Understanding Nutritional Supplements

Disclaimer: Always check with your doctor to make sure that any supplements you’re considering taking are safe, and that they won’t cause any complications to or with any medications you’re using or medical issues you’re experiencing.

So you’ve cleaned up your diet, and have found a workout that works for you. You’re excited about it, you’re committed to it and you’ve even started seeing some changes. Now you want to kick start those changes and increase the results you’re experiencing. There’s a lot of information out there, but what’s right for you? Will protein help? What about creatine? Maybe all you need is a good multivitamin or a pre-workout? Today we’re going to take a look at several popular dietary supplements and explore what they can do for you so you can make an informed decision about which ones are right for you.

First of all, what’s the point of taking supplements? Well, if you’ve read the posts on macronutrients and micronutrients then you’ve probably surmised that it can be tough to obtain all of the macro- and micro-nutrients that your body needs from diet alone. It’s true that obtaining these vital nutrients from your diet is best, unless you’re going to devote full time to your nutrition (or job it out to a nutritionist) this is where supplements come in.

Taking supplements can help ensure that your body has all of the nutrients and chemical compounds it needs in order to rebuilds itself properly after the work you’ve demanded of it. This gives your body an edge during recovery which can make your recovery take place more quickly, and effectively. And some supplements can help give you extra energy to push yourself even harder through tough workouts, whether on the road, or in the gym/dojo/yoga studio/insert-your-preferred-workout-space-here.

Let’s dig in to some of the more popular supplements and find out if they’re something you want to add to your plan.

Pre-workout Supplements

These concoctions typically come in the form of a powdered drink mix that’s gives your body a bump of stimulants (usually caffeine or something like guarana), fatigue fighters (like Beta Alanine) and a host of other performance boosting ingredients. The downside to them is they’re not regulated by the FDA, so it can be a roll of the dice to find a pre-workout that contains what it says it does – with no other added ingredients. Your best bet is to find something certified by a third party board like the NSF.

Bottom line, some people swear by pre-workout supplements, and some people think they’re all hype. For me, I’m a fan. I personally feel like I experience a much better workout when I use a pre-workout than when I don’t. I seem to give more effort and lift heavier during resistance training, and have more energy during cardio based or HIIT workouts. I’m a fan of Cellucor’s C4 (which also gives a “tingle” after you’ve taken it due to its beta-alanine) – which is also greenlighted by the NSF by the way.

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Like most supplements, multivitamins exist to help us fill in nutritional shortfalls. If you really study the micronutrients that we’re supposed to be consuming daily, you quickly begin to realize that you need to eat a HUGE amount of food to meet your goals. Add to that that some nutrients are difficult to come by with a standard diet. Things like vitamin D don’t occur in foods very often. So unless you spend a consistent amount of time outside in the sun daily, you’re likely lacking in not only vitamin D, but many nutrients.

Make sure to buy your multivitamin from a reputable company, and read the label to make sure it’s giving you everything you need. It’s a safety net for the high-wire act that is your nutrition. If you’re concerned about overdoing your micronurients because you’re taking a multivitamin that’s pushing you past the 100% mark, don’t be. You’ll pee out almost any excess micronutrients.

Pro tip: These little globs of micronutrients are held together with binders that can irritate your stomach. If you fin that your multi is making you feel nauseous or giving you a stomach ache, try taking it with food (I had this problem, and food was magical!). If food doesn’t help, try a different brand and see if that doesn’t fix the problem.

I’m a fan of Centrum’s line of multivitamins. They seem to offer a comprehensive range of micronutrients and the pills themselves aren’t too tough to swallow.

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Protein Powder

Protein powder is a commonly accepted supplement for helping build larger, stronger muscle. The science isn’t too complicated, when you push your body to perform – especially during resistance training – you’re muscles actually break down, forming micro-tears in the fibers. Your body then repairs these tears using the protein available to it from your diet. The logic is that by supplementing your diet with additional protein, your body will have more resources available to it to recover quicker.

Protein powders come in 3 common forms – concentrates, isolates and hydrolysates. The most pure form being the hydrolysates, with the other 2 containing more impurities in the form of fats and carbs (so still not bad!)

The most common form of protein, and from my research, the most favored, is whey protein. Whey protein is synthesized from milk, so it does contain lactose, which can be a problem for some people, however, it is digested quickly and is rich in BCAA’s, including leucine, which plays a major role in muscle growth and recovery. In fact, a study shows that whey protein increases muscle protein synthesis 31% more than soy protein and 132% more than casein protein.

There are numerous other types of protein powders, including caesin, egg, pea, soy and wheat, but as mentioned, whey seems to be the best option based on my research.

One thing I did find while researching proteins relates to pea powder – a choice popular among vegetarians and vegans. Some organic pea proteins have been found to contain high levels of glyphosate. Glyphosate is an endocrine disruptor that has been linked to liver disease, birth defects and reproductive problems. It may also kill beneficial gut bacteria and damage the DNA in human embryonic, placental and umbilical cord cells. For those of you using this protein, I’d be curiopus to hear what yopu know about this in the comments, and if this is news to you, please consider a safer alternative like soy or wheat.

I’d recommend Bodylogix Natural Grass-Fed Whey Protein Powder, NSF Certified, Vanilla Bean.

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Creatine is one of the most researched supplements on the planet for building muscle. It’s something that our bodies make naturally when we eat meat. It aids the body in generating energy from anaerobic pathways and by supplementing it, you can make sure that you have the needed energy to push harder through tough workouts – which in turn means you’ll see quicker results.

There is a lot of information and misinformation regarding the glories and dangers of creatine around the internet, but the good seems to far outweigh the bad. In fact, the Mayo Clinic even green-lights it as a safe supplement when taken properly.

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BCAA’s (Branched Chain Amino Acids)

There seems to be a lot of controversy about the benefits of BCAA’s in conjunction with a fitness program. The raw research tells a story that BCAA’s are an important part of muscle protein synthesis. From what we learned about micronutrients in another post, we know this to be true. However, BCAA’s are some of what our bodies turn protein into. So the logic follows that if you’re consuming a diet high in protein and taking a whey protein supplement, aren’t you already giving your body enough BCAA’s?

I’m not sure what to tell you ion this one folks. For me, I’ll spend my supplement money on other things as I feel I’m already providing my body with all the BCAA’s it needs through my diet and protein supplementation.

Collagen Supplements

This is a new one for me that I’ve just started taking in the last few months, and I gotta say I’m loving it. Collagen supplements are taken primarily for their role in supporting joint health (I have a tricky knee issue that crops up from time to time when I run). I’ve experienced a much quicker recovery time from the use of this supplement, and have also noticed a decrease in joint pain from pull-ups and heavy bar work. The kicker is the side effects of Collagen supplements – stronger nails, healthier skin and thicker hair. What’s not to love about this stuff?

OK, the negative rubs – feelings of fullness and possible heartburn. Personally I’ve noticed neither of these issues, so I feel very comfortable recommending these.

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Fish Oil / Omega 3 Supplements

As discussed in the micronutrients blog post, Omega 3’s do all sorts of great things for your body, including: helping reduce inflammation, reduce the symptoms of depression, are important for brain development and function, increase HDL cholesterol (the good kind), reduce blood pressure and the formation of arterial plaques.

There are three types of Omega 3’s, the ALA type is essential – your body can’t produce this, so it has to come from your diet – in this case from plant oils like flax or chia seeds. Your body can then convert small amounts of this into the other two types of Omega 3’s – EPA and DHA – but only small amounts. These last two are most absorbable from fish and other seafood in your diet. However to get a useful amount of omegas 3’s from fish alone will leave you consuming pounds of fish each day (around 4 servings in fact) – which is just not realistic. That’s where fish oil supplements can really help out.

Look for a molecularly distilled omega 3 made from anchovies or krill because they’ll be naturally low in mercury and the molecular distillation process will further remove any heavy metals from the supplement.

Pro Tip: A lot of high quality fish oil supplements can have an unpleasant aftertaste. By keeping the bottle in the freezer, you can slow down the breakdown of the fish oil in the stomach and minimize the unpleasant taste.

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OK, this is a lot of supplements and some of these things are pricey, so if you could only take 3, what 3 would I recommend? Well, that’s tough since everyone reading this may have different goals and may be performing different workouts at different levels to get them there. I hate to cop out on you, but you really need to select specific supplements on your own – hopefully that’s easier with the above information to help guide you. And since I hate to cop out, I will offer three suggestions based on general health, so please add to these to suit your specific goals.

#1 – A Good Multivitamin – As stated at the outset of this article, and in the post on micronutrients, it’s tough to obtain all your micros through diet alone. If you’re taking your nutrition seriously, popping a single pill once a day that covers the bulk of your micros is such a simple insurance policy to make sure that you’re getting the nutrients that your body needs, it seems crazy not to.

#2 – Fish Oil / Omega 3’s – Similar to #1, Omega 3’s are tough to come by in the typical diet (unless you consume a massive quantity of fish). So adding this supplement to your diet is a good idea (just watch out for the fish burps!)

#3 – Creatine – As discussed, creatine is a fantastic supplement for building muscle, and can be especially helpful for the aging athlete (or anyone else for that matter!)

Hopefully that helps clear up some of the confusion and arms you with some knowledge on supplementation. Let me know in the comments below if there’s something you think I’ve left out.

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NSF International – Third party resource to check for supplement certification

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