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Supplements, the Best, the Worst and the Pointless

My first experience with sports supplements was close to 40 years ago when I was a young teenager. I'd bought a tub of nice tasting protein tablets which suggested taking 6 tablets before and after training, instructions which I ignored in favour of just using 6 tablets a day in order to save money.

Needless to say this was a poor experience for me. However, it whetted my appetite for supplements. I must have used them wrong. I just needed to find something that worked for me. Somewhere, out there, was the supplement that could give me the shortcut to the goals I wanted.

And there it is. The angle. The hook that supplement marketeers use to get in your pocket. It wasn't the supplements fault you didn't achieve your goals, it was yours! Try again!

Don't get me wrong, I am a huge fan of supplements. My background is in mathematical sciences and the statistical evidence for the effectiveness, and need, of certain supplements is overwhelming. However, its on this basis that you should select your supplements for use, and not on marketing hype.

So lets put this into a practical approach:

  • There are essential nutrients that are almost certain to be deficient in the diet. This should be the first priority for supplementation
  • Modern life makes it difficult to always get the right macro nutrients. If you cant get the right balance of carbohydrates, fats and protein from your normal diet, you can utilise supplements to address small gaps.
  • There are some important times when supplements seem to outperform normal foods. This should be the next area to look into.
  • Finally, functional supplements may help accelerate progress towards your goals.

Next lets just bring a little realism into the game to counter any thoughts you may have from reading magazines and marketing hype:

  • There is no miracle fast fix. You can achieve amazing results in as little as 6 weeks, but supplements alone wont even start to get you there.
  • Supplements will not make up for a poor diet. wait! don't click away just yet. An adequate diet is easy to achieve, will require less change than you might think, is not time consuming, doesn't require lots of planning, and yes, it can be enjoyable. If you want to see how, click here for an article on putting together an eating plan for adequate nutrition.
  • Supplements will not make up for inappropriate training. Make sure your workouts are designed to help you achieve your goals, and not because you 'think you should' be doing certain types of exercise. Click here for an insight into effective training in only a few minutes a few times per week.

We're armed with our approach we can look into each prioritised group in more detail. All of us have to buy within a budget, so its important to remember that what money you do have to invest in sports supplements needs to be spent against the highest priorities first.

Supplements Choice Priority #1 - MicroNutrients

Modern farming means that our diets are inevitably deficient in vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (see why). To put this into context, vitamins and minerals are essential for the optimum functioning of our body.

Without adequate levels you cant utilise protein, carbs and fats fully. your metabolism will slow down, you cant release stored body fat as well as you could, recovery will slow down, muscle repair and building will slow down. Functionally, you will not be as strong, your immune system will be under par.

Given their low cost, everyone should use a multi vitamin and mineral supplement for substantial periods throughout the year.

In recent years, more and more is being discovered about chemicals within fruits and vegetables. These are called phyonutrients and play an important role in our immune system and other bodily functions. These exhibit drug like effects on our body and are also likely to be deficient in the diet, and are not present in other food sources.

Whilst no statistics exists for how much of these nutrients should be in the diet, it is likely that as with vitamins and minerals, modern farming will have reduced our intake substantially. It is recommended that you supplement with phytonutrients (commonly called 'greens')

Supplements Choice Priority #2 - MacroNutrients

The majority of sports supplements sold are 'protein' shakes. These often take the form of whey protein powders, diet proteins, meal replacement powders and weight gain powders. In an ideal world there should be no reason to take supplements to fulfil shortages in macro nutrients as this need can be fully met from normal foods.

However, stepping out of the ideal world and back into the real one, most of us struggle to get the right balance of these macro nutrients through the day, every day. Using excessive amounts of these supplements narrows down the food diversity you eat, reduces roughage, reduces vitamin and mineral diversity and can potentially increase sugar intake.

Rely on food and use protein supplements to increase total protein intake

Be aware that not all protein powders are equal. Its a hugely competitive market and unfortunately too many manufacturers use lower grade materials or loop holes in labelling regulations to boost their margins. See some insider info to get an overview of what I mean.

Use weight gain mixes for short periods of time, typically only 4 weeks, to add extra calories and protein to your diet when eating solid food to adequate levels is not possible/pleasant. Make sure you understand what to look for in a weight gain as excessive use of the wrong products can set your progress back months or even years and can even cause serious health issues.

Our diet should provide 30% of calories from fats. These should be healthy oils, healthy fats and a small amount of saturated fats. You should avoid trans-fatty acids and excessive saturated fats. It is easy to obtain sufficient fats from nuts, seeds, fish, olives, fowl and a little red meat.

If a supplement is required, select an oil based around nuts/seeds or on fish oil depending on your eating habits

Supplements Choice Priority #3 - Opportunistic Nutrition

Creatine Monohydrate exists in small amounts in the diet, specifically in red meats. However, extensive research over the last 20 years has shown that abnormally high levels of creatine have many positive effects in athletic performance, body composition, muscle gain and cell hydration. A supplemental level of 2-5g per day used for extensive periods for most of the year will provide full benefits.

Given the costs and benefits of Creatine, if you have addressed your priority #1 and #2 needs, then this should be considered as the next priority.

Following a workout, your body is highly responsive to certain nutrients. Key amongst these are a moderate level of simple carbohydrates for liver and muscle glycogen replenishment. Along with this it has been shown that rapidly absorbed protein can enhance recovery a further 20% beyond simple carbohydrate supplementation alone. In the normal course of events, these nutrients, in this form, do not occur in unprocessed food sources.

Post workouts fall into a higher priced bracket of sports supplements and should only be considered once priority #1 and #2 needs have been fully met.

Supplements Choice Priority #4 - Functional Extracts

There are a wide choice of 'functional' supplements available on the market. In general the ingredients are based around herbs, plant extracts, or engineered subsections of foods, such as an amino acid.

This group of supplements are usually very specific in their use, and quite often have been designed to address mainstream objectives such as fat loss, improved energy levels and hormonal modification.

By many, they are seen as a one stop supplement (eg my supplemental needs can be met by taking a fat burner etc) which is why quite frequently this type of supplement ends up with a poor reputation. Unless an adequate nutritional plan is followed, and higher priority supplemental needs are addressed, they are likely to give poor to moderate results at best.

In reality, for most people, the need to take these supplements will reduce or even disappear once an adequate nutritional plan is adopted.

Once higher priorities are fully addressed, a functional supplement that is based on your goal can be beneficial as an infrequent addition to your supplement plan specifically during a sticking point, or where you have set a demanding, short term, goal.



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