Supplements are out there that can improve your mind and your body, but with literally tens of thousands of types, combinations and brands out there, it’s confusing enough for nutritionists with a knowledge of the science behind them. It’s also an industry that is beset with slick sales pitches and snake oil merchants, so how do you make sense of it all? In fact what is a supplement, and do you even need these things anyway?
The clue is in the name of course they’re supplemental to you healthy diet. Your diet should be the focus of time, energy and money, and their usage really highlights the complexity of nutrition: the interaction of mind-bogglingly complex biology, people’s wants and desires and their lifestyles.
When is a ‘supplement’ not a supplement
“Supplements” are a range of compounds that might be found in food but there are in this context not in the form of food. They’re designed to be taken on top of diet, not replace, and have some nutritive value.
In higher doses though some may well be classed as drugs, and as recent issues with a well known ‘hardcore’ pre workout stimulant product called JACK3D has shown , there’s drugs out there masquerading as a supplement. Which bring us on to the next problem: The Industry.
The supplement industry is also an interesting mix of people who know their nutrition science, people who think they know their nutrition science, and those who couldn’t give a monkeys about science, just their profit margin. The smart ones don’t promise too much, they realise that each compound you consume interacts with others. They know that high doses are most often not supported by the research and usually only have very specific uses. They also know that results from a short term lab test in humans, or ones on animals mean very little in the real world. When evaluating a supplement remember those things, these clues often save you parting with hard earned cash for something that just does not work.
But do you even need supplements, if so what?
With so many thousands of chemicals in our diet how do we sort out what does what and how much extra we need? As such how do you decide what you need and what is right for you?
The first step is focusing on basic diet. That is key. Food is where we’re designed to get our nutrients from, and for several reasons the nutrients from actual whole foods just work better. On top of this though you might need to think about if there’s anything you’re needing. Generally three things drive this need:
- You messed up the diet, I.e. you didn’t get the nutrient from your whole food diet. Now this may be a time factor issue, it could be that you don’t know what you should be eating.
- You have extra needs because of lifestyle factors like physical training, stress, booze etc
- You have extra needs because you have a medical issue that means your needs for specific nutrients are increased.
Below are the main types of supplements you find on the market. I am not going to say which one is right for you, because clearly I have no way of knowing, but I will offer some general advice:
Multi vitamins and minerals
Everybody loves a simple no-brainer solution to a problem, and this is what multi vit and minerals provide. There’s three basic types: multi vitamin and minerals at low strength, typically 100% of your GDA or thereabouts. The second is the high strength version of these, the third is vitamins, minerals and added herbal ingredients, typically these last ones will also be high strength.
The problem with the bucket brands is they’re not generally tailored to your needs past men’s/women’s/kids/athletes, the seconds problem is that, especially where the herbal ingredients are concerned, you just don’t know what you’re getting quality wise.
My advice: go for a lower strength multi if you have to. This will ensure you’re no megadosing something you shouldn’t and also gives you the scope to take a little of this and that extra as needed/advised.
The ‘micronutrients’: Vitamins& Minerals
Vitamins A, C, and E, defend your body by combating ‘free radicals’ before they harm your cells molecules. Antioxidants have been popular for a long time, the thing is though the research does not really support their use, in fact some research shows that taking them is correlated with health problems. Fun fact, we need free radicals to function properly, so swallowing bucket loads of antioxidants like Uri below is probably not the answer.
My advice, if you do take them take low levels, especially of vitamin E and with E do your homework before diving in.
B vitamins, like most vitamins have a variety of roles and dietary sources. The B complex of vitamins are often connected with ‘unlocking’ the energy from foods, involved in the processes that turn carbs and fats into energy and helping you process proteins
My advice: They are for the most part water soluble so there’s less risk of taking too much but be wary of the mega doses, take a low strength complex and stay away from the single vitamins other than where fortified into a food for a specific reason.
Single vitamin supplements
Here it’s a lot more easy to start going overboard on the analysis. Vitamins never work in isolation, Supplementing with single vitamins is often unnecessary.
One ‘vitamin’ that you may want to consider, and one that you’ll hear about any way is D3. This is a compound produced when sunlight fall on the skin. It is a very
Minerals formulas generally come in combinations of two or three or the wide ranging products with 6 or more. Again defining need here is a tough one. If you’re eating lots of veg and so on you should, for the most part, be fine. There’s specific instances were more of this and that might be useful. Magnesium and potassium are commonly recommended ones, and they help in a range of ways, especially if you’re very active.
My Advice: like the multis if you really feel the urge to take some mineral supplements stick to the wider ranging formulas and ones with lower doses.
The Plant Based: Phytochemicals & Micronutrients
Some herbal supplements really do have really quite drug like effects, others, are more subtle. Products like St John wort and echanicia are gaining in popularity, but few realise that just because they’re ‘natural’ it doesn’t mean they’re not without their potential issues.
The problem here is often on of quality and dose of active ingredient. When you make a herbal supplement the cultivar used, where the plant grew, what the conditions were like that season and what part of the plant you used to make the supplement, as well as how you prepared it all factor in to how much active compounds you get. When all these different factors come together you can have a huge range in the actual dose of active ingredient(s).
My advice: be very careful about where you buy your herbal products from, In particular be cautious about mixing herbal supplements with prescription medication. Always get advice or at the very least look up on www.webmd.com the list of interactions and the highlighted contraindications.
Greens powders are preparations that use mixtures of herbs, spices, fruits and other plant material. They’ll usually be freeze dried and separated from the fibre. They’re touted as the more ‘natural’ multivitamin and mineral supplement, and in many ways this is true, however the same issues that effect herbal supplements apply here in terms of quality and dose.
My advice: choose a decent brand such as Greens+, and don’t expect the earth!
The Macronutrients: Proteins, Fats and Carbs
Remember protein and some fats are essential – you have to eat them. Carbs, not so much.
Protein supplements continue to grow in popularity and for a good reason, they make increasing the amount of protein in your diet very easy: they’re quick and easy to prepare as well as being gram for gram relatively cheap sources of high quality protein. They were just the reserve of the ‘bro’s in the gym, and there’s still a lot of gym born ‘broscience’ surrounding their use, but that use is spreading.
- Whey – a fast digesting protein, more suited to use around training to enhance recovery. Useful for endurance nuts and meatheads alike
- Milk protein or casein – the other protein from milk, a slow digesting protein and usually used for between meals. Very filling, popular with ‘dieters’.
- Mixed – often milk and egg based, will use a variety of proteins for general use after training or between meals.
- Vegan – soy, rice, pea and hemp protein isolates. Not as palatable as the non-vegan types, but useful none the less.
My advice: food proteins bring with them accessory nutrients for example the omega three in salmon, so food first then use a protein supplement to bridge gaps in the day where needed.
The one time a protein supplement outperforms the food alternative is whey protein around training, more for it’s easy of use and palatability.
The oils supplements on the market generally come in three forms: fish oils, plant oils and blended plant oils. The point of them is to supply things that you might not otherwise be able to get easily from the diet. Due to factors such as food manufacturing techniques, the ways that animals are fed and so on these types of supplements are some of the more commonly regularly recommended supplements in the nutrition coaching world.
- Flax oil
- Fish (body) oils
- Krill oil
- Algal Omega 3
My advice: go for a bog standard but high quality fish oil. Don’t take huge quantities. If you’re vegan then a blended oil may be a better bet.
NB Cod liver oil is very high is vitamins A and D, this you do not take in gram quantities like you would a fish oil.
These are usually aimed at athletes and can range from simple sugars to complex carbs, they can be in a quite minimally processed form or highly processed or even modified starches. Common ones include
- Fructose – usually used in combination with others for endurance activities
- Waxy starches (maize and barley)
- Activated barely powder,
- Ultra fine milled oat powders
- More ‘designer’ ones like Palatinose
My advice: unless you specifically need it, i.e. training long and/or hard regularly, then food based carbs are your first stop.
Other Supplements: Ergogenics etc
Caffeine is an ergogenic working on the nervous system but there’s many more of them, and the area is a big earner, so here especially you should exercise caution. Two other ones that are well research and work are:
- Creatine – this is a compound that is involved in the supply of energy over short, high intensity bursts like sprinting or heavy weight lifting. It is not a steroid, it is present in your diet if you eat meat. Whilst it is the most highly studied sports supplement it is also now being looked at for general health as well. 3-8g per day is the usual dose. Needs to be taken every day. Stick to creatine monohydrate.
- Beta alanine – this buffers the cell against changes in acidity that are caused by working physically hard. The offset the dip in performance you get when you feel that ‘burn’, as such they help you train harder for longer. Like creatine has to be taken every day and takes a while to take effect. Common dose 4g per day, warning this causes tingles called paresthesia. Perfectly normal but some find it very disturbing and uncomfortable, slitting the dose up into 1g servings might help.
My take: Firstly remember diet, smart training and consistency are going to get you 95% of the way there, the above are a few percent here and there. Then there’s an argument for and against a lot of these. How much do you ‘need’ it if you’re not competing? Be the best you can be or be the best you can be with beta-alanine thrown in? The choice is yours.
This is a wide range of compounds that either support of subtly alter brain function, the idea being to increase cognition, improver concentration and learning and so on. In this merry bunch are amino acids, derivatives of amino acids, vitamins and vitamin like compounds and a range of other things.
Still more …
But it doesn’t end there, not by a long shot, there’s a huge number of near vitamin or other metabolic ‘helpers’ that are involved in metabolism and that don’t fall neatly into the above. For example few that you can buy in ‘fat burners’ include:
- Caffeine – liberates fat from fat cells, improves effort in training, increases metabolic rate
- Green tea phelols (EGCG) – as per caffeine
- Alpha lipoic acids: and antioxidant compound involved in nutrient metabolism
- Acetyle L carnitine: a basic building block of a mitochondrial membrane bound transport system – helps shuttle fat into cells
- CLA – a fat found in dairy that alters the function of fat cells
And so on a so forth …
Nutrition (good) specialist will you a variety of methods to gauge needs such as goals of the individual, their health the context (Premiership club versus lower division for example) and how much money there’s available to investigate what the true status of the individual is.
It’s a long list of factors, but most take them without even thinking about more than one factor, so how do you know if it is working?
TRANSPARENCY AND COMPETING INTERESTS!
I should add that at the time of writing this I am the Consultant Nutritionist for Multipower Sportsfood, whether that makes me an industry insider expert or another snake oils salesman is for you to decide.