Do You Need Supplements?
Last blog, I went over collagen supplements, so it seems fitting to address supplements in more detail. Supplementation is probably the number one question I get asked.
Are supplements necessary?
Yes, no, and maybe. It’s always best to get your nutrients through food vs a supplement (ie: eating the recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables vs taking a multi vitamin). Typically, if you’re eating a balanced diet, you don’t need a supplement, unless you have a specific deficiency in a specific micronutrient. Consuming too much of certain vitamins and minerals that carry the risk for toxicity (for example, fat soluble vitamins A, E, & K), so consult your doctor before “self-medicating.” That being said, if you’re not receiving the nutrients you need through your diet, a supplement may be necessary. If you’re excluding certain food groups, like vegetarians and vegans, supplements may be needed to obtain recommended amounts of macro and micronutrients. They may also be a helpful tool in performance and recovery before/during/after exercise.
What exactly are pre- and post-workout drinks?
Pre and post workout drinks are designed to aid in energy, performance, and recovery. Pre-workout drinks typically contain caffeine and other stimulants that provide short term energy and raise the heart rate. Post work out drinks typically contain protein, BCAA’s, and/or carbohydrates, designed to help muscles recover faster and restore energy lost during a workout.
What are BCAAs?
BCAA stands for branched-chain amino acids. They are essential amino acids that can be oxidized in skeletal muscle. The three proteinogenic BCAAs, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are among the nine essential amino acids for humans. Metabolically, BCAAs promote protein synthesis and turnover, signaling pathways, and metabolism of glucose (Monirujjaman, 2014). BCAA supplementation (before and after exercise) has shown positive effects for reducing physical activity-induced muscle damage and promoting muscle-protein synthesis, which suggests that BCAAs are likely a beneficial supplement for exercise and sports (Shimomura, 2004).
What does "stacking" mean?
A commonly used bodybuilding term is “stack,” which refers to sports nutrition supplements. Stacking features products with different intended purposes that work together to enhance energy, endurance, and recovery. Stacks typically comprise a pre-workout product, an intra-workout product and a postworkout product. Combining or stacking supplements is intended to create a synergistic bond between the horde of products or ingredients (proprietary blends) in the hopes of achieving greater results in a shorter amount of time.
Is any of this necessary or safe? What are some risks?
This a loaded question. Knowledge of a supplement’s legality, safety, purity, and effectiveness is critical. Unlike food, the FDA does not review supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. The manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements are responsible for making sure their products are safe before they go to market. In other words, supplements are not regulated, and consumers should do their research on all products before consumption. In recent years, the supplement industry has grown into a $30 billion industry with new brands continually emerging. Many manufacturers are able to open with no more but the essential equipment and, through their floor plan and other light manipulations, can strategically abide by specific regulations to certify for following Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP). Additionally, non-clinical manufacturers aim to pursue the most inexpensive raw material from suppliers that will pass under the given certificate of analysis to minimize the cost of goods (Sarma, Giancaspro, & Venema, 2016). Lack of standardization is also an issue encountered when purchasing supplements, meaning that the amount found in the supplement is the same as the amount found in the laboratory standard, so again, it’s important to choose a manufacturer who adheres to GMP. Many athletes are governed by rules set by the NCAA, International Olympic Committee, etc. in regard to supplementation. They often only use supplementation that meet a certain standard of safety and purity. Look for manufacturers who participate in dietary supplement certification programs. These programs include:
- ConsumerLab.com (Athletic Banned Substances Screened Products)
- NSF (Certified for Sport)
- United States Pharmacopeia
- Banned Substances Control Group
Can supplements give your workout a push or an edge compared to simple hydration and diet?
There are so many supplements on the market, and to be honest, most sold are not effective for improving performance, increasing muscle mass, or decreasing body fat. Sometimes supplements may be effective, but have questionable safety profiles. Remember Hydroxycut back in the early 2000s? It’s active ingredient was Ephedra, which was banned by the FDA in 2004, after a series of reports of serious liver problems, including one death, were discovered. The majority of supplements have little to no scientific evidence of effectiveness (Dunford and Coleman, 2012).
Scientific research suggests the following are safe and effective at recommended doses:
- Caffeine – Effective as a central nervous system stimulant and improving endurance and high intensity activities for up to 20 minutes.
- Creatine – Effective in conjunction with repeated short burst, high intensity training for increasing lean body mass and for increased performance for weightlifters.
- Vitamins and Minerals – Effective increasing nutrient intake and to reduce nutrient deficiencies, if present.
- Protein – Effective in stimulating skeletal muscle protein synthesis. o Including whey, casein, soy, and other plant based options.
- Beta-alanine for buffering of muscle pH reduces acidity in muscles during prolonged high-intensity exercise, decreasing the onset of fatigue.
- BCAAs for immune support and reduction of post-exercise fatigue.
What are some pitfalls to avoid?
Be wary of proprietary blends. It sounds impressive, but companies label their products as proprietary blends” because by doing so, they do not have to disclose to the consumer the amount of each ingredient in the blend. Every manufacturer is required by the FDA to list all of the ingredients in their supplement on the supplement facts panel. “Blends” are able to hide the fact the formula may contain very little of the active ingredients listed on the bottle in an attempt to fool consumers. Quality ingredients cost more money and by using blends with cheap ingredients makes more profit.
Do your research. Supplement companies will make lots of erroneous claims that aren’t based in science. Look for articles that cite clinic trails and peer reviewed journal articles about the supplement in question.
Dunford, M., & Coleman, E., (2012). Ergogenic Aids, Dietary Supplements, and Exercise. In Rosenbloom, C. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professional (5th ed). Chicago: Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Monirujjaman, M. (2014). Metabolic and Physiological Roles of Branched-Chain Amino Acids. Advances in Molecular Biology, 1–6. doi: 10.1155/2014/364976.
Sarma, N., Giancaspro, G., & Venema, J. (2016). Dietary supplements quality analysis tools from the United States Pharmacopeia. Drug Testing and Analysis, 8(3-4), 418–423. http://doi.org/10.1002/dta.1940
Shimomura, Y., Murakami,T., Nakai, N., Nagasaki, M., Harris, R. (2004). Exercise Promotes BCAA Catabolism: Effects of BCAA Supplementation on Skeletal Muscle during Exercise. Journal of Nutrition, 134 (6) 1583S-1587S.