Vitamins and Supplements: Do I Need Them?
Next time you are out and about, walk through the ‘nutrition’ section in the grocery store, stop by the local ‘health’ outlet, or visit the nearest GNC/Vitamin World. It’s a whole new world if you haven’t ever done so.
On the shelves, you’ll find: Bars, Powders, Pills, Capsules, Tablets, and Chews, all of them with different purposes and each product aimed at various end goals.
The supplement world is an ever growing, ever changing exhibit of the newest scientific research on fitness and athleticism.
Clinical trial results mix with pretty good marketing, and the supplement creators, in adherence with FDA regulations, make enormous 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!’
Vitamins and supplements are enormously popular, but you will find other substances that you may have never heard of. Creatine. Beta-alanine. Carnitine. Glutamine. Glucosamine.
You have no idea what it all means or if they even work, but they all sound fantastic and the labels sure make it seem like you would be able to go life a house as soon as you take anything in those aisles.
Supplements are meant to be add-ons to your diet, helping you to reach new plateau’s, but what exactly do they do? How can 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 and picking through various claims can be tricky. Don’t even start on trying to guess which ones will help you reach your goals. The little nuances aren’t always clear, but that’s why CONDITIONERD is here. To help you weave through the nonsense and figure out what works for you.
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.
Bodybuilders prefer some supplements, while endurance athletes stick with others. Recreational athletes and fitness minded folks often just pile in as much as they can in the hopes of getting some sort of benefit. Why, though? And how come virtually no one agrees on what’s ‘best’? Often, that’s because they don’t know. Truth is, to answer that question depends on goal, body type, and genetics.
Stick around long enough and you will find that many disagreements are based on the dreaded ‘bro science.’ If you happen to find the one person in the gym who knows what they are talking about, they will more than likely have varying degrees of support behind them in the form of clinical trials and research. Stick to those people, and pick their brains. They can save you literal thousands.
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.
You should be here!
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 are commonly referred to as steroids fall 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, Chromium, Glutamine, 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 is just as controlled as the rest of the market is when it comes to things you consume. They are generally held to the same standards by the Food and Drug Administration, with minor differences.
If you buy them in a store in the US or Canada, you are more than likely going to be OK, barring any conflicting medical or prescription conflicts. If you have an ongoing medical issue, or an active prescription, your doctor can tell you what to stay away from.
Just like most food (whole foods, like apples and bananas excluded which don’t have labels), you can find ingredient listings in the information panel on the back of the label in most cases. Use this are to see if the supplement has what you need, and if it will conform to your goals.
Manufacturers are required to conform to certain practices in manufacturing in the US or before being legally shipped here, and they undergo auditing each year to ensure they are in compliance. It’s probable that supplement manufacturers are far more regulated than actual food producers, considering the amount of people who get sick from supplements vs from their everyday diet.
With that said, not all supplements are ‘safe.’ Some are indeed downright dangerous, especially if you buy them from less than reputable places on the web. Make sure that the ingredients don’t clash with medications or medical conditions, and that you consume them properly.
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, especially if they are marketed for goals you aren’t reaching for. Others will work for some people, but might not work for your specific bodily makeup. It is up to you, the consumer, to:
- A) Figure out 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, minerals, and other substances 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, but keep this in mind: the more athletic you are, the more vitamins, minerals, metabolites, etc. you will need in order to maintain internal balance and improve performance.
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. Ingredient balance is key. There should also be a minimal amount of additional ‘filler’ ingredients, and 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-6;
- Vitamin B-12;
- Vitamin C;
- Vitamin D;
- Vitamin E;
- Vitamin K;
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.
Fat soluble fats are exceptionally difficult to manage, so keep them at proper levels and don’t go over. Vitamin D, for example, can cause calcium buildup which leads to nausea and weakness or worse, while too much Vitamin A can turn your skin orange. 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 potentially 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, and can also be found in animal muscle meats (although it morphs into creatinine as it heats up, so it becomes nearly useless the longer the meat).
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. 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.
Endurance athletes and those looking to lose weight probably won’t make too many gains from creatine. If, however, you are a strength athlete, or have strength/size centric goals, you really don’t need much more than these few suppplements, provided you have the motivation and consistency in the gym and kitchen.
Restricting how much you buy and put into your body is always a good practice. Your organs will return the favor, and your wallet will thank you. Supplements can get expensive!
Pro-Tip: Most of what you find in health and fitness stores or aisles make remarkable claims that don’t even come close to reality for most people. Read past the clever marketing, turn the package around, and look at the ingredient lists. Compare to your goals, and see if it fits.
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.
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