I am very old school. I believe strongly in the power of food, real food. I believe we can find solutions to most of our problems with food. Therefore, supplements, for me, are entirely a waste of money, and best avoided if a serious deficiency hasn’t set in.
The take-home message is actually pretty simple: supplementation is no substitute for good nutrition. But that said, in today’s (difficult) times, there are certain supplements that have become more or less necessary for many people. Below is a list of those, along with some food sources we can get them from.
Our body makes Vitamin D on its own when our skin is exposed to sunlight. It helps spur calcium absorption and bone growth and is important for cell growth, immunity (helps make white blood cells) and for reducing inflammation in the body. Unfortunately, in spite of living in a sunny country, most of us are vitamin D deficient. Genetic reasons are at play here. Thanks to the melanin in our skins, we don’t make enough of this vitamin. And then our lifestyle, where we don’t spend enough time out in the sun.
Symptoms: Low immunity, soft and brittle bones, unexplained fatigue and tiredness, weight gain, bone, muscle and back pain, malfunctioning thyroid, depression, mood swings, allergies and hair loss.
Get it from food: Oily fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, trout), dairy products and egg yolks. Also enough exposure to sunlight!
Our bodies does not make this vitamin. So we need to supply it through food regularly. As we age, our body's ability to absorb vitamin B12 from food slows down, necessitating a bigger supply via food. Being a vegan or a strict vegetarian (those who don't consume even dairy and eggs) adds on the risks multifold, as B12 is mostly found in non-vegetarian foods. Its supplementation then becomes important because it helps guard against anemia, prevents fatigue and weakness and keeps our nervous system working fine.
Symptoms: The deficiency often surfaces as excruciating pain, intense fatigue, rapid heartbeat, brain fog and sometimes even wonky (blurry or double) vision. Look out for unexplained fatigue, weakness and sluggishness; numbness and a "pins-and-needles" sensation; forgetfulness, disorientation, and difficulty in thinking and reasoning.
Get it from food: Eggs, fish, meat, and poultry are best sources. Vegetarians can get it from dairy, tofu and mushrooms.
It is actually difficult to find out if one is deficient in magnesium, as blood tests aren’t very reliable. So its deficiency often gets missed, leaving us saddled with a less efficient body — missing magnesium, yet not knowing it. In addition, chronic stress is a big villain too, as it can magnify its deficiency. The fact is that the brain, heart, and neurons, all need magnesium to function properly, but despite enough food sources, the poor quality of our food tends to make us deficient in magnesium. Alcohol also interferes with its absorption.
Symptoms: Muscle cramps, facial and eye tics, asthma, osteoporosis, irregular heartbeat, poor sleep, hyperactivity, and chronic pain in the muscles.
Get it from food: Dark leafy greens, specially spinach (Popeye apparently knew this!), most nuts, particularly almonds, walnuts, cashews and peanuts, seeds, specially pumpkin and sunflower seeds, fish (mackerel, salmon, halibut), beans, whole grains (refining removes most of the magnesium, so that bread you eat every morning has precious little of this precious mineral), avocados, yogurt, bananas, dried fruit, egg plant, and unsweetened cocoa.
Omega-3 can give you a face-lift, slash your risk of heart disease, keep breast cancer away, calm you down. But unfortunately, most of us are not putting enough of this wonder nutrient on our plate. Thanks to the fact that most of the sources tend to be non-vegetarian foods. Plus, we all eat way too much of omega 6, and this skewed omega 6 and omega 3 imbalance creates havoc in the body.
Symptoms: Depression, high blood pressure, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes, fatigue, dry, itchy skin/eczema/psoriasis, brittle hair and nails, inability to concentrate, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), joint pain, Alzheimer’s disease, asthma, bipolar disorder, migraine headaches, multiple sclerosis, obesity, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, rheumatoid arthritis.
Get it from food: Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, trout, surmai, singhara, hilsa, rohu). If you hate fish or are a strict vegetarian, up the intake of green leafy vegetables like methi, mustard leaves, chawli leaves, spinach, flaxseeds and walnuts.
(Kavita is a nutritionist, weight management consultant and health writer based in Delhi. She is the author of Don’t Diet! 50 Habits of Thin People (Jaico) and Ultimate Grandmother Hacks: 50 Kickass Traditional Habits for a Fitter You (Rupa).