So you’ve been in the fitness game long enough to ask yourself one of the following questions:
“Do I need to take supplements?”
“Should I drink a protein shake after working out?”
“Are multivitamins any good?”
While supplements are not required to reach your fitness goals, strategic supplementation can have many health benefits and improve your rate of progress. If your nutrition is lacking in any area, the right supplements can pick up any slack. However it’s important to keep in mind that supplements are just that: Supplements. They can help a good diet be better, but they can’t fix a bad diet. Most of your nutrition should come from real, quality foods. Don’t rely on any quick fixes or alternatives.
The list of supplements is long. Very long. In fact, for every type of nutrient or function in the body, there’s a nutritional supplement for it. Each supplement has a purpose, but not all supplements will comply with your fitness needs. If you were to take the advice of every article or magazine telling you which supplements will help you lose belly fat, you’d be a walking GNC store spending thousands of dollars per month.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, unlike prescribed medication, the supplement industry is NOT regulated. This means that not all manufacturer claims can be verified, and not all supplements do what they’re intended. This means you need a good reference to compare your needs with the product you’re buying, and a good understanding of what each supplement is meant to do. For a full list of supplements and an in-depth analysis of scientific literature on the topic, I use a website called Examine.com. It’s a third-party, non biased website that looks at all the current scientific literature and breaks down the purpose of any given supplement.
With that out of the way, here’s a short list of supplements I recommend regardless of your fitness goals.
- A simple daily multivitamin
- Protein powder (as an addition or meal replacement tool)
- Fish Oil
- Vitamin D
The daily multivitamin is the simplest and most common supplement that comes to mind. The daily multivitamin has been around for a long time, and the ability to produce the ingredients is so widespread and common means that multivitamins are cheap. Very cheap. Multivitamins get their name because one pill has many different micro-nutrients, such as vitamins, minerals, and other organic compounds that produce health benefits.
The obvious question is: Do they work? Many studies have been done on multivitamins. Such studies examine everything from whether the vitamins have all the advertised ingredients, to whether your body actually absorbs all the ingredients properly, to the effectiveness of multivitamins to prolong lifespan. Most studies agree, multivitamins work – up to a point. They won’t make up for glaring deficits of nutrients (say, extreme fasting), but they’ll help fill the holes.
Some studies suggest proper absorption of each vitamin and mineral is impaired due to various factors. For instance, how each vitamin interacts with food and consuming other vitamins at the same time. Perhaps they don’t all absorb together. Even if not all of the nutrients are absorbed, it still helps cover the bases if there is anything severely lacking from your diet.
To put simply, a multivitamin is cheap, and probably works. It won’t make you live forever, but there’s no reason NOT to take it.
Once someone starts a strength training program with me, protein becomes the most commonly asked about supplement. There’s no one single recommendation because your protein needs are unique and entirely based around your personal goal. If you want to build muscle and gain weight, protein supplementation is probably necessary. If you want to lose weight but maintain muscle and strength, protein supplementation is probably necessary.
Protein is a macro-nutrient, like carbohydrates and fats. This means that the structure of the protein is physically BIGGER than a micro-nutrient like vitamin C or iron. Protein can’t be consumed in adequate amounts using just a pill. It needs a large delivery system like a powder or solid food.
Protein supports muscle repair and overall function. It also supports immune system health and other bodily functions. Because it’s so important, protein should be an important factor in your nutrition planning. However, consuming protein supplements is no different that eating food. At least in a caloric sense. Protein has calories, so consuming protein is the same as consuming food. If you eat too much of it, say 500 calories over every day, you’ll eventually gain weight. Consume what you need, as long as it fits in your overall caloric needs. This means that, yes, you need to LOG YOUR FOOD!
Different brands of protein supplements contain different amounts of overall nutrients. on top of that, there are different TYPES of protein supplementation. Whey, Soy, Isolates, etc. Some brands are PURE protein, meaning the powder contains nothing else. Some brands are mixes of protein, carbs, and fats. You’ll need to analyze your nutritional needs and fitness goals to determine what works best for you.
Finally, keep in mind that each brand has a different taste and texture. You may have to experiment to find the brand and flavor you like.
As a supplement, fish oil has been becoming very popular and mainstream as a way to improve overall health. Fish oil is a common name for two types of omega-3 fatty acids: EPA and DHA. The details of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are best left for another article, but long story short – Omega-3s help balance your body’s ratio of healthy fats. This has a wide-range of benefits including heart health, blood vessel health, lower triglycerides in the blood stream, and reduced plaque in the heart and vessels. In addition, research has strongly suggested that fish oil supplementation can help reduce the risk of diabetes, overall inflammation, improve various skin and hair ailments, and even help prevent certain types of cancer.
Nearly every day more and more health benefits from fish oil supplementation appear. This is why I strongly encourage everyone to supplement with fish oil – regardless of fitness goals. Search for a brand high in EPA and DHA.
Keep in mind, since fish oil is found naturally in fish, it’s also beneficial to consume actual fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, and albacore tuna.
Vitamin D is a critical micro-nutrient for our bodies for cognitive function, bone and immune health, and overall well-being. We use UV light from the sun to convert cholesterol into vitamin D. This means that, with a little sun exposure, we can naturally make our own vitamin D. If you get about 20 minutes of sunlight per day, you’re good. This also means that most people are not deficit on Vitamin D. However, while the low range of appropriate Vitamin D may be easy to meet with a little sun, that doesn’t mean we can’t get more. Some studies suggest that many people do not have optimum levels, either due to lack of sun exposure or overall poor diet.
The current USA guidelines recommend 500 International Units (IUs) of Vitamin D every day. However, other countries like Canada recommend upward of 10,000 IUs as a safe limit. This means that there is a wide margin of what is considered “normal”. Because the health implications of Vitamin D are so wide-spread, it’s hard to get too much. A typical multivitamin has about 500 IUs, so extra supplementation, in the form of Vitamin D3, could be beneficial.
Your Needs May Vary
While this list is limited to only four supplements, your needs may vary. Depending on your nutritional or fitness goals there may be additional supplements that can help you. Unfortunately that list is very long, nearly endless. Instead of going through each supplement individually, it’s best to come up with your fitness or health needs and go from there.
For help on determining your optimal nutrition and supplementation plan, contact me for a free introductory online consultation or personal training session today!
Jeremy Bushong, MS, CSCS