The Vital Five: The Answer to “What Supplement Should I Buy?

One of the most common questions we get is some variation of “What should an otherwise healthy person use, supplement-wise, to be healthier?”

Our advice always starts with a brief word of caution: people take too many of the wrong types of supplements.  

Our goal should be to only take a few, high-quality supplements that we truly need.  We must understand why we are taking supplements.  In other words, we need a supplement strategy.

Supplements aren’t the alpha and omega; true holistic care isn’t anti-medicine, nor is it a supplements-only mentality. 

We MUST optimize each of our Five Lifestyle Domains (nutrition, sleep, mental health, physical fitness, and environment) in parallel to smart, simple, and strategic supplement use to truly live our best and healthiest lives.

Supplements should be just that: supplements to our already excellent diets and lifestyle practices.

The Vital Five Supplements

Even with that said, there are some key nutrients that I would call almost necessary for most of us.  

Notice I said nutrients? Food first, and all of these are important micro- or macronutrients that COULD come from our diets.

The supplements that represent these nutrients are called “The Vital Five Supplements.”

The Vital Five Supplements are chosen based on the following criteria:

  • They contain nutritional components that are missing from most diets, despite our best efforts.
  • They have benefits on multiple systems due to their crucial role in our bodies.
  • The doses needed for benefit are above and beyond what would be found in a normal, easy to maintain diet.
  • They have, typically, an overwhelming amount of data to support their use.

On top of this, it’s probably just cheaper (in dollars AND calories) to use quality supplements than it is to buy the food. Unless you’re up for 14 quarts of yogurt each day…

These five nutrients that constitute my Vital Five are:

Of these Vital Five Supplements, Omega-3, Probiotics, and Vitamin D are the three I feel strongest about.  In fact, if I were restricted to a handful of products (vs a store-full), I would stock and recommend only those three.

Let’s discuss each type of supplement and why they are so important, plus discuss what to be careful of when buying these supplements. 

Omega-3

Fish Oil is the big go-to here, but algae is a vegan-friendly source of Omega-3. The key ingredients omega-3 fatty acids are EPA and DHA. When we think Omega-3, we must think almost exclusively of EPA and DHA.

Omega-3 is an essential fat, meaning our body doesn’t make it and we have to get it from our diet.  We’re not so good about that, generally.  

Omega-6 is another essential fat found in plant oils, but it’s one we certainly don’t have a problem ingesting.  

Most Americans over-consume Omega-6 fats and under-consume Omega-3.  We like to see a ratio of 4:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3, but we’re closer to 20:1.

By fixing that ratio, there’s evidence of benefit to heart, joint, skin and brain health.  That’s a big impact from a single intervention.

To do so from diet alone, be prepared to eat more than 6 ounces of fresh salmon or a few cans of sardines every day while reducing unhealthy Omega-6 intake (no more vegetable oil!).  

But let’s be real, not many people can (or want to) do that.  Using a high potency, properly made fish oil can have a tremendous impact on your health.

What to Watch Out For

Potency:  Supplement manufacturers like to dilute their products, especially in fish oil.  Check out our label compared to a typical fish oil:

OUR FISH OIL Has more than900mg of EPA + DHA in 1 Softgel
THEIR FISH OILHas 275mg of EPA + DHA in 1 Softgel(550mg in 2 softgels)

Look at the amount of EPA and DHA in each pill of your fish oil, and I’ll bet it’s close to 300mg total.  We shoot for 3000 mg to get that ratio back to 4:1 – which is 10 times more than most people take.  

Rancidity – Omega-3s are oils and can spoil.  If it has a strong fishy taste, the brand recommends freezing the pills, or they are enteric coated, there’s a great chance you have rancid fish oil on your hands.  We’re neurotic about this stuff and can prove it – is your brand’s fish oil as crazy as we are?

Contaminants – Fish are kinda gross, swimming in our polluted oceans. Heavy metal contamination, PCBs, dioxins, and more can be found in the fish oil.  What is your fish oil brand doing to ensure their product is pure?

Our Recommendation

  1. Reduce your intake of things like vegetable oil and canola oil.  
  2. Use a high potency fish oil like our Alaskan Omega 900mg
  3. Shoot for 3000 mg of EPA and DHA a day total intake, but consult with an expert on what is best for you.

Probiotics

The normal flora, or the collection of microorganisms that live in and on us, is under constant attack.  Stress, diet, medications, and more vary day-to-day and person-to-person.  

As a result, some of the unsavory microorganisms can take hold and cause problems with digestion, bowel habits, and more. 

 “Everybody Poops” as the kid’s book eloquently stated, but many of us don’t do so with the regularity you are supposed to, partly due to a jacked-up normal flora.  

On top of this, a big chunk of your immune system is found in and around your gut, so keeping your gut in check helps not only the gut but the rest of your wellness too.

We traditionally think of things like yogurt, sauerkraut, and kefir as foods rich in healthy bacteria.  For homemade products, that’s true.  The problem is that those homemade lacto-fermented foods vary widely in the types and amounts of the strains. The strains chosen to make those foods are chosen on their ability to ferment the foods, not for human benefit.

Just because something is a microorganism, doesn’t mean it is a probiotic. Probiotics are specific strains that give humans specific benefits.

Your gut is one of many areas of your body where probiotics matter. Think of your gut like real estate.  If you don’t have enough good neighbors and cops, the neighborhood will get overrun with seedy characters and crime.  It’s only with a steady supply of the good guys that we can keep the property value up.  

Keeping our gut real estate prime has profound benefits to digestive, skin, and immune health.

What to Watch Out For

In the blogosphere, we’re ‘taught’ shortcuts for identifying good probiotics.

This sound familiar?:  “Look for refrigerated probiotics with lots of strains and high CFUs—billions and billions.”  

These are gimmicks and half-truths.  Buying a probiotic is actually more complicated, as most probiotics are made with little regard to science and more to profit.  

The supplement industry shows its true colors when it comes to probiotics—and they’re not pretty.  

We want to select the right amounts of the right strains, and we must understand the properties of those individual strains to be successful.

I’ve simplified the process down to four points:

1. Temperature Stability

Some strains of probiotics NEED to be refrigerated, some do not.  The key is the manufacturer KNOWS this and has data to prove a probiotic dose is good through expiration based on how it is stored.

Just because it is in the fridge doesn’t make it superior.  In fact, the first time some products hit the fridge is when they arrive in store; they are shipped warm, stored in warehouses and back rooms, and put in the fridge at the last minute.  

2. Competitiveness

Think of strains like factions of barbarians.  They’re simple – only out for survival of their tribe.  Some live peacefully together and some want to wage war.  If we put competitive strains together, who knows how that battle in that individual capsule will end up.  What if the “winner” isn’t a good strain?  And didn’t you pay for two strains?

3. The Human Benefit

Some strains help humans, some don’t.  There are studies to prove it.  So while it looks great to have all those strains listed on the label, it doesn’t make much sense if they don’t colonize the gut.  In fact, we reject many leading brands because they have bacteria only found in soil, not in the human normal flora.

4. Potency

We look at probiotic strength by looking for CFUs, or colony-forming-units.  While bigger is better when it comes to trucks and hamburgers, it’s not the case with probiotics.  Think of it like this, would you rather have 1 billion archers, or 10,000 tanks?  Efficiency matters, and that is dictated by what strains are chosen, not how many you jam in there.

Our Recommendation

For general health, you’ll want a mix of acidophilus and Bifidus bacteria, as acidophilus is found primarily in the small intestine and Bifidus in the large intestine.  Selecting the proper strains requires a pseudo-degree in probiotic manufacturing, so we’ve done the work for you.  

Probiotic Complete was created to simplify the process.  It has a great dose of 4 of the most studied strains in humans.  

These strains are NOT competitive, so they’re into the peace and love scene like us in Woodstock.  They are also temperature stable, and we have data to support it; they will last a year at 80 degrees!  

You don’t even need to turn on the air conditioning in your house.

Calcium-Magnesium-Vitamin D (The ‘Bone Support’ Supplements)

Almost everyone will benefit from at least one ingredient found in most bone support formulas.  There are 3 major players in many bone support products are Calcium, Magnesium, and Vitamin D.

Calcium and magnesium are vital minerals that many of us don’t get enough of in our diet.  Low calcium intake may affect bone health, especially in women or older men.  

Vitamin D levels in America are low, on average, compared to the rest of the world.  As we’ve seen with COVID-19 (LINK), low Vitamin D levels increase our risk for respiratory infections.

Hitting target nutritional goals of these 3 are crucial to maintaining good health in humans, but it proves difficult for most of us.

Wait a sec—didn’t you say “Calcium Doesn’t Work?” Yes, we did.  Calcium doesn’t build bones like everyone believes.  

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use it.  Having a low intake of calcium will certainly speed up bone loss, as your body will use calcium in bones to replace what’s missing from the blood.  

Men have thicker, bigger bones than women, so our osteoporosis risk is lower already.  For guys, calcium is optional, mostly.

Another reason calcium and magnesium make my list is because many Americans take medications that interfere with their absorption.  Proton-pump inhibitors like Prilosec or Nexium, for example, have been shown to do so, and supplementation with Cal-Mag products is recommended.  If you don’t need calcium for bone health, you may need it because of your reflux meds.

Vitamin D is crucial to almost all of us, particularly us here in the Northeast. When we compare our blood levels of Vitamin D to others all over the globe, most American’s numbers are low… real low. 

If you raise your levels, you probably won’t notice.  The jury is still out on what higher than normal Vitamin D levels can do, outside of skeletal benefits so we’ll play it safe. 

We do know that pumping levels from our lowly averages to near-optimal levels (75 nmol/L as defined by the Endocrine Society) WILL have a multitude of health benefits.

For most people, that means taking about 1000-2000 units daily.

What to Watch Out For

The Form –  Minerals don’t exist freely, they must be bound to something.  The cheaper options like carbonate, citrate, and oxide often result in higher doses and fewer pills a day, sure, but they come with higher adverse effects like constipation, diarrhea, GI cramping, and even hardening of major arteries!

Since we are working so hard to make our guts and hearts healthier, we don’t want our Bone Support products to erase all our hard work.  We recommend well-made chelates of minerals.

Too Much Calcium – A woman over 40 needs 1200mg TOTAL calcium daily.  Since we get 1-2 servings of calcium (2-300mg each), Most people only need to supplement 600-900 mg of calcium a day.

Megadose Vitamin D – There’s so much misinformation about how much Vitamin D to take.  Keep it lower, keep it simple.  1,000-2,000 IU each day is probably more than enough unless your doctor needs you to take more to correct a deficiency.

Our Recommendation

It would be great to have an all-in-one bone support formula, sure.  Since most people’s needs are different, it’s hard to make a one-size-fits-all product.  Here’s how we see it, based on what you need:

  • Vitality True Food Calcium Care: Formulated by us and exclusively manufactured to exceed our strict Vitality Approved standards, this is our top-pick calcium supplement!
  • Ultimate Bone Support is an all-in-one option for someone looking for calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, and other nutrients important in supporting bone health.
  • Calcium MCHA and Magnesium is great for someone looking for an excellent Cal/Mag product.  
  • Vitamin D 2,000 IU is a tiny, inexpensive, high-quality Vitamin D that is easy to adjust the dose based on what your doctor recommends

Protein

Proteins, carbohydrates, and fats are the three types of macronutrients we need. Proteins give our body lasting energy and important amino acids.  Proteins support literally every cell in the body.  

Proteins are also the macronutrient that many people don’t get enough of in the day.  This commonly manifests as a problem in our rapidly dividing cells:  skin, hair, and nails.  

Protein is the main building block for all of these things, so improving protein intake will have a dramatic impact on these common problems.  

How much protein do you need?  Well, that depends on your size and activity level.  In general, it ranges from 0.8-1.2 grams per kilogram of body weight. I teach people to shoot for 1 gram for each kg of body weight. Here’s a helpful calculator that you can use.

Without straying too far into the debate of how much protein is needed, the bottom line is most of us eat below our modest requirements.  When we do eat protein, most of it comes in one or two meals a day.  We need protein all throughout the day, especially before and after any exercise.

Proteins don’t have to come from just fatty animals like beef, but lean proteins are great too.  Even better, incorporating plant-based proteins is a healthy way for omnivores to reach their protein goals.

It’s tricky though.  Protein supplementation is necessary for many people for convenience and consistency.  

I’ve fallen in love with collagen as a supplement-trend-with-merit. If you’re an omnivore, I highly recommend collagen as a daily supplement.

What to Watch Out For

Complete Proteins – If you choose to supplement with plant proteins, ensure you are getting a complete protein.  This means you are getting all the essential amino acids.  This normally comes from plant blends, meaning different plants like pumpkins AND peas are used together.

Contamination – Many leading protein supplements have been shown to have heavy metal contaminants such as lead.  There are numerous examples of body-building protein products adulterated with anabolic steroid compounds.  

Heavily Processed Proteins – Proteins are foods and can degrade if handled inappropriately.  Gentle processing steps are needed to ensure you are getting digestible, complete proteins.  Some companies have been known to use over-processed protein powders and add in amino acids to give the appearance of a high potency protein.

Our Recommendation

Collagen Peptides – This product we’ve sourced directly to the cow to ensure the cleanest, most minimally processed collagen product that also happens to be of the best value on the market.

Myocep – Our number one choice for whey protein.  We selected this formula as it uses minimally processed whey from antibiotic, hormone-free cows that are grass-fed.  It’s super smooth with a great taste, not like many bitter proteins out there.

Balanced Plant Protein – For a complete plant protein, we like the Balanced Plant line. 

A Multivitamin

The last two Vital Five Supplements of protein and multivitamins are excellent for those who just can’t pull off a perfectly balanced diet every day.  

We’re the first to tell people that multivitamins (especially as most of us take them) won’t work. 

That being said, our diets are garbage.  Most of us rarely get good amounts of foods rich in vitamins.  

However, vitamins are just a small part of the micronutrient picture.  Antioxidants, minerals, bioflavonoids, and more are just as crucial, if not more so, than vitamins – yet they are often lacking from our diets.  

If you are committed to lots of dark leafy greens, bright reds, and vibrant blues in your diet, you don’t need to supplement.  

If you can’t consistently get these, using a well-made multivitamin is a great way to ensure minimum competency on the micronutrient front.

What to Watch Out For

The Fakers – As we discussed in our Garden of Lies article, most multivitamins are misrepresented in some way.  They convince us to spend way more on products labelled whole food, raw, natural, or otherwise. In reality, these are Flintstone vitamins in a dress.

The Forms – it’s important to consider that just because something is labelled “folic acid” doesn’t mean that your body will absorb or utilize it correctly. Like with calcium, there are forms of nutrients that will be absorbed and used better, and there are forms that will not.

The Doses – Most people take multiple servings-worth of multivitamins each day and don’t know it. Between their “shake,” multivitamin, B Complex, hair skin and nails formula, and otherwise, they’re getting exposed to WAY too many nutrients. These isolates in excess WILL be problematic, no matter how often the charlatans tell you that unused vitamins will “just pass through”

Our Recommendation

There are two paths one could take to conquer their multivitamin battles:

Coenzyme Multi: Specially formulated to have the doses and forms of the micronutrients we need, and nothing more. An easy 2 capsules a day dosing along with a great price make it a sophisticated and smart multi.

Vital Greens and Reds: Vital Greens and Reds is our new innovative and comprehensive blend of organic greens, vegetables, fruits, berries, phytonutrients, fiber, probiotics, and digestive enzymes.

The Vital Five

When trying to determine what supplements one should take on a daily basis, look to our Vital 5 Supplements as a starting point.  These highlighted items are often referred to by us as “Vital” because they are the center of any wellness plan we develop for our customers.

Utilizing these supplements consistently as part of a wellness plan can address many health problems people face.

As with anything in the supplement industry, be aware of the gap between the science and the products you can buy. If you need help navigating it, we’re here to help

Just trying to keep it real…

Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth

Dr. Neal Smoller, Holistic Pharmacist

About Neal Smoller

Dr. Neal Smoller, PharmD, is a licensed pharmacist: and owner of Village Apothecary, an independent pharmacy in the most famous small town in America—Woodstock, NY. He’s also the host of the popular wellness podcast, The Big Mouth Pharmacist.”

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The Vital 5

Nutrients you shouldn’t live without
The Vital 5 Nutrients You Shouldn't Live Without

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