’t be part of a consistent lifestyle), or fat-digestion inhibitors, which upset your gut and rob you of all of healthy fats’ benefits.
Of all the workout supplements36 available, we can only think of three that are worth the price of admission. The first is creatine monohydrate,37 which is going to help you lift more and get lean-but-jacked. The next is just a high-quality protein powder; it isn’t essential, but it’s a convenient way to not have to eat three whole chicken breasts every day. The third is an essential amino acid supplement for vegetarians. That’s it.
We believe the relationship between supplements and weight loss is a lot more straightforward than the fitness industry generally makes it out to be. This is probably because most people are looking for a one-and-done product, or elaborate combination of products, that is going to melt their fat and make them feel good despite other aspects of their health, like their exercise or sleep or stress, being totally out of whack.
The bad news is that this miracle cure doesn’t exist.
The good news is that the effective strategies to use supplements for weight loss are fairly simple to understand and implement.
For women, the combination of creatine monohydrate with weight lifting really is The Most Powerful Fat Burner on the market, guaranteed. It isn’t flashy. It isn’t sexy. But it does work—and it’s cheaper than all the snake oil.
Creatine and weights are also the answer for men, except that they may also want to check their testosterone levels. Low testosterone can make it difficult to hit the gym at all, or see improvements from doing so. If that’s the case, there are testosterone-boosting supplements that can help the body produce more testosterone without having to inject the actual hormone.38
Having a balance of beneficial bacteria39 (microbiota) in the gut is pretty much essential for regulating weight. This is because microbiotics can reduce appetite, limit fat absorption, and balance blood glucose40 or blood sugar levels. These microorganisms also help out by producing key nutrients,41 such as some B vitamins and vitamin K.
The non-supplement way of getting these benefits is to eat natural yogurt, aged and unpasteurised cheese, fermented milk or tea drinks such as Kefir and Kombucha, or pickled vegetables such as kimchi and sauerkraut. Probiotics can also be taken as supplements that encourage the growth of these bacteria in the gut. However, probiotics should not be taken42 by people who are very ill or otherwise have a compromised immune system.
That said, many herbs and other natural supplements may be accompanied by significant safety concerns. For example, the herb supplement Ephedra46 was once used as a weight loss pill. It was eventually banned by the FDA for all kinds of adverse effects such as mood swings, elevated blood pressure, irregular heart rate, and even strokes, seizures, and heart attacks.
Collagen powder,47 aka protein powder, is just a method to get sufficient protein without having to scarf down intense amounts of meat. It won’t help you lose weight on its own, but it will support your lean muscle tissue and make you feel less hungry throughout the day, which when paired with exercise can lead to excellent weight loss results.
Amino acid supplements are useful to make sure you’re getting enough leucine48 for muscle protein synthesis. It’s a powerful combination when paired with enough protein intake and consistent strength training.
You may be surprised to learn that the effective weight loss strategy is the same across all age ranges. Obviously, modifications to exercise intensity may be necessary, but the combination of creatine (plus collagen powder and amino acid supplements as necessary) with strength training works for everyone!
Almost 70% of women with PCOS49 may experience insulin resistance, which is when cells reject insulin50 and lose the ability to use glucose for energy. In response to this, the pancreas increases its production of insulin, which eventually results in high blood sugar levels.
In order to bring blood sugar levels back into balance and even correct cellular insulin resistance, the supplements inositol and NAC51 may be recommended by medical professionals. Inositol has been shown to lessen insulin resistance and positively affect all the metabolic aspects of PCOS. NAC is an antioxidant that has also decreased insulin resistance during clinical trials.
Medical practitioners should be consulted before taking pro- or prebiotics. Probiotics are usually only necessary to increase a specific strain of bacteria for a limited period of time. Increasing bacterial strains randomly or over the long-term can lead to health problems. That being said, when used appropriately, we’ve had good experiences with spore-based probiotics like Just Thrive.
To say that supplements can’t replace food is an understatement. First of all, supplements are only good for you inasmuch as they give you “whole food” nutrients—that’s why synthetic supplements like most multivitamins don’t do much of anything.
Second, it’s possible that taking a high-quality ascorbic acid52 supplement, which fulfills the functions of vitamin C, is still not as good for you as getting that vitamin C naturally from, say, an orange, because of the many complex interactions between our bodies and foods53 that we only understand a fraction of. This effectively means that if you can feasibly eat a nutrient, as opposed to taking a supplement for it, you probably should.
Third, supplements are at best a way to save time, not money. Some people assume that a bottle of supplements ultimately costs less than cooking the foods for themselves, but often the opposite is true.
The bottom line? You can’t out-supplement good health. If your intake of real food54 (not to mention the rest of your lifestyle) isn’t cutting it, supplements aren’t going to even come close to sorting you out.
It’s always advisable to consult with your primary care physician before beginning to take supplements, due to there being so many supplements and so many medications or medical conditions that they can interact with. Supplements that are safe for one person to take might be really gnarly for another—and you can’t know if a supplement is going to be safe for you just because it’s “natural.”55 The mushrooms growing on your neighbor’s lawn are “natural” too, but if you need us to tell you why that’s a bad idea then you need more than a supplements guide, my friend!
Educating yourself56 on the specific supplement(s) that you’re considering is never going to hurt (provided you stick to reputable sources!). This self-education could include reading product reviews, looking for supplements that have been third party tested and validated, and researching57 what sorts of supplements or nutrients people with any medical conditions that you have should avoid.
However, there is still no substitute for talking to your doctor first before beginning a supplement!
We all think “it won’t happen to me” when it comes to relatively rare side effects58 from widely marketed products, but unfortunately that often isn’t true. In our experience alone we have seen numerous clients have bad experiences59 with the side effects of supplements. We’ve seen magnesium60 (marketed for sleep) get some clients wired and keep them up all night. We’ve seen an herb for “better workouts” send a heart rate rocketing so high that just making it through the day, never mind getting in a good set at the gym, was out of the question.
Just look up “melatonin potency”61 if you want to understand why we harp on about 3rd party testing for supplements. Researchers have found that popular melatonin products can have way less or way more of that hormone than the marketed dose on their label. This is especially scary when you consider that melatonin is often marketed as a “safe” and “natural” sleep hormone for kids.
Even when a label’s advertised dosage is correct, keep in mind that it’s way easier to overdo a nutrient (aka hypervitaminosis)62 with supplements than it is with food. For example, it’s totally as possible to achieve zinc toxicity63 (too much zinc dangerously lowers the copper in your blood) with food as it is with supplements, but doing so by slamming too many raw oysters64 with mignonette sauce is a bit less likely than taking a couple more zinc tablets than you’re supposed to.
Now let’s talk about some of the most popular supplements and how they can help us to lose weight (when used safely).
Prebiotics & Probiotics
Fish Oil Supplements
Although vitamin A65 mainly helps with eyesight, it also assists with weight loss by limiting inflammation.66 Inflammation is often associated with obesity,67 and people living with obesity generally have lower vitamin A levels and intake than people who don’t. In studies68 conducted on humans and mice, vitamin A was found to assist in reducing obesity69 by browning70 white fat with a thermogenic response. In other words, unhealthy white fat was altered into healthier brown fat by increasing the natural production of body heat with Vitamin A.
We recommend desiccated liver, cod liver oil or a supplement with 3000 IU of retinol (not beta carotene) to meet vitamin A needs if you’re not meeting them through your diet. If you do want to meet your vitamin A needs through your diet, then it’s liver once per week OR pastured dairy, eggs, red meat, and orange and/or red vegetables daily.
B Vitamins71 assist with the creation of red blood cells. They are mainly found in animal proteins and dairy products, but they can also be found in leafy greens, beans, and peas. Lack of B vitamins can disrupt a person’s metabolism72 due to their partnership with enzymes73 in the metabolic generation of energy. Studies suggest74 that a deficiency in B12 could cause increased fat accumulation and obesity. Unsurprisingly, people living with obesity are more likely to be B12 deficient.75
Vitamin C76 is an antioxidant that helps the body heal and absorb iron. It’s mostly found in fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C plays a crucial role in the metabolization of fat molecules, and a higher intake of it is linked to having a lower BMI.77 The opposite is also true:78 Low levels of vitamin C are associated with higher amounts of body fat, especially belly fat.
Vitamin C is an anti-inflammatory vitamin and can help support adrenal function in times of stress. Because stress is a primary root cause for weight loss resistance, it’s a good one to supplement in times of stress.
We definitely believe that whole food vitamin C is better than ascorbic acid.79 It’s not that ascorbic acid is necessarily “bad”, it’s just that any time you’re consuming a vitamin in its natural form, the body is going to recognize it which makes it way easier for it to carry out its proper function in the body.
Vitamin D80 helps the body absorb calcium, which is crucial for healthy bones. You can get it through exposure to sunlight, or through foods that contain it such as egg yolks, liver, and saltwater fish. Studies indicate81 that vitamin D deficiency increases the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension. Belly fat and a larger waistline are particular symptoms82 of vitamin D deficiency. It's possible83 that vitamin D lowers the creation, and suppresses the storage, of new fat cells.
We find it’s best to take vitamin D, A, and K2 together as they work synergistically and taking them separately can cause imbalances (for example, vitamin D supplementation can cause deficiencies in vitamin A). These vitamins are important for nearly every function in the human body - including metabolism!
Probiotics84 are bacteria that are good for you, such as those that improve gut health. Prebiotics are food for these beneficial bacteria. Because gut bacteria aids the body in breaking down nutrients and strengthening your immune system, diverse gut bacteria85 can slow down weight gain86 by making sure nutrients get used rather than stored as fat.
Prebiotics and probiotics support gut health, which in turn supports a healthy metabolism. It’s important to protect the gut because when the gut becomes “leaky” (dysbiosis),87 it can cause system-wide inflammation, and inflammation is a major contributor to weight loss resistance. The gut becomes leaky when there’s an imbalance of good/bad bacteria, and the right combination of pre- and probiotics can restore this balance. You want these especially after a round of antibiotics, as antibiotics kill a lot of bacteria in the gut - not just the “bad” bacteria. In these situations, supplements can be an excellent way to restore a healthy gut flora.
Most marketed protein powders,88 such as whey and casein, are powdered animal proteins made from dairy. In other words, they’re created by drying milk into powder. However, collagen is made from the connective tissues of farm animals instead of milk, and may provide greater benefits in areas such as gut and skin/hair health.
Protein powder can assist89 with weight loss because it has the satiation (fullness) effect of protein but with less calories than other foods, and because of the metabolic benefits of having stronger, leaner muscles90. However, we really don’t recommend replacing meals91 with protein shakes. It is far better to build healthy solid food meals, and use protein powder for an extra bit of protein when you need it.
If you want some help picking a great protein powder: https://www.instagram.com/p/CkvdHTWrNtx/
Research indicates92 that prenatal vitamins may encourage weight loss by suppressing appetite and assisting metabolism. However, taking prenatal vitamins when you aren’t expecting93 is not a good idea because of potential complications94 from abnormally high folic acid or iron. That being said, we don’t actually recommend folic acid or iron in your prenatal supplements at all.
While iron is very important in pregnancy, it doesn’t play nicely with other vitamins and minerals when part of a multivitamin. Use a desiccated liver or multi-organ supplement instead or a product like Floradix if your doctor recommends upping your iron intake.
We recommend you choose prenatals that also include DHA, folate (not folic acid), choline, vitamin A, vitamin D, and K2.
Iron95 is a mineral that helps transport oxygen96 to all of the body’s cells, including muscles, which makes fat-burning possible. Muscles that are low in oxygen97 can’t burn fat properly, which may explain why iron deficiency98 is often associated with obesity.
Calcium99 is best known as a mineral that supports bone health. However, it’s also essential to the heart, muscles, and nerves. It’s mostly consumed in dairy products like cheeses and yogurts, and dark leafy greens like kale. It’s also present in some animal proteins, like soft-boned fish such as sardines.
Calcium helps100 in increasing thermogenesis, or our core body temperature, which in turn may increase metabolism and the burning of fat. Calcium deprivation101 also causes the body to conserve what little calcium it has by producing the calcitriol102 hormone, which - yikes - increases the creation of fat cells. Making sure you’re getting sufficient calcium dramatically decreases the production of calcitriol and with it, the production of fat.
Magnesium103 is a mineral that allows over 300 of the body’s enzymes to keep us alive in a variety of ways, such as building proteins and bones, controlling blood pressure and blood sugar, and keeping muscle and nerves functioning. It also serves as a conductor for the electrical signals that contract our muscles - including our heartbeat!
Some studies104 have also linked lower levels of magnesium intake to obesity. This may also be related to magnesium’s anti-inflammatory properties,105 because chronic inflammation often accompanies obesity. Adequate magnesium also helps with106 getting good sleep and keeping stress levels in check, which can both indirectly lead to healthier body weight.
When we’re stressed, we absolutely burn through magnesium. Any electrolyte combo (salt, magnesium, potassium) will increase energy levels. Also - there’s like a million different forms of magnesium. We like glycinate, theronate, citrate, and malate best for absorption and function.
Omega 3 and 6107 are polyunsaturated fats, which are fats that the body can’t produce on its own. These essential fats, which mostly come from eating oily fish, keep our cell membranes healthy and assist in almost all bodily processes, including heart and brain health and regulation of weight and inflammation. Some studies indicate that taking fish oil can increase our metabolic rate,108 or how many calories we burn each day. It’s also possible that fish oil encourages the body to switch from burning carbs to burning fat as its main fuel source during exercise.
In our experience, omega 3 can contribute to weight loss in the sense that omega 3 fats are highly anti-inflammatory – and in our practice, the number one cause of weight loss resistance is inflammation.
Omega 6, on the other hand, causes systemic inflammation in the body in high doses - which we get in America on a daily basis through industrial seed and vegetable oils. This is definitely not something we want to promote as a supplement, so just make sure that the fish oil supplement you use is a good source of omega 3 (it will have some omega 6, but the real benefit is from the omega 3). Our bodies thrive on a 2:1 ratio of omega 6: omega 3, but it’s estimated that the average American is consuming a 20:1 ratio. Damn.
Amino acids109 are the molecules that combine to make proteins. They also help in the breakdown of foods into nutrients and the repair of injured tissues. Foods high in aminos110 include quinoa grain, legumes and beans, eggs, turkey, and even cottage cheese. BCAAs (branched chain amino acids - the aminos that the body can’ produce on its own), have been found111 to decrease fatigue and muscle soreness while increasing muscle mass. This makes them great for more productive exercise, and more productive exercise is great for weight loss.
Aminos are especially great if you don’t consume a lot of animal products, as they’ll get you all 9 of the amino acids you need for muscle protein synthesis. If you eat a good bit of meat then this may not be necessary.
Kion - Aminos Capsules
Collagen peptides112 are a form of protein exclusively from the cartilage and bones of animals, and only occur after whole collagen proteins are broken down. Studies have indicated113 that collagen peptides may have anti-obesity effects in overweight adults by regulating lipid metabolism and fat accumulation. However, high doses of collagen peptides may also have the opposite effect,114 causing increased body weight in rat test groups.
Even though collagen isn’t a complete protein, it is protein, and it’s a huge misconception that you can’t count it towards protein goals. It’s still protein!! It just doesn’t have the muscle building benefits of a complete protein like meat, dairy, or eggs.
If you consult your doctor first and only give over your hard earned cash to those brands that are rightfully proud of their third-party test results, supplements can provide an extra metabolic edge in the fat burn battle for those who are already doing everything else right.
But attempting to use them as a magic bullet or miracle cure for dysfunctions in the areas of eating, sleeping, exercising, or just plain existing is a waste of money at best, and a health risk at worst. There’s a lot of snake oil amidst all of that fish oil—be smart about it!
If you’re ready to rebuild a positive relationship with food and get yourself a fully-functioning metabolism, then head over here to find out about the 30 day Metabolism Makeover.