Disclaimer: I am not a nutritionist, a dietician, or a doctor. I'm just a personal trainer. This information should not be used to diagnose or treat a medical condition. It is just meant to inform you and help you make good decisions. Speak to a doctor or other health specialist for more specific information about your own health.
After you’ve called it quits on junk food and unhealthy eating, you may come to the conclusion that you could do more for your health. Maybe you could lose more fat or gain more muscle or eat more nutrient-dense foods. But when all of that may sound like too much for you to handle, you might start thinking about using dietary supplements to help you reach your goals. From vitamins to protein powders, some supplements can help people reach their health and fitness goals, but are they right for you?
What are supplements?
The word "supplement" means "something that completes or enhances something else when added to it." Supplements are not only found in our bodies, but also in our lives. For example, you could have an extra job to supplement your income. When we talk about dietary supplements, we are talking about additional sources of macro- and micro-nutrients (protein, carbs, and fats are macronutrients, and just about everything else is a micronutrient) to our bodies that go beyond what you consume in your normal diet.
If you eat nutritious and balanced meals daily, in most cases you won’t need supplements. There are a few exceptions, so its a good idea to ask your doctor to regularly test you for nutritional deficiencies and surpluses. This is especially important if you're in an unusual health situation or eat an unusual diet. For example, some vegans and vegetarians may benefit from adding iron, B-vitamins, creatine, and vitamin K2 to their diets, because these micronutrients can be difficult to acquire with a plant-based diet.
Can I use supplements for muscle building?
You can always find someone at the gym walking around with a shaker bottle full of a pre-workout, post-workout, or in-the-middle-of-the-freakin-workout beverage. But do these expensive concoctions work?
Yes and no. Some people do find it difficult to eat enough protein in their normal diets, and they can benefit from the convenience of a healthy, natural protein shake. And some components of pre- and post-workout supplements, like creatine, BCAAs (that's branch chain amino acids, the building blocks of protein) and even caffeine have proven benefits. In the right forms and correct dosages, these supplements can reduce your perceived rate of exertion (which helps you workout harder), increase work capacity and power output of the muscle while promoting physical endurance and lean body mass gains, lessen muscle breakdown, speed recovery, and even support cognitive function.
If you do supplement with protein, creatine, BCAAs, or other muscle-building supplements, you should choose the most natural, highest quality forms of them. Avoid products that have added artificial colors, flavors, and sweeteners. For example, when I make a protein smoothie, I use unflavored organic whey, hemp, or pea protein and add my own flavors through whole, natural ingredients like berries, vanilla extract, cinnamon, and cocoa nibs. And when I take creatine, I just pop a few pills of pure creatine monohydrate. This is way healthier and tastier than consuming the fake crap that is often included in pre-packaged smoothie or shake mixes.
When you add supplements to your diet, make sure you know what constitutes a healthy dose. Remember, too much of a good thing can quickly become a very bad thing. This is true even for seemingly innocuous protein, the overconsumption of which can lead to weight gain, cancer, and even kidney stones. So choose and use any supplement with care.
Can I use supplements for losing weight?
Fat-loss supplements with bold claims like, “Lose ALL THE WEIGHT in 5 days!" have probably caught your eye. But these claims really are too good to be true. Even prescription fat loss pills have more bad side effects than good results.
Before jumping on the miracle pill bandwagon, clean up your diet. It’ll cost you less to work with the (healthy) food that you already have than to spend more money on a supplement. Remember that 80% of your weight goals can be made or broken by your diet. You can run as many miles as you want, but that fat won’t go away if you’re constantly feeding your body crap.
And while you’re cutting out all that processed junk and replacing it with whole, natural foods, implement cardio and weight training into your daily routine. This is the most long-lasting, efficient way to lose fat and keep it off.
Should I use dietary supplements at all?
You really only need to use dietary supplements if a trusted physician confirms that you have a nutrient deficiency. Supplements, like we have discussed, are an addition, not a replacement to your normal meals. The best way to get your macro and micronutrients is by eating a healthy diet full of nutrient-dense foods. And even the most innocent supplements can be dangerous.
The supplement industry makes a ton of money by promising amazing results. Some supplements are effective, but the industry has a lot of problems. Sometimes they make false claims, and because of the way they are regulated, they can't really be held accountable for their lies. Even worse, there is a huge, systemic problem with contamination in the supplement industry. Even trusted brands that have a lot of integrity struggle with supply chain problems that leave their products vulnerable to tampering and fraud. So when you take a supplement, you run the risk of consuming incorrect ingredients or even toxic substances like powdered plastic or sawdust.
So the answer to the question, "Should I use dietary supplements?" is really, "It's up to you, and it depends on a lot of factors." You should carefully weight the pros and cons and speak to a few health professionals (and get tested for deficiencies) before you shell out cash for supplements. For example, the supplements I take are high-quality and come from sources that I trust. They have low risks associated with potential overdose, and I'm careful to take only as much as is not provided by my diet. But I also know that taking them (or not taking them) involves some level of risk, and I am OK with that, for now. You should try to stay safe and healthy in the same way by doing your research and doing what is right for your own unique body.