Over 50% of the American population takes one or more dietary supplements daily or on occasion. I’m absolutely positive you can think of someone who supplements with pills, powders, or packages of who knows what. The supplement industry is bigger than ever and expanding rapidly. For those of you who are wondering if supplements really work and if they are safe to use, this article is for you. I will also provide you with the only four supplements I recommend (and under what conditions). I do believe there are a few supplements that can fill the gaps in your diet and improve your athletic performance.
First and foremost, let me state that it is possible to get all of the nutrients you need by eating a variety of healthy foods. If you have a nutrient dense diet (lots of colorful fruits and vegetables, lean protein, low-glycemic carbs, and healthy fats) taking a supplement would be an absolute waste of money and could actually pose more of a health risk than a health benefit. Some supplements may have side effects, especially if combined with other medicines. I highly recommend consulting your doctor if ever considering supplementation in addition to taking any medications.
Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as foods, not as medicines. This is actually a bit concerning and let me explain why. Labels on a supplement can claim certain health benefits (which may actually be totally false). The FDA doesn’t evaluate the quality of supplements or assess their effects on the body. Supplements can be sold on the shelves for months before the product is found to be unsafe and it is only then that they FDA will jump in, do some research, and shut down the product sales. It’s no wonder there are so many supplements out there. Anyone can create a pill with whatever ingredients they would like in it and then go out and sell it. Unless there are apparent negative side effects that cause the FDA to intervene, the product could go months or years without being flagged down. The products most likely to be contaminated with pharmaceutical ingredients are herbal remedies promoted for weight loss and for sexual or athletic performance. If you are looking for a product that improves any of those objectives be extremely cautious. I think back to my high school days when I had many teammates who were constantly trying out different sport-enhancing supplements. And yes, some of them did discover adverse side effects. Additionally, little evidence suggests that supplements can reverse the course of chronic diseases. If the product seems too good to be true- trust your instinct and dig deeper with your research because that very likely might be the case.
If you are curious to know about certain ingredients in a supplement you are considering, check out the National Institute of Health’s website which contains useful fact sheets on dietary supplements. https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/list-all/. NIH also recently launched an online Dietary Supplement Label database at www.dsld.nlm.nih.gov. This free database lets you look up the ingredients of thousands of dietary supplements. It includes information from the label on dosage, health claims and cautions.
Despite the fact that there is much more research that needs to be done on even the most common vitamins, there are plenty of studies and research that prove the necessity of vitamins and minerals in our diet. For example, women need iron during pregnancy, and breastfed infants need vitamin D. Almost all medical doctors recommend prenatal vitamins to pregnant women. Vitamins and minerals can be beneficial and even an absolute necessity in certain circumstances. A long-term lack of any one vitamin or mineral can cause serious adverse effects.
Evidence does suggest that some supplements can enhance health and athletic performance. The most common and popular supplements include multivitamins, protein powders, and fish oil. I want to add here that I am a total health nut- I research products thoroughly before deciding if I will even try it out. I also track my vitamin intake on myfitnesspal.com (free app). From the research I have done and speaking from personal experience with how my body has reacted to certain supplements, here are the four I would invite you to consider taking.
I am not a huge fan of fish. In fact there are very few fish I enjoy, and quite honestly, I don’t enjoy them as frequently as I should. For this reason I supplement with Omega-3 fish-oil capsules. Omega-3 is an essential fatty acid (which simply means that it cannot be synthesized by our body and thus can only be acquired through our diet).
Many studies suggest that fish oil is particularly beneficial for brain and eye function. There are even some recent studies suggesting that fish oil improves metabolism. Although I am not sure the science is 100% valid behind some of the endless list of health claims, there is no denying that fish oil is beneficial in many aspects.
My recommendation: if you have access to coldwater fish (wild salmon, mackerel, etc.) and know you’ll eat it three times per week then don’t bother with fish oil supplementation. In any other case, a high quality fish oil supplement (around 4 grams a day) is optimal.
I believe that protein powder is one of the most important supplements for a strength training athlete to take. Quite honestly I think it is beneficial for most people because it’s positive effect on muscle repair and recovery. That statement might raise a few eyebrows. Let me explain.
Along with essential fatty acids (as mentioned above) amino acids (protein) dictate all activity at the cellular level. It is critical we have sufficient amounts of protein to protect ourselves against viruses, carry out chemical reactions, and transport atoms and molecules throughout the body. Our bodies are constantly breaking down proteins so a steady supply is needed to support proper functioning.
When we don’t have enough protein our body will break down our hard earned muscle and slow down our metabolism in the process.
There are many protein powders that conveniently provide all the essential amino acids our body needs. Sometimes I personally struggle to find the time to grill lean meats, or prepare meals high in protein, whereas shaking up a protein drink is quick and easy.
I personally take 25 grams of whey protein at the end of each workout combined with a carbohydrate that is medium to high on the glycemic index chart (this is the only time I would recommend having high glycemic carbohydrates during the program).
Supplementation is designed to do just as the name suggests- “supplement” the diet you already have. Supplements, including protein powder, are unnecessary so long as you acquire the adequate amounts of amino acids through other sources. However, if you are like myself and lack the time to prepare quality protein meals, supplementing with protein powders might be for you.
A lack of vitamins and minerals leads to decreased energy and performance and may even contribute to many chronic diseases.
If you are a picky eater and rarely eat vegetables and fruits, I would consider taking a multi-vitamin.
What to look for when selecting a multivitamin:
1. Read the label to make sure you get the basic vitamins and minerals: Vitamin C, B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B6, B9 (folic acid, B12, B5 (pantothenic acid), Biotin, A, E, D2 or D3 (cholecalciferol), K, potassium, iodine, selenium, borate, zinc, calcium, magnesium, manganese, molybdenum, betacarotene, and iron.
2. Check the percentages: choose a supplement that provides 100% of the daily value (DV) for most of the vitamins and minerals in the supplement.
3. Look for formulas specifically for men, women, and age groups. It might be beneficial to choose a multivitamin designed for your age and sex so that the nutrients are more tailored to you.
4. Don’t overdo it: although rarely occurring, it is possible to have doses of vitamins and minerals that are so large they become toxic. Avoid multivitamins that exceed 100% of daily recommended intakes.
I am sharing this last because I believe this supplement is the only slightly questionable supplement I take and it should only be taken by those who are engaged in strenuous exercise and are seeking to train competitively. Pre-workout supplements can be taken as a powder, pill, prepackaged drink, etc. Please be extremely cautious if you are looking to supplement with a “pre-workout” as there are many false claims and quite frankly, extremely questionable ingredients out there. To illustrate, a very common pre-workout supplement taken by many athletes in my high school was banned after two full years on shelves for containing an ingredient called 1,3 dimethylamylamine - or DMAA. The supplement received 86 adverse event reports. Some of those adverse effects included depression, anxiety, vomiting, loss of consciousness, chest pain, and even death. Make sure the product you take lists ALL the ingredients contained rather than saying something like “special blend”. Additionally make sure that research has been done on the ingredients and that its long-term effects have been studied.
Before getting into the gym I will supplement with a product called C4 (found in many grocery stores including Walmart and Costco). This product has been around for several years (the FDA would have banned it by now if there were any adverse effects or negative reports). The ingredients contained are common and have studies to back them up. I prefer to take half a serving size. C4 gives me more energy during my workouts and I have noticed strength improvements. The only two things that make this product somewhat questionable is the caffeine and creatine content. If you get wired on a small dosage of caffeine and struggle to fall asleep at night taking it then this product might not be for you (or you might want to take it earlier in the day).
Enjoy the benefits of a diet rich in all vitamins and minerals (and supplements in the case of a vitamin or mineral deficiency) to fuel your healthiest self.
Sweat and smile,
Please feel free to comment below if you have any specific questions about supplementation.