To supplement or not to supplement…that is the question

What supp'?
What supp'?

There’s a lot of debate on the topic of nutritional supplements. 

When many people hear supplement, they often think one of two things: “Magic pill” or steroids.

There are a crazy number of products on the market today promising all type of weight loss and performance benefits without any effort on your part.

  • Take this pill and watch the fat magically melt off. 
  • Drink this shake 2 times a day and lose 10-60 pounds in 90 days. 
  • Use this powder and pack on the muscle (this product is often accompanied by pictures of a pre-shake overweight out of shape man and a post-shake ripped dude and a disclaimer reading “results not typical”).

If it were that easy, everyone would be lean and cut.  But, when taken for the right reasons supplements can be very beneficial.  There are a few primary types of supplements:

  1. Substitution of nutrients not found in our normal diet
  2. Performance enhancement
  3. Fat burners
  4. Meal replacements

1. Substitution of nutrients not found in our normal diet. The best option is to get all of the nutrients we need from real food.  Unfortunately, that’s not possible for most people.  Much of today’s food is stripped of fundamental nutrients.  Our white bread society wants convenience and food manufactures are happy to provide it.  As much as we want to blame “the corporate machine”, it comes down to demand. 

The best option is to favor organic growers and unprocessed foods.  The closer a food is to it’s natural state, the better it’s going to be for you.  However, even foods produced in sustainable ways with very little to no processing can still have a hard time providing everything we need.  Organic foods might not have the chemicals used to treat other foods, but that lack of chemicals doesn’t mean they’ll always have more essential nutrients.

For example, take two farms growing spinach. Farm A uses pesticides to treat the plants. Farm B doesn’t. Farm A rotates the soil each year. Farm B doesn’t.  It’s likely that Farm A’s product will contain more nutrients from the growing process due to that rotation, but contains added chemicals.  Farm B, no chemicals, but fewer nutrients from the soil.  I’d choose Farm B’s product first, but I’d still have to supplement to get those lost nutrients. 

Reduce your caloric intake to reach a weight loss goal and now you have even fewer nutrients coming in because there’s less food.  Therefore, you need to add those nutrients to your diet in the most calorie-efficient method possible and that’s where nutritional supplementation is valuable.

Good examples here would include a daily multivitamin, calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, fish oil, or protein powder to provide nutrients not present in high enough quantity in your normal diet.

2. Performance enhancement. Not that kind.  We’re talking about supplements that can help you reach muscular development and athletic performance goals. 

An example here would be a creatine supplement. Creatine naturally occurs in the body and it aids in the production of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which is used for energy during anaerobic activity.  More creatine and more ATP means you have the ability to generate more power for a longer period of time. 

If you’re lifting heavy for muscular growth, squeezing those last reps off and getting everything you can from your body is critical and creatine can help you get there.

Will creatine by itself make you bigger and stronger, no. You still have to do the work. 

Can you get to your goals without it? Possibly, but it will take you much longer. 

3. Fat burners. These are thermogenic aids, which means they help increase your body’s normal metabolic rate by increasing heat within the body.  Caffeine, green tea, capsicum, and ginger are a few of the more common metabolic stimulants that have been shown to have value for fat metabolism.   Some, often those with outrageous claims of miracle weight loss, can be quite dangerous.  Others, usually the products that claim to be derived from a recently discovered plant only growing in a remote corner of the South American jungle (that’s so they can justify the high cost), usually aren’t of value and are only dangerous to your wallet.

Do thermogenics work? Yes, they do have the effect of increasing your metabolic rate.  Some more than others, but when it comes down to it, the drawbacks, and often the price, more commonly outweigh those benefits.  The added caloric burn is often just a few hundred calories and you can get the same benefit by adding a little more basic movement to your day. 

There are a couple of other products in this category that have been shown to have some merit.  Choline is reported to help the liver properly use fat and reduce absorption.  Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA) is also reported to reduce the size and number of fat cells in the body. 

4. Meal substitutes like bars and meal replacement shakes can provide nutrients that you’re not getting from real food.  I’ll always prefer real food, but in absence of real food with the right nutrients, these can be of great value.  The two biggest benefits in my eyes:

  • They’re pre-measured so you’re not guessing how many calories and how much of each nutrient you’re taking in. 
  • They’re going to provide more nutrients than the snack alternative in the vending machine at work.

As long as you’re supplementing for the right reasons and with the right expectations, I have no problem.  When you begin relying on the supplement to do the work for you, that’s when you’ll be disappointed.

One Reply to “To supplement or not to supplement…that is the question”

  1. What no mention of vitamin “M”? My favorite! Ok so what supplement should say (purly hypothetical) someone who is hoping to participate in some crazy insaine bike race across the country take with them to keep their energy up on the ride? Preferably something that bears don’t like. (Good article by the way!)

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