When a healthy balanced diet falls short of meeting your nutrient and energy needs a considered supplement might give you a lift while you explore your particular nutrient gaps.

The annoying myth of the ‘healthy balanced diet’

“You get all the vitamins and minerals you need if you eat a healthy balanced diet”. If there’s one phrase that makes me want to throw my hands up in the air and shout in despair, then this is it.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe that the food you eat is important – it’s the primary way to get the nutrients and sustenance that you physically need. But when it comes to consuming enough nutrients to enjoy optimal health it’s really not a ‘one-size-fits-all’ type of affair and a ‘healthy balanced diet’ – whatever that is – may not be enough. What about your life stage? Lifestyle? Activity level? These will all have some influence too.

And so much has changed, even more so in the last few years. Nutritional requirements were first conceived many moons ago, back in 1943, “as the levels of intake of essential nutrients that, on the basis of scientific knowledge, are judged by the Food and Nutrition Board to be adequate to meet the known nutrient needs of practically all healthy persons”.

These standard nutrient requirements were named the Recommended Dietary Allowance, or RDA.

Established, though now updated based on research evidence, they were set to prevent obvious, severe signs and symptoms of deficiency.

Terminology has since been updated. Nowadays, you’re more likely to see RNI (reference nutrient intake) or RDI (reference dietary intake). These are based on RDAs, but one significant difference is that as they are written in to law they don’t update automatically whenever an RDA is change.

I’ve seen this standard of intake described elsewhere as “the minimum wages of nutrition”. Basically, levels are just high enough to keep you not unwell. As you’ll see later, this is a very different concept to having optimal health.

Can your diet be trusted to deliver the goods?

What else is different from half a century ago?

For a start food production methods have changed – as foods are now grown more intensively with faster crop rotation, the soil used has become depleted in nutrients. Which means fresh produce has a lower vitamin and mineral content. In addition the types of foods eaten tend to be more processed. Freezing fruit and vegetables does preserve their nutrient status, but ready meals, takeaways and the like are more questionable. As a nation we’ve grown taller; stronger; busier and more harried. Today’s skewed work/life balance adds to the demands.

And yet, somehow, your diet has been expected to keep pace with all these changes. Despite depletion, leaching, increased stature, and different daily pressures, the belief remains that eating the same quantity of food as the previous generation will satisfy your nutritional needs.

That’s why this notion of an average healthy diet is so irksome, especially if you want to feel great, and not just ok.

It will take more than good intentions and much more than the average healthy diet, to provide all the vitamins, minerals, fibre, antioxidants, healthy fats, protein and plant-sourced nutrients to fulfil your needs.

Recommended levels of health vs optimal levels of health

How health and wellness is measured is important. Consider the difference between the reference nutrient intake and the optimal daily intake (ODI) of nutrients.

If you think that the RNI is set to prevent illness and ODI is set for enjoying good health, the difference can feel huge.

So it could be that when you nick yourself your cuts take ages to heal – what’s your vitamin C status?, or that you’re prone to catching colds – is your zinc intake sufficient? Maybe you suffer from dry skin, aching joints or an inability to focus – how balanced is your intake of healthy oils and fats?  Perhaps you struggle to maintain your weight and positive mood – what do you think your vitamin D levels are? Is there enough fibre in your food?

These are not all symptoms of severe nutritional illnesses, but they’re enough to make you feel crap during the day.

Alternatively, you might find your energy is in a bit of a slump. On a daily basis, or for weeks on end. Each of the nutrients you gain from your diet is not destined for use in just 1 or 2 processes – like vitamin C is only for the immune system; or magnesium and the B vitamins will only help you destress. instead there’s a huge crossover in their actions. You probably have heard about magnesium and how it’s needed for more than 300 different metabolic processes. They’re obviously not all geared towards relaxation, which is why magnesium can help calm you AND liberate energy AND support the immune system AND way much more.

Finding the ‘missing link’ in your nutrients

How might you go about finding out which nutrients may be part of the energy sapping problem?

A popular approach is to shake up your eating habits and try to follow a healthy eating ideal. This might mean eating more protein, lots of fruit band veg, fewer refined carbs and fewer calories, combined with a double espresso or occasional Red Bull when you really need to power through your day.

It’s one part of the problem to pay attention what you’re putting in to your body and address the areas that need some love. But how can you tell how your body handles the nutrients it receives? For instance, genetic factors may have set you up to need far more magnesium than the average Jane.

On the other hand, your fluctuations in energy might not be solely due to an insufficiency or increased demand for specific nutrients.

In a previous blog I touched on the unexpected demand for energy which comes just from trying to change your habits. I explored how the extra attention and focus needed to break out of old habits and do things differently depletes both your mental and physical reserves. So you might find your energy dips are associated with a change in your life. Like starting a new job or going back to study. These all require a shift in your habitual thoughts and burn through your resources.

It’s possible to take out some of the guesswork with a functional test. This can give you a snapshot of your nutrient status and highlight your specific needs.

If you’ve never considered this type of health test before, a Registered Nutritional Therapist would be able to guide you through.

The 7 Best Vitamins and Minerals to Improve Your Energy Levels

So what of these vitamins and minerals which fight fatigue and help increase your energy levels? Here’s what to look for in a good supplement that gives your cellular energy production a boost.

yellow porcelain bowl of activated almonds

Magnesium – used in your regular energy-liberating metabolic processes there’s evidence that magnesium intake is typically low. In an average diet, adult men get 308mg while adult women get around 229mg from their food. However, the RDA is 375mg and the ODI is 500mg which leaves a shortfall of 192 – 270mg.

When supplementing look for a magnesium glycinate, magnesium bisglycinate or magnesium malate. This earlier post explains the difference between the types of magnesium.

N-acetyl-carnitine – a form of carnitine which is easily absorbed both through the gut and across the blood brain barrier.

Although it’s either derived from the diet (particularly from meat) or easily synthesised in the body from l-lysine (so if you eat a vegan or vegetarian diet there’s no need to stress) there are situations where supplements make sense, particularly as levels start to decrease with age.

In fat-burning pathways acetyl-carnitine transports fatty acids into the walls of the mitochondria. This is where cell energy is made, in the form of ATP. On its way out of the mitochondria it carries metabolites and acetyl groups. These are then used to make acetylcholine – one of the brain chemicals involved in memory and cognitive function.

This makes n-acetyl carnitine particularly useful for supporting energy, especially if you’re feeling mentally fatigued.

Malic acid – whenever you eat apples, pears or veggies you’ll get a little malic acid, it’s also made in the body as part of the carbohydrate metabolism process. It’s often used in formulations for elite sports people’s performance. In one study a malic-acid rich supplement helped sprinters and long-distance runners to increase their capacity for anaerobic exercise. [1]

Zinc – zinc for fighting coughs and colds? Yes. Zinc for promoting the speed of wound healing? Absolutely. But zinc is often overlooked when it comes to energy. Well, like magnesium, this essential trace mineral has an important role to play. It activates the enzymes needed to digest the carbohydrate, protein and fats that you eat. It helps maintain your sense of taste and smell, and ‘opens’ the appetite so that you actually want to eat. Zinc is also essential for releasing gastrin. This is the mix of mucus, stomach acid and digestive enzymes that is powerful enough to break down your food.

Iodine – iodine can fight fatigue and help support your energy due to its effects within the thyroid hormone building cascade. Iodine is the backbone of the hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). They have a role in healthy metabolism and insufficient levels can result in your feeling lethargic, moody, cold or fatigued, as well as being constipated and prone to weight gain.

Selenium – when it comes to the health and function of the the thyroid gland, selenium and iodine are like husband and wife. But clearly where they have a harmonious marriage!. Selenium, is concentrated within the thyroid gland and is a powerful antioxidant which protects the cells. It’s also required to make the thyroid hormones, and in one recent large-scale study a low status was linked with the increased likelihood of having hypothyroidism. [2]

B complex – this is a group of all 8 of the B vitamins which have myriad roles in health. When it comes to supporting your energy levels almost all of these water-soluble vitamins are involved. B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B5 (pantothenic acid) help with metabolic processes which convert nutrients into energy. B6 (pyridoxine) and B9 (folate) are needed to metabolise amino acids in protein-rich foods. B7 (biotin) is essential for metabolism of carbohydrates and fats. B12 (cobalamin) may be the most familiar to you. It’s the one that vegans and vegetarians are often cautioned to add to their diet.  Vitamin B12 builds red blood cells and converts proteins and fats into energy.

In an ideal world your regular daily food intake would fulfil all of your nutritional needs. However, there’s a whole host of challenges which might mean that this ideal is never quite reached: intensive food production on nutrient depleted soils; food preparation methods which strip away vital nutrients; pressures of time and reliance on convenience foods; and coupled to this each person will have a demand for and ability to use their nutrient supplies in a way  which is totally unique. If you find you regularly experience slumps in energy, you may need to look beyond the mythical goal of eating ‘a healthy balanced diet’. Working with a Nutritional Therapist could help you figure out YOUR OPTIMAL DIET; but in the meanwhile consider if a well chosen supplement could deliver the right balance of nutrients to lift you out of your energy slump.



[1] Tyka  et al (2015) Effect of creatine malate supplementation on physical performance, body composition and selected hormone levels in sprinters and long-distance runners

[2] Wu et al (2015) Low population selenium status is associated with increased prevalence of thyroid disease


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