Next time you are out, walk through the ‘nutrition’ section at the store, visit the local ‘health’ outlet, or visit the nearest GNC/Vitamin World. Vitamins and supplements are enormously popular, but manufacturers make huge claims for most of their products.
‘200% Increase in Strength’
‘Increase your Endurance in days’
‘Destroy Unwanted Body Fat Without Any Effort’
‘Major Pump, Anabolic Based!’
You have no idea what it all means or if they even work, but they all sound fantastic.
Supplements are meant to be add-ons to your diet, helping you to reach new plateau’s, but what exactly do they do? How you tell the legitimate products that work from the ones that might actually hurt you? Can you avoid those that do nothing more than take your money? Unless you have been around the fitness world for awhile, reading supplement labels can be tricky.
Who actually uses supplements?
Supplementation is an occasionally hot button issue in the fitness community with very passionate arguments made for or against it. Ask one person their thoughts and they might tell you to stay away. Ask their gym buddy and that person might rattle off a list of all of the things they believe you should be taking.
Often those disagreements have varying degrees of support behind them in the form of clinical trials, research, and the dreaded ‘bro science.’
There are those who believe that you shouldn’t take any supplements at all. They don’t agree with taking even the smallest, most accepted vitamin and mineral type products. Instead, they believe that proper diet should cover the entirety of their nutrient needs. They aren’t completely wrong to think so, either. Your diet SHOULD cover the overwhelming majority of your dietary needs, but it doesn’t always.
Other people believe that responsible supplementation is a good thing. The majority of people fall into this camp. The mindset here is that things like multivitamins, fish oils, protein powders, and other well known, mainstream vitamins and supplements don’t hurt you; that they can actually help you progress on your journey. These moderates tend to stay away from most of the fringe supplements like anabolics (steroids) and untested, unproven supplements with little history or clinical backing.
Some folks fall into the ‘heavy supplement users’ category. People who believe that they absolutely need to use supplements for any type of progress fall here. Heavy users tend to try everything on the shelf at the store in search of miracle products. It doesn’t matter if the new product at the store has conflicting ingredients or contains more filler than anything. They are chasing an effect.
Finally, there is the abusive category. These people are the ones who tend to purchase supplements from sheisty online marketplaces and have them shipped from foreign countries in unmarked boxes/bottles. People who use what is commonly referred to as steroids falls under this category as do people who use any other type of injections, patches, or pills that are considered illegal or fall under a banned substances list somewhere.
What makes a supplement, good?
A ‘good’ supplement is one that has a lot of ingredients in it which have been studied and proven to do something positive for you. Examples here might include:
- Multivitamins full of Vitamin A/B-12/C, Magnesium, Calcium, Iron, or other necessary nutrients in safe and efficient levels.
- A fiber supplement with an effective/safe amount of fiber.
- Protein powders with a proper amount of well sourced protein and little else.
Products that contain well studied, proven ingredients in levels that are acceptable, safe, and efficient make the best supplements. Look for items that contain tons of things you would find in your diet, not necessarily a ton of ingredients that sound exotic.
What’s the deal with the FDA?
Before we go any further in explaining vitamins and supplements, we need to make something clear. The nutritional supplement market isn’t as controlled as the rest of the market is when it comes to things you consume. They are generally not held to the same standards by the Food and Drug Administration.
You are solely reliant on labels in most cases. Sure, manufacturers may be required to conform to certain practices in manufacturing in the US or before being legally shipped here, but not all supplements are ‘safe.’ Some are indeed downright dangerous, especially if you buy them from less than reputable places on the web.
Who is actually responsible for supplement usage?
There are a ton of supplements out there being sold that make a lot of bold claims, but are completely useless. It is up to you, the consumer to figure out:
- A) If you are going to venture into supplements;
- B) Know what you are looking for in a supplement;
- C) Filter out the garbage stuff so you don’t waste your time, money, effort, or hope on something useless; and
- D) Determine if a supplement may impact any medication you may be on, or if it will negatively impact your own health.
Supplements vs Dietary Intake
When it comes to supplementation, you really should get the overwhelming majority of your daily nutrition from your diet. Vitamins and minerals can be found in nearly every natural food out there. A supplement (vitamins and supplements full of things you may need) should be, well, supplemental. It’s in the name after all.
Occasionally, you might not be able to get enough of certain nutrients in your diet. THAT is when you should consider supplements. Consider the following examples:
- ‘Bill’ weighs 180lbs. He strives to consume 1g of protein per 1lb of bodyweight. This means he needs 180g of protein a day to reach his goal. Eating 180g of protein a day is pretty hard to do with food, considering how full protein makes you. A protein supplement might be necessary in such a case.
- ‘Sarah’ absolutely cannot stand fish. Because of her dietary problems with fish, she might not be able to consume enough Omega 3s in her diet. In this case, she would probably benefit from taking a fish oil supplement.
If you maintain a proper diet, chances are you won’t need too many supplements.
Known good results
There are a few tried and true vitamins and supplements that have been used for decades without many, if any, side effects while providing actual benefits. Here is a list of some of the more popular, and useful, supplements that are available in the health section:
Multivitamins are products that generally come in pill form, but can also be found in gummy and occasional powder form. A good multivitamin will have a good combination of necessary vitamins and minerals, proportional to daily requirements. There should also be a minimal amount of additional ‘filler’ ingredients such as casing. There is, however, more than likely no reason for sugar and artificial coloring if you find it.
Vitamins and minerals are a necessity for your body, so you can’t really go wrong with a supplement containing them. That is, as long as the ingredient list contains most of the required vitamins and minerals you need for your age, sex, and health requirements. Generally, a good multivitamin will contain something along the lines of:
- Vitamin A;
- Vitamin B-12;
- Vitamin C;
- Vitamin E;
- Vitamin K;
- Vitamin D;
- Zinc; and
One major thing to remember is this: Some manufacturers like to push as much into one pill as possible. Your body can only handle so much of any one nutrient. Add too much of anything and there has to be the potential for a safety issue there somewhere. Nutrients are no different.
Vitamin D, for example, can cause calcium buildup which leads to nausea and weakness or worse. Not good things. The nutrients in a multivitamin should remain within safe limits.
Omega 3’s are oils that you can consume in either fish or fish oil supplements which may help with a ton of cool functions in your body, such as:
- Reduced inflammation.
- Supporting healthy skin.
- Lowering blood pressure.
Fish oils often come in either capsule or liquid form, so they are easy to take. Swallow a few fish oil capsules with your vitamins to help your body digest the ingredients in the multi, or add a few drops to a shake. Makes it easy to take in.
If you decide to take a fish oil supplement, look for ‘clean’ product lines. The higher quality the line, the fewer problems (like the dreaded fish burps!) you could encounter. As with multivitamins, take only what you need to fill gaps. Anything more than 3g a day has been shown to cause some side effects.
What exactly does protein do, and why do you need it? Well, for starters protein helps to rebuild muscle and helps build up your immune system. If you want a quick run down of what your body uses it for, what happens if you don’t have enough, and what are the most common types of protein available at the store, click here.
Each of them has their own benefits and drawbacks, mostly having to do with how they are digested but also encompassing flavor, overall calorie count, texture, goals, and in general preference.
Creatine is by far one of the least understood supplements for beginners. Many people think it is a steroid, but that is pretty far from the truth. In reality, it is a substance your body naturally produces. It can also be found in animal muscle meats.
When you look at what is available in stores, you can find creatine for sale in tons of forms: pills, chews, powder, liquid, and even going so far as to appear in some foods and pre-mixed beverages.
Some forms of creatine are easier to digest than others, with these being the most popularly available for purchase:
Supplementing with this compound is actually very useful. Basically, it helps to build bigger muscles by:
- Increasing the amount you can lift
- Raising the levels of some hormones
- Increasing how much water is in your muscles
- Reducing muscular breakdown.
Creatine has very few, if any side effects, mainly involving cramps, liver or kidney problems, or bloating when too much is taken in or not enough water is consumed.
You really don’t need much more than that. These items make for a good starter stack, and you might be completely happy with the results. Not only would you be holding back on how many substances you are taking (your organs will return the favor), but your wallet would thank you as well. Vitamins and supplements can get expensive!
Pro-Tip: Most of what you find in health and fitness stores or aisles are complete crap. Start here and see if there is anything else worthwhile that might benefit you.
Things to look out for
In general you want to avoid buying vitamins and supplements from sites that seem a bit ‘off.’ You also probably don’t want to be buying any supplements from third world countries; and then have them shipped to you.
- Read the label. Does it outline manufacture facility, manufacture/expiration dates, and ingredients?
- Does the bottle indicate third party vouching for safety and labeling?
- Do the claims seem too good to be true?
Don’t forget to always double check with your doctor before you start taking any supplement. They may be able to point you towards items that could potentially help you with your goals. Your doctor might also be able to steer you away from anything that could conflict with a medical problem you have or a medication you are on.
Keeping a journal of everything you are taking could be useful in the event that you have an adverse reaction. Additionally, a record would be useful so you can refer to it if you will be undergoing any type of surgical procedure. Of course, you should stop taking all supplements before you undergo any surgical procedures to be on the safe side.
You should never use supplements as a substitute for real food and nutrients. Use them to fill in nutritional gaps. They are meant to be supplemental, not alternatives. A broad diet with a large range of foods that is rich in nutrients should take precedence over supplements any day.