The Ultimate Diet Supplement Guide – Just Science, No Hype
Diet supplements can be anything from vitamins you take to the meal replacements you enjoy (you may also want to take a look at our articles on Diet Cleanses and Diet Pills for more information about those). With so many options to choose from, you may feel overwhelmed just thinking about trying to pick one, but don’t be.
The answers to all of your pertinent diet supplement questions will be answered. This article focuses more directly on the meal replacements, but if you’re more interested in vitamins feel free to jump down to Vital Vitamins.
So are you ready for some good news? Excitingly, diet supplements like meal replacement bars and shakes work. A meta-analysis study found that diet supplements resulted in higher weight loss at the 1-year mark than restricted calorie diets alone AND the drop-out rate was the same.
So what does this mean for you? If you’re looking for an easier way to drop those extra pounds than counting every single calorie, diet supplements might be right for you. Your immediate question is probably, “Well, what do I need to look for in a diet supplement?”
Your Expert Evaluation of Diet Supplements
You can do it yourself, although bringing in a dietary professional to help you out never hurts. In general, any meal replacement (whether it’s a shake or bar or any other form) should adhere to these guidelines. First, a diet supplement/meal replacement should be anywhere from 100-230 calories. Lower is not always better.
Remember that to be healthy you have to take in at least 1,200 calories per day. If you are planning to go all out and replace the maximum 2 meals per day with a replacement, having to eat 1,000 calories during your normal meal is going to be insane! However, if you’re only going to replace one meal a day, the lower end of the spectrum should be safe.
Pack on the protein! The debate on protein continues. Most health care experts agree that your absorption of protein tops out at ~30-40g per meal. Protein powder companies try to argue that people with higher metabolisms can process more, but this is unlikely. Stick to diet supplements with 12-20g of protein per serving and save yourself the headache. That is more than enough protein per meal even if you are a bodybuilder (we will talk more about this in Putting in the Protein).
Don’t neglect the carbs! Yes, you need all three macronutrients to stay healthy. This includes proteins, carbs, and fats. The problem comes when the carbohydrates in your diet supplement come from refined sugar. Without going into too much detail, refined sugars are bad for your health. They can actually lead to plaque build-up in your arteries that can cause a myriad of health conditions including hypertension and stroke. Carbs are important, but you need to get them from the right source.
This is one of the rare times you want a company to dazzle you with their vitamin and mineral additives. Yes, it will probably bring up the prices, but for once it’s worth the extra cash. A diet supplement is going to replace your meal so you want that replacement meal to be as healthy and spectacular as possible.
Setting the Bar
So you’re ready to lose weight and you’re going to push yourself to do the max of 2 meal replacements per day. But let’s take a step back. Yes, replacing two meals a day will result in a more significant, immediate weight loss. However, those who only replace one meal per day tend to keep the weight off rather than put it back on once the diet ends.
One option you may want to consider is combining the best of both worlds. You could start by doing 2 meal replacements per day during your short-term weight loss then you can transition to 1 shake per day for your long-term diet. This will allow you to see immediate results while helping you to maintain your work over time. Yo-yo dieting can be detrimental to your health (and the appearance of your body) so it’s best to do what’s realistic for you.
Putting in the Protein
At this point, the debate about protein usually starts: milk vs. soy. Let’s start by addressing one of the biggest myths in the weight loss world: you will never have a protein deficiency as long as you are not starving yourself. You could be the world’s best body builder and as long as you get adequate caloric intake every day and don’t live in a developing country, you will get all the protein you need from the food you eat.
That being said, diet supplements are meant to replace meals, so you will need them to have some form of protein in them. The two most common sources are milk and soy. You’ll need to decide which one is best for you.
Let’s go ahead and address the elephant in the room: soy. Most women are perfectly comfortable taking it and they should be. The estrogen-like effects of soy are miniscule and insignificant in pre-menopausal women. They do have an effect on post-menopausal women, but many of these users report alleviation of menopausal symptoms when using soy.
The research jury is still out on that claim, but considering there aren’t adverse effects it doesn’t hurt to try if you’re already going to be using a diet supplement anyway. And now we come to the boys. No, you do not have to worry about the estrogen effect on your body because it is so slight that it barely affects your physiology (no, you will not lose your gains). In fact, soy is thought to help reverse some of the symptoms male lifters experience every day like body acne. High intensity lifting naturally increases endogenous testosterone, so soy could end up being your best friend. Don’t knock it ‘til you try it.
That brings us to milk, which is becoming almost equally controversial. Most men gravitate toward milk-based proteins to try to avoid soy, but it may be much more detrimental to your health. Casein, a protein found in milk and milk-products, is thought to be linked to cancer. This can be extremely frightening, especially if you’re consuming large quantities of the stuff.
However, most of the research on this comes from The China Study. I’m not saying that the research is fraudulent or self-servient, but any literature should be looked at with a skeptical eye. For now, don’t throw away your existing casein-laden supplements just yet. But, it might be safer to switch to a soy substitute until more research comes out that either confirms or denies the claims against it.
A Note about Diet Supplement Regulation
Here comes the tricky part. The FDA does regulate meal replacements; however, it only considers meal replacements to be prepackaged foods over 225 calories. Many of our diet supplements do not meet this criteria. This means that you must find a reliable company with whom you feel comfortable taking that risk. Typically, older companies are more safer. They have had to withstand the test of time and answer the hard questions from their users to remain viable. Be careful of things that are new and improved.
A Special Note about Diabetes
Yes, diet supplements work for you, too! If you have type-two diabetes, meal replacements can be a safe and effective means to help you lose weight. Also, if you haven’t already heard, losing ~10% of your current body weight can almost eradicate your symptoms and your need to monitor your blood sugar. No, this is not a myth!
Of course, it is pertinent that you consult your doctor before beginning any diet or changing your medication/monitoring routine. Your main concern for diet supplements will be their sugar content, so once you get approval from your doctor you could be on your way to a much healthier you. No, there is no cure for type-two diabetes, but you can get as close to your optimal health as possible and reap the benefits of a more carefree lifestyle!
Before we delve into the complex world of vitamins, it’s important to review a few key basics. First, there are two different types of vitamins: water-soluble and fat-soluble. Fat-soluble vitamins are A, D, E, and K (or KADE for a pneumonic). These are the ones you will need to be on a look out for as you explore because your body is less able to compensate for toxic levels.
Additionally, if you are on blood thinners you will probably be unable to take vitamin K because it promotes blood clotting. The water-soluble vitamins are easier for your body to get rid of through your urine. Although, you will waste extra money your health shouldn’t be impacted. If you have doubts as to whether you’re absorbing all of your dietary supplement goodies, just take a quick look before you flush the toilet. No, it’s not fun, but if your urine is spectacularly colored then you’re watching your money go down the drain (almost literally). So what do you need?
First, you need to evaluate your needs. The American Heart Association recommends trying food first to get your daily vitamins. Vitamins found in foods are more likely to be absorbed by your body and they come in naturally healthy quantities. Also, it’s important to note that if you do end up taking a vitamin supplement, you must take it with food anyway. If you don’t take your diet supplement with food you probably won’t get to keep any of the fat-soluble vitamins and it can leave you with an upset stomach. Plenty of people have thrown up their supplements by being lazy on this front. It’s not worth it so don’t do it.
Because there is a lower absorption rate for supplements, your vitamin should have 100% of the recommended daily allowance for anything you’re taking. However, there are a few key supplements out there that won’t give you 100% no matter how much you take. First, for my anemic friends I am sorry to report that iron supplements don’t help as much as we wish they would. Iron is one of those fickle elements that just refuses to do what we want it to. It’s better to try to get it from food sources since it absorbs so slowly- you’ll have a better chance of feeling positive results.
Also, when it comes to omega-3 fatty acids (although not a vitamin, they still often fall under this category) new information published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has brought us some sad news- they don’t work. Apparently there is something else in fish and avocados that allows us to reap the anti-inflammatory benefits of omega-3s that supplements just don’t have. Save yourself the time and fish burbs and stick to food.
Your Guide At-A-Glance
Vitamin A deficiencies can result in night blindness, bad dental health, and diarrhea (no thank you!). Conversely, it keeps your eyes, skin, bones, and hormones happy and healthy. A supplement is acceptable, but try increasing your intake of milk, green leafy vegetables, and dark orange fruits and veggies first.
Vitamin B12 is a sneaky one because it can impact anemia. Usually, people who are anemic go for the obvious iron, which doesn’t work, when they should be trying some B12. This helpful vitamin is safe in supplement form, but it is also found in most animal products.
Folic acid is fantastic! If you are a woman of reproductive age, you should be taking this supplement just in case. It helps to prevent birth defects (keep in mind most women don’t know they’re pregnant during the first trimester when this substance is of vital importance). It also helps your body form new cells which benefits both genders and all ages. If you are not a woman of reproductive age, you can try to get your daily dose of folic acid by eating legumes, leafy green veggies, whole grains, and enriched foods.
Vitamin K helps your blood to clot. Needless to say, if you have a deficiency it could be dangerous. Generally, a daily vitamin will have a safe level of vitamin K in it. Otherwise, you can try eating green leafy vegetables (noticing a theme?), cauliflower, and cabbage.
Vitamin D is important for your bones (get your mind out of the gutter). People who live in areas where there is not a lot of natural sunlight will be at risk for developing a deficiency. Supplements are great for this one or you can try milk products that are fortified.
Finally, let’s look at the favorite vitamin C. As most of us know, it plays an important role with infections, but it also impacts joint and muscle pain and anemia (who knew?). It’s easy to get your daily dose of vitamin C through fruits and vegetables, but you can still opt for a supplement. Just be aware that you might be wasting your money if your needs are being met through your diet.
Overall, when choosing any diet supplement from the vast array out there, it is important to be informed so you can be your healthiest you.
 Cheeke, R. (2014). No Whey, Man. I’ll Pass on the Protein Powder. Retrieved from http://nutritionstudies.org/no-whey-man-ill-pass-on-protein-powder/
 Craig, J. (2013). Meal replacement shakes and nutrition bars: Do they help individuals with diabetes lose weight? Diabetes Spectrum, 26(3), 179-182. doi:10.2337/diaspect.26.3.179
 Heymsfield, S. B., van Mierlo, C. A., van der Knaap, H. C., Heo, M., & Frier, H. I. (2003). Weight management using a meal replacement strategy: Meta and pooling analysis from six studies. International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 27(5), 537-549. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12704397
 Kulovitz, M., & Kravitz, L. (2006). Do Meal Replacements Deliver Results? Research finds that some meal replacement products are effective for temporary weight loss. Retrieved from https://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/Mealreplacement.html
 Peluso, M. R. (2015). Does Soy Protein Increase Estrogen Levels? Retrieved from http://www.livestrong.com/article/264891-does-soy-protein-increase-estrogen-levels/