Are Nutritional Supplements Helpful?
The supplement industry is a multi billion-dollar industry, and growing by the day. It is largely unregulated, thus the object of strong skepticism from many, especially professionals like myself. The industry’s history of unscrupulous marketing hawking several useless and some potentially harmful products further perpetuates the aura of suspicion.
But, admittedly, there is something enticing about taking supplements. This is obvious, due to the success of the industry, not to mention the fact that just about everyone reading this newsletter has taken supplements. Perhaps it all boils down to our desire for a passive fix, a pill that will make us fit, healthy, buff, and slim.
So are supplements a waste of money? Do they work? Which ones?
I have the advantage of interacting with the best nutritional scientists in the world. Furthermore, as a producer and constant purveyor of research, I’m well equipped to elucidate what is backed by science, and delineate the variables that constitute efficacy for some, but not for others.
So I’m going to give you the straight scoop. I’ll reveal what supplements are crock, crutch, or cure
These supplements are a waste of your money, ineffectual, and may even be dangerous. Don’t take these. There is no quality research to support their efficacy. Even if research did exist to support their efficacy, there are several more safe an effective ways to accomplish the purported effects. In short, stay away from:
Anything marketed to block fat absorption, increase energy, or control hormones (cortisol blockers, testosterone enhancers). That should wipe out about 30% of supplements. The exception may be caffeine based supplements to increase energy, as you will experience a short-term enhancement of energy or performance. However, there is debate whether this is really a supplement, as it is readily available in common foods like tea and coffee.
These supplements are those that solve a deficiency that could usually be more than adequately addressed with proper diet. However, those with food intolerances, food allergies, restricted access to certain foods, cultural/ethnic traditions that restrict ingesting certain foods, or various health conditions may need supplements that provide nutrients that aren’t available through their diet.
There is another condition that may justify this crutch: a hectic life.
Some may disregard this as a justifiable reason to utilize supplements, and I was one of them. If your life is too hectic to eat quality, nutrient dense foods, well then your problem is that you are too busy, so address that.
But I’ve come to learn that it is not that simple. Hectic lifestyles are just an unavoidable reality in many cases. We can preach a lifestyle of naps, meditation, Fang Shui, etc – but that can be like asking a child who struggles with basic arithmetic to enroll in an advanced calculus class. It can be a big jump for those who have hectic lives to convert to one of even stress and an abundance of time to devote to optimal health.
Rather, we sometimes need to work within the constraints of our current situation until we are able to make the gradual transition to a healthier way to live.
For example, how many ER nurses swinging a 10 hour shift, run a household with a few kids and a mortgage to pay, figure out how to get the recommended 7-12 servings of fruits and veggies, frequent lean proteins, and optimal amount of Omega 3 fatty acids from their diet? Perhaps a supplement may be a justifiable crutch in that case. I would like to help someone like her figure that out. (You can see that I have a soft spot for nurses, given my Grandma, Mom, and Wife are nurses!)
So here are some that make the list:
Think of this as extra insurance, but in all reality, you should be able to live without this. Some even suggest that vitamins can be a problem, in that due to marketing pressures, they over fortify with higher than necessary vitamins to the degree that they are not healthy. This hasn’t been proven, but is a reasonable suspicion. Furthermore, the absorption, or bioavailability, has been questioned, as synthetically derived vitamins are not always digested to the same extent as the natural source.
Yet the negatives outweigh the positives, so going with a multi-vitamin isn’t a bad bet.
I’ve found a multivitamin that I have used, and strongly endorse. I know the nutritionist who designs and manufactures the product, they have a Certificate of Authenticity from an independent lab, and they have eliminated down sides of typical multi-vitamins.
The product is VGF 25+ from Prograde. The vitamin is actually a combination of 25 different vegetables and fruits processed into a pill. No synthetic vitamins. Just fruit and veggies in a pill, with a few herbal extracts. Certainly not as good as the real thing, but as close as it gets.
Don’t use it as justification for slacking on eating fruits and veggies. You will lose out on the thermic effect of food and satiety of eating the whole food equivalent.
Rather, use it as a bridge from your current diet to one that contains 7-10 servings of fruits and veggies per day. I use it on days when I know I won’t be able to get enough fruits and veggies, like when traveling or a particularly hectic day seeing clients.
Go to www.getprograde.com to pick up some VGF 25+.
This is the very definition of a crutch. And before I extol the benefits, the harms of using meal replacements must be strongly considered:
- Liquid foods are absorbed quicker than solid foods. This can be a problem for those trying to lose body fat. Quick absorption yields a rapid release of nutrients. If this rapid availability doesn’t meet a muscle’s immediate demand for nutrients (like the first 30-60 minutes after a workout), then the nutrients are stored, and for most, this means it will be stored as fat.
- The thermic effect of liquids is less than whole foods. The enzymatic and motility demands of the digestive process require energy (calorie) expenditure, to the tune of up to 20% of your daily caloric expenditure if you eat unprocessed, whole foods. Meal replacements do most of the work for you by virtue of the fact that they are liquid. Thus, you lose out on the potential of significant calorie expenditure. Hey – any chance you can burn calories just by eating shouldn’t be squandered!
- Liquid foods do not trigger the neurotransmitters of the hypothalamus that control satiety as well. In short, they don’t tell us that we’ve had enough to eat, so we may feel hungrier.
- They don’t teach you how to eat correctly: Learning to eat healthy takes a lot of time and practice. Think about how much time it took you to learn how to manage your finances? Creating a budget, balancing your accounts, paying bills, and managing your investments – if you never learned how to do it for yourself, you had better make millions, or you are in big trouble. Similarly, learning about healthy eating takes time, but is well worth it. Don’t let meal replacements short change the learning process by over-relying on them.
However, they can be a very convenient solution to an issue that plagues most of our society, and sabotages our weight loss and health goals: skipping meals. More on the dangers to skipping meals to come.
The best ones will cost about $2 per serving. Cheaper than that latte and bagel breakfast for sure. Cost really shouldn’t be an issue.
The ones I’ve reviewed that standout as the best are Met-Rx and Metabolic Drive by Biotest. Met-Rx comes in single serving sizes and are widely available in health food stores all over. Metabolic Drive is available only online at www.biotest.net.
You can make your own, but it defeats the purpose of convenience for some. Here’s my favorite:
Frozen strawberries, plain yogurt, banana, splash of OJ or water, 20 g protein powder, frozen broccoli, and I’m going to experiment in the near future by throwing in some flax meal to add some healthy fats.
For those who just gagged a bit, especially when I got to the broccoli part, it tastes amazing! A client of mine has 4 kids 2-11 that gulp it down every morning, even though they hate veggies. I used baby spinach instead of broccoli yesterday – still tasted great.
This is perfect for those who get up early to exercise on an empty stomach because they don’t feel like eating then, and don’t have the time to prepare and digest a good breakfast. Instead of making the huge mistake of skipping breakfast, make your smoothie right when you get up (or the night before so you don’t wake the family), and drink it 30 minutes before exercising.
Most people know what a lean protein is. Most know it is important to eat protein. Few realize that it is very important. Most just don’t eat it enough.
They key reason is that it is hard to find lean protein that isn’t perishable and doesn’t require cooking to prepare.
Protein powder solves this issue very well. You can mix it into recipes, or have it with water or milk. I often keep a Tupperware with protein powder at work, or take a shaker cup with powder when I’m on the run. Just add water, and you have a lean protein snack.
Keep in mind that the same negatives that apply with meal replacements apply with protein powder as well.
Protein powders are widely available at health food stores, and even at grocery stores. The ones at grocery stores tend to be low quality soy based, and are packaged in small quantities, increasing the cost. Stick to the vitamin stores, and the bigger the container, the cheaper the cost per serving.
Whey proteins are the best. I like Isogenix and TrueNutrition the best, but like most quality supplements, they aren’t available at health food stores.
These can be handy snacks, however can often contain high amounts of sugar or sugar substitutes. Avoid the high sugar options, which are usually greater than 8-14g per serving. This is a higher allowance per serving than I normally recommend, but the presence of protein, fiber, and healthy fat included reduces the downside of the slightly higher sugar content than optimal (although a relatively low amount compared to what is typical in most bars).
Odwalla makes a great little food bar that is all natural and very tasty. It is available at the grocery store. Larabars are good too.
Prograde makes an all-natural, 100% organic bar that tastes amazing. They are called Cravers and are available at www.getprograde.com.
They are lower in protein than what I recommend for a typical snack, but they are still a good option on the run.
Metabolic Drive bars by Biotest and Met-Rx bars offer much more protein, are much larger, and use artificial sweeteners to reduce sugar content. Met-Rx bars are found at convenience stores and health stores. Metabolic Drive is online at www.biotest.net.
Well, cure sure is a strong word, and in the purest sense, no supplement, or food for that matter, is truly a cure. But if we use the criteria as a supplement that provides a proven desired effect that whole foods cannot produce to the same extent, then the following supplements make the list:
Most by now have heard some of the many purported benefits of Omega 3. Although Omega 3 gets all the fame, it is only the most recognizable of the essential fatty acids (EFAs), which provide so many health benefits. Fatty acids are the building blocks of fat, and exist in many forms, such as Omega 3, 6, and 9, DHA, and EPA, amongst many others. We hear so much about Omega 3 because they are most essential and least available in our diet. EFAs are most plentiful in flax and certain fish.
EFAs have been clearly shown to reduce risks of heart attack, decrease sudden death from heart attack, increase fat loss, increase cognitive function, and is suspected to facilitate improved skin, hair, nail, and joint integrity. The research is very solid regarding its cardiovascular and fat loss effects. Recently, pilot studies have shown its ability to act as a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory on par with NSAIDs such as alleve and advil. Health professionals up to date with research are advocating for their use, and none stronger than cardiologists.
You can get EFAs from your diet, but few do. Although this is debated, most experts believe you need to consume 4-5 servings of cold-water fish like salmon per week to obtain a significant amount of EFAs. However, the most readily available forms of such fish are often farmed, which has shown to deplete the content of their nutrients, including EFAs. Furthermore, mercury and other contaminants are common in such fish, and are screened by supplement manufacturers. That is what leads many to recommend that a quality supplement is the only guarantee that you are obtaining sufficient EFAs.
I never disputed the research, but I’ve always had trouble recommending a quality source. Fish oil is the best source, but rancidity and improper ratios of EFAs plague products in the market. Do you experience fish burps with your fish oil? Well, that’s because it is rancid. In the past, I went by what a few trusted colleagues recommended to use, but I tentatively recommended it to clients, explaining that I didn’t have a lot of answers to fully back any product.
Another problem was bioavailability, or the body’s ability to utilize the nutrient. Fish oil oxidizes quickly, thus a high amount of anti-oxidants is needed to ensure sufficient absorption.
My friends at Prograde erased all my concerns with their product, EFA Icon. They provide the certificate of analysis, research, and content for all to see, which demonstrates their integrity. I was shocked that they recommend such a relatively small does, but they contend that their superior bioavailability reduces the need for a high dose, which I buy (literally – it’s what I use). Find out more at www.getprograde.com.
If you are taking aspirin or any blood thinners on a regular basis, talk with your cardiologist before using fish oil, as it has a strong anti-coagulation (blood thinning) effect as well.
Creatine is a naturally occurring substance found mostly in red meat that is a crucial substrate in the anaerobic, or quick energy system. However, the amount of red meat consumption required to obtain ergogenic effects afforded by creatine would be extreme.
Creatine is the most well studied supplement in history. Effects are mostly related to enhanced performance in activities with short and intense energy requirements, such as weightlifting, sprinting, and jumping. Many studies have demonstrated its effectiveness in increasing lean muscle mass. Most studies have been performed with young adult males, and some on females, although results tend to be consistently less impressive for females. Some studies have been performed in older adults, with similar effects found.
What is most impressive about creatine is not just the effects and the magnitude of studies demonstrating it, but rather the amount of high quality studies regarding its effects, but more importantly its side effects. The only known side effect is weight gain, in the form of lean mass.
However, I believe creatine is a waste of money for those who are not exercising intensely (weight training and brief, high intensity sports) and eating a quality diet. A 15 year old with one year of weight training eating a less than optimal diet is a poor candidate for creatine usage.
Trueprotein and Biotest are good sources for quality creatine.
Pre & Post-workout drinks:
The research is clear as a bell on this one: those who ingest a carbohydrate and protein liquid before, during, and after intense exercise experience better performance and training gains than those who do not. Such supplements are in this category because liquids are superior to solids, and whey protein is superior to whole food protein in this case.
Simple carbs (sugars) are needed, because at this stage, quick absorption is needed, as the working muscles need energy. Dextrose or malto-dextrose are the best types of simple carbs. Protein will spare the breakdown of muscle as an energy source, thus preventing muscle loss. Protein in whey form is best, because it is absorbed quicker than other forms.
How much? Studies report that a ratio of to 1:1 to 4:1 carbs: protein is best. Although the exact amounts are debated, the consensus is 10-20g protein and 20-80g carb in at least 16 oz of water to be consumed immediately before and while working out/competing, then another mixture of the same quantity within 60 minutes post-workout. These recommendations are evolving, and I suspect research will elucidate suggestions based on body size, exercise intensity, and performance objective.
What are some good options? Biotest (www.biotest.net) and Black Star Labs (www.blackstarlabs.com) both make some excellent products, Surge, and Cytofuse, respectively. Prograde’s varsity is excellent as well (www.getprograde.com). You can make your own at True Protein as well.
Who needs it? Almost anyone who exercises intensely. Beginners don’t qualify, as they are still learning proper movements, and unable to exercise intensely enough to justify the extra calories.
What about other minerals, herbs, etc?
There isn’t enough quality research to give strong recommendations on other supplements. There are some unique situations, like calcium for osteoporosis (this would certainly be qualified as a crutch supplement) or other mineral deficiencies (magnesium, zinc, and iron are common). But relatively little research often exists regarding the efficacy of supplements, and more important, the side effects.
The key point, however, is that almost all of your nutritional needs can be satisfied through a proper diet. We must focus on proper nutrition first. So now that we have addressed the supplement curiosity, let’s focus on the real deal: proper nutrition!