Once upon a time, I worked at a gym that required its trainers to sell supplements. Not only would trainers get commission for selling those supplements, but they had a quota.
The way the gym justified this was by claiming it was physically impossible to get sufficient nutrients by food alone. Not difficult, impossible.
If this sounds nonsensical, that’s because it is.
There were plenty of other horribly flawed arguments given to justify peddling supplements -- there were many other trainers who were visibly uncomfortable about the idea of pushing expensive supplements onto people who didn’t need them and/or couldn’t afford them. However, the first point makes it clear this was a thinly veiled money grab.
Suffice to say I didn’t last very long there. I figured it was better to quit before I rolled my eyes so hard I threw myself into a coma.
This brings us to today’s topic:
Do you actually need to be taking supplements?
I’ve been asked about supplements by online clients, in person clients, friends, and acquaintances so it’s high time I write about it.
There are soooo many supplements out there, and I’m no scientist (I just play one on TV). Therefore, I can’t cover everything comprehensively. I’ll be speaking somewhat generally, only discussing the big topics/supplements out there. If you’d like more specifics on any supplements, there isn’t a better resource than Examine.com.
The first and most important takeaway regarding supplements is this:
You probably don’t need the vast majority of supplements.
In this post I break supplements down into 3 categories because people are interested in supplements for different reasons:
- Fat Loss,
- General Health
Despite what I said earlier, supplements can be helpfuI. They’re not all bad.
However, there are only a few that have been researched enough to conclusively claim they’re both safe and effective. Those are the only ones worth even considering.
There are many supplements that show promise, but haven’t been researched enough to develop any conclusive findings. So we won’t waste energy worrying about them here.
That said, even the best supplements shouldn’t be a high priority in your nutrition strategy.
"Supplements are supplemental."- Dan John
Sharon the accountant who sits for 11 hours a day, and hasn’t exercised in 20 years doesn’t need to worry about pricey chocolate flavored powders -- she needs to move and eat colorful vegetables every day.
I frankly wouldn’t bother with most supplements unless your diet is really, REALLY on point and you’re looking for the next step.
It’s better to get nutrients from food. Get your nutrition dialed in first, then you can worry about supplements if you want.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about fat loss supplements.
Most supplements out there are complete and utter baloney, especially fat loss supplements.
You might as well just throw your money into the blender with chocolate syrup and vanilla.
Beyond that, the supplement industry is fairly unregulated and can be super shady. There’s a chance you’re not buying what they say you’re buying and/or that it’s not safe.
Do you ever see those commercials saying, “if you took X fat loss supplement and suffered from X medical condition you may be entitled to a class action lawsuit”?
Yeah. Suuuuuper shady.
So when it comes to over the counter fat loss supplements you have two camps: completely useless and/or potentially very dangerous. Personally, neither are my cup of tea.
^ This, on the other hand is my cup of tea. And yes, that’s coffee.
It’s tempting to think if you just take X supplements you’ll finally be able to shed those pounds, lose your belly, and fit back into that old pair of jeans. I get it, I really do. You feel like you’ve tried everything and this supplement promises to get you results FAST.
Besides, even in the hypothetical situation where there exists a miracle weight loss drug, what happens when you stop taking it? If you haven’t changed your dietary habits, that weight is going to come right back, leading you to feel even more demoralized and frustrated than when you began.
If there was a fat loss supplement that really worked, don’t you think everybody would be using it?
If a supplement sounds too good to be true, it is.
These are supplements meant to help you perform better athletically. Again, for most recreational lifters these shouldn’t be a high priority, especially pre-workout supplements.
Most pre-workout supplements are essentially just a metric fuckton of caffeine. Any benefits come from said fuckton of caffeine.
To be fair though, caffeine is one hell of a drug.
That much caffeine will certainly make you feel like you could beat the Kraken in an arm wrestling match. However, unless you’re throwing up some seriously heavy weights with your squats and deadlifts you’re probably not going to get much benefit other than a serious case of the jitters.
Now, there are two supplements in this category with tooooons of positive research behind them. The first being protein powder.
Protein powder can actually be pretty useful. If you have trouble getting enough protein, whether it’s because you’re vegetarian, short on time, or simply can’t be bothered to eat proteinous things, protein powder makes getting enough protein super convenient and quick.
The whole “you need to eat protein within 30 minutes of your workout otherwise you’re workout was useless and you’ll make kittens sad” thing has been thoroughly debunked.^1
However, drinking a protein shake after a workout can be a good habit to ensure you hit your protein needs.
Piggybacking off of your workout to get in some protein can help keep your calories in check (or add extra enough calories to build muscle, depending on your goals), and get enough protein to recover from your workouts.
Also so you don’t pass out on the subway ride home. Also that.
Piggybacking off of existing habits is one the fundamental strategies my online clients use to lose body fat, because it makes new healthy habits stick i.e. the healthy habits last and lead to lifelong fat loss. So combining a protein shake with your workout can make getting enough protein much easier psychologically.
Again, though, if you’re eating meat 3 times a day, this is probs unnecessary.
Creatine is the other performance supplement that has been researched into oblivion. Here’s why it works.^2
The body has 3 mechanisms for giving you energy during physical activity. The way your body gives you energy depends on the intensity of the activity you’re doing.
The more intense the activity the shorter that level of intensity can last.
A sprinter can’t maintain their speed as long as a marathon runner. So a sprinter primarily relies on a different energy system than a marathon runner or a powerlifter. Each system relies on different fuel sources.
First we have the adenosine triphosphate - Creatine Phosphate System (ATP-CP). Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz.
Just notice how this contains the word “creatine” in it. This system provides quick fuel for really high intensity efforts that last less than about 12 seconds e.g., deadlifting as much weight as you can for 1-5 reps.
Then there’s the Anaerobic Lactic (Glycolytic) System which provides energy for less intense efforts, a level of intensity you can maintain for anywhere from 12 seconds to 2 minutes e.g., sprinting.
Lastly, there’s the Aerobic System for efforts that aren’t intense but done for long periods of time (2 minutes to hours) e.g., jogging, long distance cycling, cardio etc.
Because the first energy system uses creatine as fuel, supplementing with creatine gives your body more of that specific fuel needed for super short, high intensity bouts of effort, AKA lifting heavy ass weights.
This means you’ll be able to get stronger, and build more muscle. Hooray!
Creatine is naturally found in meat and produced by the body from amino acids. So unless you’re a vegetarian or a high level athlete, this probs isn’t necessary.
From personal experience, I took creatine during my vegetarian days and my strength levels skyrocketed, most likely because I was creatine deficient because of the whole “no meat” thing.
At the time, getting stronger was a huge priority for me so it was worth the money. More isn’t necessarily more effective though. So if you’re already getting plenty of creatine from meat, it’s likely not going to do much for you.
I know I sound like a broken record, but food comes first. Healthy nutrition comes from healthy food consumption, not taking a bajillion powders and pills every day.
Vitamin D is a curious case though in that it’s difficult to get enough through food alone. You can get it from foods like eggs, fish, and liver of course. However, sunlight is where humans get most of their vitamin D. And not having enough vitamin D is a fairly big deal. This is why people get SAD (Seasonal Affect Disorder) characterized by insufficient vitamin D which makes people, you guessed it, feel sad.
That’s not to mention all the other reasons your body needs vitamin D like:
- Bone and muscle strength
- Decreased risk of heart disease
- Lower risk of colon cancer
- Increased immune function^3
So if you live in somewhere where the Sun is but something of myth and legend, like England or San Francisco, taking vitamin D is a good idea.
Fish Oil is another supplement with tons of benefits. While it’d be better to eat more fatty fish, fish can get a bit pricey. So in this case, a supplement might actually save you some cash.
The argument for multivitamins makes sense: If you don’t get enough of a particular vitamin on a given day, the multi can make up the difference. In reality, it’s not quite that simple.
The research shows people who took multivitamins weren’t actually any better off than those who didn’t.^4
Simply put, how all vitamins and minerals interact, along with their bioavailability (how readily absorbed by the body they are), isn’t fully understood.
What we can say is a multivitamin surprisingly doesn’t seem to be correlated with longer life or a lower risk for disease.
- If you aren’t eating well (colorful veggies and protein at every meal 3 times a day) don’t worry about supplements other than maybe Vitamin D and Fish Oil.
- Get some sun if you can.
- Fat Loss supplements just make your pee more expensive.
- Protein and creatine are effective and safe, but not a high priority for recreational lifters.
- Multivitamins aren’t necessarily healthy.
- Schoenfeld, B., Aragon, A., & Krieger, J. (2013). BioMed Central Ltd. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-10-53
- Wallimann, T., Tokarska-Schlattner, M., & Schlattner, U. (2011). The creatine kinase system and pleiotropic effects of creatine. Amino Acids, 40(5), 1271–1296. http://doi.org/10.1007/s00726-011-0877-3
- “Vitamin D and Health”. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vitamins/vitamin-d/
- Patel, K., “Do You Need to take a Multivitamin”. (2018). Retrieved from https://examine.com/nutrition/do-you-need-a-multivitamin/