By now you know there are hundreds (thousands? More?) of supplements out there online and on the shelves of every place from GNC to Whole Foods. Likely, you’ve heard they’re a must-have health elixir, useless, or even harmful, depending on the source. Maybe you even have some you swear by (here at B/SPOKE, we’re big fans of VitalFit).

But does a pill or powder truly have the ability to make you healthier, stronger, or happier? Here, Ryan Maciel, R.D.N., C.S.C.S., a Boston-based dietitian and owner of Middle Way Nutrition helps answer our questions.

Can I trust everything I hear and read about supplements?

Not really. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates supplements, but not as strictly as drugs, which have to be proven both safe andeffective before they’re sold to the public. That’s why it’s important to do your homework. Look for companies that have been certified by a third party like NSF, or Consumer Labs, suggests Maciel. These companies test the ingredients, quality, and potency of supplements, so you know you’re getting the good stuff. He favors the company Thorne, for example, which supports multiple professional sports teams.

Which supplements *actually* work? 

There are a lot of claims out there, so here’s a quick run down of a few popular supplements:

  • Collagen. Found inside our bones, muscles, skin, and tendons, Maciel says there’s no substantial evidence that dietary collagen supplements can slow or reverse aging, so stick to what works: a well-balanced diet, regular exercise, sunblock, and a smoke-free lifestyle.
  • Fish Oil. It contains two essential omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) key for heart, nerve, and immune system function. Since our bodies don’t naturally produce these fatty acids, we have to get them from foods like salmon, sardines, albacore tuna, and mackerel. If you’re not a big fish fan, fish oil supplements could be a good idea. There’s strong research showing they can lower your triglycerides (a type of fat linked to heart problems), says Maciel. They may also lower inflammation and up your mood.
  • Tart Cherry. It contains a high concentration of anthocyanins, an antioxidant which could help athletes recover quicker and be less prone to illness after particularly tough workouts. Some research shows it could help reduce pain and inflammation and speed up recovery time, too. There really are not any adverse side effects linked to tart cherry, so it’s a low-risk option. (Try: VitalFit Tart Cherry!)
  • Vitamin D. Key for healthy bones, muscles, heart, and immune function, opt for whole food sources (like salmon, tuna, and mackerel) over a supplement. You need 600IU per day, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Many studies show you could afford to take even more, too, says Maciel (1,000 to 2,000 IU).

I think I have a vitamin or nutrient deficiency — what should I do?

Talk to your doctor. They can do the necessary bloodwork and tests to confirm a true deficiency. Even if you’re fit and healthy, deficiencies do happen: Vegetarians and vegans, for example, can be low in iron, calcium, Vitamin B12, zinc, riboflavin, or vitamin D, Maciel says.

If you do have a deficiency? Try tweaking your diet first. “Most people meet their nutrient needs by eating a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods,” says Maciel. A quick consult with a dietician can also provide you an eating plan that covers all of the key vitamins and minerals you need.

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