We are always trying to prioritize whole, real and less processed foods over any artificial and processed foods, including supplements. In some nutrition cases, supplementation is completely necessary, as with special populations like elderly, athletes, diseases, etc. The two supplements that we always recommend for people are Fish Oil (EPA/DHA) and Vitamin D (specifically in the winter in areas where you will not have much sun exposure).

We want to keep a few things in mind when it comes to supplements:

  1. Food comes first
  2. Supplement means “in addition to”, not “primary”
  3. Supplement for your needs and goals

Fish Oil – The inflammation we want vs. the inflammation we don’t want!

The following is cut from our Nutrition 101 guide that we give all of our nutrition clients.

We want to minimize inflammation from our food-

1-There is natural inflammation that occurs after a workout. It’s the body’s natural response that  in a basic sense inhibits muscle growth and adaptation. There are other natural inflammatory responses that occur in the body which are healthy and part of life. There is also such a thing as unnatural inflammation, and this typically comes from the foods we eat. This is not something we want.

  -Physiological fats are known as triglycerides (you may have heard your doctor talk about them in your bloodwork). There are three fatty acids that make up the triglycerides: saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats. All three are represented to some degree in each food you eat. Polyunsaturated fats are made up of two essential fatty acids (essential meaning it must be obtained by the diet) called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) which is an omega-3 and linoleic acid (LA) which is an omega-6. Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory and omega-6 fats are pro-inflammatory. We want a balance of both. 

-Current diets and common foods typically lead to imbalance that is heavy in omega-6, which pushes the body to be in an inflammatory state almost constantly. Current studies show that the modern ratio of omega-6:omega-3 is 20:1 or higher. Again, we’re looking for as close to 1:1.  Sources of omega-6 fats in the modern diet are vegetable oils, nuts, conventionally raised (which means grain fed/ in feedlots) meat and eggs, and farm -raised fish. Eliminating processed food will reduce exposure to omega-6 fats, but it is extremely hard to avoid meat and eggs that are conventionally  raised, unless you eat grass-fed or wild meat. Nuts and seeds naturally have more omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. It is because of this that even if you follow our diet, there is still room to have a bias towards a pro-inflammatory diet.

-We recommend supplementing the diet with fish-oil. Fish-oil improves the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which in turn will reduce the natural inflammatory responses within the body.  Fish-oil contains two types of omega-3 fatty acids: eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). These are  omega-3 fats most preferred by the brain and body. Each brand of fish oil has a different concentration of EPA and DHA per serving (check the label). You’re looking for about 3 grams of EPA and DHA. We prefer EPA and DHA because they are converted easily by the body. Liquid forms of fish-oil are typically best. The end goal should be to have about a 2:1 omega-6:omega-3 ratio.

-It is possible to avoid omega-3 supplementation by avoiding all vegetable oils (which are used in almost every restaurant and processed foods and sauces), nuts and seeds and nut and seed oils, conventionally raised meat, eggs, and fish, as well as you’d have to consume wild-caught fish several times per week. This is not practical nor ideal for most people, hence fish-oil supplementation.”

1 Glassman, Greg. “CrossFit Level 1 Training Guide.” The CrossFit Journal, 15 May 2010, pp. 47–50.

RECOMMENDATIONS: We recommend either Barlean’s brand (readily available and reliable brand, gel form) or SFH liquid brand (this is pricier). The liquid will have better absorption, but is significantly more expensive if you’re working on a budget. Start with 3 grams, and as you increase activity level, slowly increase up to 5-10 grams at the highest (Coach Nick, at his peak activity level (20+ hrs of Weightlifting per week at 19-21 years old) was at 10 grams per day, 5 grams in the morning and 5 grams at night.

Vitamin D – key during Winter time!

Next, Vitamin D. We recommend Vitamin D (Vitamin D3 specifically as it is the most potent form of Vitamin D) because primarily it’ll help with extracting nutrients from food, general recovery, mood, and has many other functions, like:

  • Maintaining serum calcium levels
    • These are crucial for blood clotting and bone/teeth density
  • Modulating gene transcription
    • This is how DNA converts to RNA, the start of protein production
  • Cell Differentiation
    • This is when a cell changes from one cell type to another, like a more specialized type
  •  Immune system function
  • Regulating glucose tolerance
    • This is what is used to diagnose T1/T2 diabetes. This is basically how well your body absorbs glucose after intake
  • Regulating renin-angiotensin (RAA) cascade and blood pressure
    • The RAA system is a group of hormones that regulate blood pressure. See link for more in depth info.

RECOMMENDATIONS: We recommend Vitamin D in doses of IU (international units) and recommend starting with 1,000 IU. Move up to 2,000 IU for athletes, and possibly more for athletes in the winter living in northern areas. Don’t go over 5,000-6,000 IU unless recommended by a doctor. In Summer months when spending much time outside, there is no need to supplement. While you can’t overdose on sun exposure for Vitamin D, there are other side effects of too much sun exposure, so be careful there, of course. We recommend Nordic Naturals brand, in gel form.

Taking supplements are a great, low barrier way to improve your nutritional health and increase your athletic/body performance. Take these two with your first meal, and let the day build on itself!

We’ll talk more about other forms of supplementation (like protein and electrolytes) in future posts. Stay tuned!

Nick Gifford (CF-L3)
Nick Gifford (CF-L3)Author
Nick Gifford, Head Coach and Owner of Gifford Fitness, CrossFit Red Lion and Gifford Barbell has coached over 3000 athletes since 2012. He has worked with athletes from all walks and stages of life, focusing on health and wellness, balance, and pursuing excellence.