Supplements. This is a HUGE topic and the source of so much confusion in the health and fitness world. I could go on for days, but instead, I’m going to give you the clearest info possible in under 600 words. Ready?
The supplement industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise. Their goal is to convince you that you *need* all the stuff they’re selling. Some are simple, some are fancy. Some are relatively cheap, some are wildly expensive. Some are safe, some are dangerous. Some are helpful, some do literally nothing.
So how are you supposed to know what to do?
Just run through these simple questions when deciding if you want to try (or continue using) a supplement:
1. Is there scientific evidence to support the efficacy of this supplement?
The short answer to this is: probably not. Very few supplements have meaningful scientific evidence to support their efficacy. The burden of proof is quite low (or non-existent), and supplement companies often fund their own studies, so it’s hard to get unbiased information. If you search any supplement on the internet, you’re likely to find an equal number of sources on both sides of the “does this work” fence.
Caffeine and creatine probably have the deepest pool of actual research. There is also a good amount of research for common vitamins and minerals for use in specific contexts (like calcium for bone health). Fish oil, iron, zinc, and magnesium are also pretty well-studied.
2. Has a medical professional recommended it?
If you’ve had bloodwork done that suggests a deficiency, such as low iron or low Vitamin D, a medical doctor will likely recommend a supplement, at which point it’s generally safe and smart to get one from a reputable brand.
3. Do I trust the brand producing the supplement?
There are SO MANY supplement companies out there. Some are super legit, and some are shady AF. In general, the simpler the ingredient you’re looking for, the easier it will be to find a good one. For example, if you want creatine, it’s pretty easy to find because the supplement should contain one thing: creatine. As soon as you start mixing ingredients you’re opening the door for all kinds of potential fillers you don’t want or need.
Do your homework and find a brand you trust that has gone through the process of third-party certification.
4. How do I feel when I take it (or forget to take it)?
Different supplements affect different bodies in different ways. As long as there is no evidence to suggest that a supplement could actually harm you, give it a try and see how you feel.
Creatine is a great example of this. It’s generally safe for most people. Some people feel a noticeable difference when they take it, and some people feel nothing. Ultimately, it’s up to you! If you like it, keep taking it. If you don’t, then stop. And remember that just because it works well for your friend doesn’t mean it’ll feel the same for you.
5. Can I get this another way?
It is almost always best to get your vitamins and minerals from actual food. There are obvious exceptions for health reasons or if you have a dietary restriction. But in general, a well-rounded diet will cover the bases for you. As a bonus, vitamins, minerals, and nutrients from actual food are typically more bioavailable (meaning they’re easier for your body to use) than ones in pill or powder form.
Pre-Workouts and Protein Powder
This is a whole post in itself, but here are the basics. If you like some kind of stimulant before a workout, go for it. Just be careful. If you’re doing something that will really spike your heart rate, don’t get wild with the caffeine and stimulants (which make it hard to regulate your heart rate). A cup of coffee is often a better choice than something with a laundry list of ingredients.
Protein powder can be an excellent way to supplement your protein intake. Whey isolate is generally considered the “best” because it’s cheap, has a complete amino profile, and tastes pretty good; but there are plenty of options out there. Just remember that the majority of your protein should come from actual food.
And that’s my 600 words (alright… 664 words) about supplements! If you want to dig deeper, here are some excellent resources:
- Examine.com: Explanations of pretty much every supplement you can think of, what they are for, if there is science to back them, and links to studies.
- “Supplement Regulation – Are Dietary Supplements Unregulated?”: A thorough article from Stronger by Science all about the supplement industry in the USA. This is a great resource to help understand what you’re buying and what to watch out for.
- The “Snake Oil” Visualization Chart: Not the most complete resource, but an interesting way to look at the data and see what research is out there.