Supplements on a Budget: Finding What Works for You
A new year often brings renewed fitness resolutions. While it's difficult to find the time to go to the gym, it can be just as hard in our busy world to cook three meals every day — let alone healthy ones.
Products that promise a nutritional boost can be expensive, but with a little research, it's possible to find supplements on a budget that can help maximize your health goals.
Talk to Your Doctor
Before adding supplements to your diet, visit your doctor. Your primary care physician (PCP) knows your medical history and can help you pinpoint what you need — ensuring that you only spend money on products that will work for you. Recommendations will vary by your age, gender, and diet (vegan, vegetarian, Paleo) among other factors.
This is critical because some of the supplements that you may think of as benign can actually have harmful interactions with other medications. For example, the popular herbal supplement St. John's Wort was found by the National Institutes of Health to limit the effectiveness of medications, including antibiotics and birth control.
While normally nutritional supplements aren't eligible for reimbursement with a flexible spending account or health savings account, you may be able to use these accounts if you receive a Letter of Medical Necessity from your doctor. The supplements must be used to treat a specific illness, but they should not be used as a food substitute.
Look at the Label
Pricier doesn't mean better — be sure to look at what's actually in the product. Brands like Ritual offer monthly subscriptions starting at $30, but the slick pills offer similar ingredients to cheaper multivitamins. The same goes for protein powders. Cut past the marketing and you may find products selling similar formulas at radically different price points. As the FDA points out, supplements shouldn't claim that they treat or prevent any disease, so if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Check to see if a reliable source, like U.S. Pharmacopeia or ConsumerLab.com, verified what the label says is in the product is all that's in the product. Researchers at Harvard Medical School and NSF International once found several supplements that included ingredients not listed on the label. Runner's World recommends looking for supplements that come from real food, like MegaFood. Mayo Clinic also warns against megadoses because it can increase side effects.
Read Food Labels, Too
Research points toward receiving nutrients through real foods first. And supplements are intended to do just that — supplement rather than replace meals.
Foods you're already buying may include the vitamins and minerals you need. When you're grocery shopping on a budget, look for products you already buy that add the vitamins or minerals you want. For example, if you need additional calcium, purchase orange juice with added calcium. Many of the cereals you may already purchase are packed with vitamins (although if you're on a health kick, you may want to limit processed foods).
Once you've settled on a supplement, make sure you get the most value by maximizing its impact. First, check that the product isn't expired. Then check how to store it: supplements like fish oil and probiotics are best kept in cool, dark places or may require refrigeration. Others should be taken together to ensure absorbency into your body, while different kinds should be taken at different times of day, and others are most effective when eaten with particular foods. Form, pill or liquid can also impact the effect.
Purchasing a product from a pharmacy allows you to ask your pharmacist how to maximize effectiveness before purchase.
While you can find reputable supplements on a budget, one of the best ways to get the nutrients you need is by eating more of the right kind of foods. There are ways to eat healthier on a budget, especially when you pair smart shopping with meal preparation. You may find that you still need a supplement, but you can focus on getting the nutrients you need versus spending money on a multitude of products that may hinder more than help your health.