Every week I get dozens of questions from people asking about supplements: which ones are bogus, which ones are legit, and if they even need to bother at all.
I’m not a doctor. Just a personal trainer trying to shed some light on a ridiculously overcrowded industry full of shady marketing and ridiculous claims. Like anything else, track your own results, do your own research, talk to your doctor, and draw your own conclusions.
What you need to know
“Which supplements will help me burn fat?”
“Which supplements will help me build muscle?”
“Which supplements will curb my hunger?”
Want to know the MOST IMPORTANT THING EVER ABOUT SUPPLEMENTS?
Unless you have a particular illness, a nutritional/hereditary problem, or are required by a doctor to take a supplement, NONE of them are requirements.
So, long story short: YOU DON’T NEED SUPPLEMENTS.
We thrived as a humans for quite a few years (tens of thousands) before Chad from GNC started slinging supplements (sorry, Chad), which means we can STILL thrive without them.
Just take a look at the name: “supplement.”
These products are meant to “supplement” a healthy diet, not “replace” it.
There is no magic pill that will cure all of your problems.
Any advertisement or commercial that tells you their supplement will help you lose weight or build muscle rapidly without making any other changes is full of shit.
Talk to any experienced trainer and they all will say the same thing – it takes hard work, consistent effort, a focused plan, and dedicated nutrition.
Whether or not you need help with this process, stay away from anyone who wants to sell you the “magic pill” without bothering to tell you the importance diet, and training. Supplement companies bank on you looking for that quick fix.
Unfortunately, this is what far too many people do: Eat like crap. Sleep poorly. Skip exercise. Then take a bunch of pills designed to ‘cure’ the issues associated with that lifestyle…instead of TAKING STEPS TO FIX THE LIFESTYLE! They look for the quick fix with minimal effort.
It doesn't work that way.
ONLY after that should you concern yourself with further increasing performance with supplements.
The supplement industry
Sales of supplements in the United States reached $11 billion dollars last year alone.
People love get-fit-quick products because they promise results without all of that stuff we call "hard work."
For that reason, the supplement industry has exploded, with vitamin shops and supplement stores popping up as fast as Apple stores.
The sad reality is, the supplement industry is largely unregulated. Anybody can stick a bunch of ingredients in a tub, slap a $60 price tag on it, and make ridiculous claims, regardless of whether or not it’s safe.
In fact, there’s no requirement to get approved by the FDA for your “dietary supplement” before you put it on the market.
So, all supplements are bad?
Sure, a strong majority of supplements are a waste of money and time.
HOWEVER, there are situations in which having a supplement IN ADDITION to a quality nutritious diet can be beneficial.
They can be helpful in filling in small deficiencies and increasing performance, depending on the person and situation.
Now, there are different types of supplements:
Basic supplements with few to no added ingredients: think multivitamins, protein powders and branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs).
Supplement cocktails, which throw a bunch of things into a pill or powder and promise muscle gains or quick fat loss, whether it’s a “pre-workout,” “meal replacement,” or “post workout.” The names of these things generally have exclamation points, numbers for letters, and use Z’s instead of S’s. You know which ones I’m talking about.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to ignore the supplement cocktails, and suggest that people ignore their ridiculous claims as well.
If you are an advanced bodybuilder or somebody who wants to take these types of supplements, there are sites out there dedicated to those very things.
For the rest of us, we’re going to cover the the most important stuff.
What supplements should I avoid?
Let’s go over the most popular supplements you SHOULDN’T use.
Weight Loss/Performance Enhancers. Weight loss pills are a big NO NO. I don’t care how much weight your friend lost using the most recent version of Hydroxycut, they do not provide permanent healthy results, they're dangerous, and are not the way to go.
Here’s a quote from this article from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in reference to the fraudulent weight-loss diet pill industry:
“These products are not legal dietary supplements,” says Michael Levy, director of the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) Division of New Drugs and Labeling Compliance. “They are actually very powerful drugs masquerading as ‘all-natural’ or ‘herbal’ supplements, and they carry significant risks to unsuspecting consumers.”
At best, these supplements can provide short term weight loss. More likely however, they’ll either be ineffective or create even more issues. There are no shortcuts in health and fitness if you want the results to last.
Detoxes and Water Pills: Cleanses, 7 day detoxes, and the like have big claims for how much weight you can lose in a short amount of time.
It's all bullshit.
The results aren’t real and only last a day or two, making you think you need to use them again:
Diuretics (water pills) decreases the amount of water in your system through various methods depending on the pill, dehydrating you.
“Fasting” or only drinking juice for a few days actually empties your body of any real food – which can weight a significant amount and can falsely change the number on the scale.
Detoxes and cleanses have been proven time and time again to be complete bullshit. Your body is 70% water for a reason – taking pills to reduce it can mess up your electrolytes, metabolism, your workouts, and can have lasting damage to your health.
Laxatives: No. Just no. The only thing laxatives actually do is cause your large bowel to empty, and the only reason you may “lose weight” while using them is that it decreases your overall water weight. Continued use can cause long term health issues. If you think you’re absorbing less calories from your food by using them (a common myth) – you’re not. Our body absorbs all of the calories in your food before the laxatives have any effects.
NOW, once you’ve addressed THOSE issues and put yourself on the path to an healthier lifestyle, we can talk about supplements that might be worth it for ya.
What about my multivitamin Cody?!?!?
First, calm down.
I’m going to guess your doctor told you take a multivitamin every day.
If you’re taking one supplement right now, I bet this is it.
So let’s get into it. Believe it or not, the importance and effectiveness of multivitamins, the cornerstone of the health supplement industry, has been called into question. A massive study covering multivitamins determined that for a huge majority of healthy individuals with no deficiencies, multivitamins are largely unnecessary.
“On October 10, 2011, researchers from the University of Minnesota evaluated 39,000 older women and found that those who took supplemental multivitamins, magnesium, zinc, copper, and iron died at rates higher than those who didn’t. They concluded, “Based on existing evidence, we see little justification for the general and widespread use of dietary supplements.”
However, in another study different conclusions were drawn:
“Some scientists believe there is not enough evidence to recommend for or against taking a daily multivitamin, because there isn’t yet enough data from randomized controlled trials. (17) That’s a reasonable but short-sighted point of view since it may never be possible to conduct randomized trials that are long enough to test the effects of multiple vitamins on risks of cancers, Alzheimer’s disease, and other degenerative conditions.
Looking at all the evidence—from epidemiological studies on diet and health, to biochemical studies on the minute mechanisms of disease—the potential health benefits of taking a standard daily multivitamin appear to outweigh the potential risks for most people. (18)”
So, which one do we believe? Personally, through my research I’m of the school of thought that a multivitamin can be beneficial for somebody that has nutritional deficiencies, is pregnant, or is above the age of 50. I also believe that taking a multivitamin first thing in the morning can set you on the right track for eating well the rest of the day. Your focus should still be on eating a high quality, nutritious diet with plenty of vegetables, and a multivitamin could help plug any deficiencies if you have them.
I reached this conclusion after discovering Dr. Roizen, who analyzed the data from the above study and pointed out a significant number of improvements from people that DID have some deficiency who took a multivitamin.
His recommendation: “You still will benefit from taking half a daily multivitamin containing important nutrients at levels close to their recommended daily allowance twice a day if you are potentially going to become, or are, pregnant, or as an insurance policy against an inadequate diet in people over 50.
Because there are so many options, here are some things to consider when picking a multivitamin:
Serving Size: If you are interested in taking a multivitamin, make sure you read the label and notice the serving size. Do you take it once a day? Twice a day?
Iodine: With the switch to non iodized salts and how bread is made (and less bread consumption), more people are seeing an iodine deficiency than we have seen in a long time.
Iron: I would suggest getting an iron panel from your doctor before taking a supplement with iron – Iron supplementation is quite complex and it is just often assumed that we need it (especially women).
Calcium: You don’t want a hugely high calcium content, despite the fact that you’ve probably been told “more calcium = stronger bones!” Believe it or not, calcium deficiency is more complex than imagined.
Other ingredients: You’ll definitely want to check these if you’re trying to stay away from soy or if you’re a vegetarian. Some have no “other ingredients,” and some are full of chemicals to keep them together. Generally the higher the quality vitamin, the less other ingredients.
“Ugh, Cody. So do I take one or not?!” you say. Fine!
Bottom line: Eat a well-rounded diet, with plenty of vegetables (including dark leafy greens like spinach and kale) and skip the multivitamin. If you think you do have a nutritional deficiency, or you’re pregnant, consider a multivitamin after a chat with your doctor.
Just don’t expect to pop a multivitamin each morning and have it cure all issues.
What about protein powder?
You’ve probably heard people (or seen ads) talking about how protein powders are a necessary part of building muscle.
You might even have been told that you must drink a protein shake 30 minutes after your workout or your muscles will disappear.
The truth is…protein powders can ALSO be unnecessary.
YES, protein is an important part of building muscle. Your muscles need that protein, and can get that protein from either a protein supplement or from real food like chicken, steak, eggs, nuts, etc.
If you’re getting enough protein in your diet, there is no need for you to also take a protein supplement.
Now, the benefit to protein powders: if you are very busy or trying to build muscle, finding a way to consume enough natural protein every day can be a challenge (which is where a convenient protein shake can come in handy).
“That’s great Cody, I’m busy! I don’t eat enough protein regularly. What do I do now?”
There are many different types of protein powders.
The big three on the market:
Whey protein: Whey protein is the most popular, readily available, and cheapest options. Whey is what remains after milk has been curdled and strained. It contains lactose, so if you’re lactose intolerant, stay away from whey.
Egg protein: Egg protein powders are made from, you guessed it, the protein in eggs – which means may be a great alternative if you can’t use whey.
Soy protein: The other most popular protein is soy, which is a complicated beast. A lot of the more popular shakes on the market (like Body by Vi and Advocare) use soy protein, so be wary of those products.
When choosing a protein powder, make sure to look at the ingredients and find one from a reputable brand.
Always do your research even if it is one the most popular brands (such as Muscle Milk). Some of these have had metals such as arsenic found in them.
The final word: pumping yourself full of 300g of protein isn’t necessary.
So, don’t overthink it. Eat real food. If you cannot get enough protein every day, consider a protein supplement, understanding that it’s not gonna make you sprout Hulk-like muscles.
What about other supps?
Fish Oil: One of the most studied and widely accepted supplements as beneficial, touting claims anywhere from reducing inflammation to reducing depression. However, like every other supplement out there, there are some negative claims too.
Vitamin D: Vitamin D can be an important supplement to consider if there isn’t any in your multivitamin, you don’t consume dairy, and you don’t get 20 minutes of direct sunlight every day. Dietary Vitamin D or Vitamin D from sunlight will produce the same results.
Although some say a Vitamin D supplement is a waste, I disagree. Vitamin D, either in supplement form or from direct sunlight, can be beneficial!
Branched Chain Amino Acids: BCAA’s are three amino acids – leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These play a role in protein synthesis and glucose uptake into cells, which is definitely something we want to encourage when trying to build muscle. However, they are naturally found in protein and unless you are working out fasted, the studies are inconsistent at best on if supplementing with them will actually help with anything. Conclusion? Get them from food!
Caffeine: This is often the main ingredient in weight loss supplements and performance
Now, you’ll definitely build up a tolerance to caffeine pretty quick (as any coffee drinker knows!), which means I would try to stay away from completely relying on caffeine for your workout energy.
Creatine: Creatine is one of the most researched and commonly used supplements in the world. It’s a substance that’s naturally occurring in your body, and is also found in food such as meats, eggs, and dairy.
Here’s a quick rundown: creatine stores phosphates in your body in the form of phosphocreatine, which aids in cellular function. When you take creatine, your muscles can retain more water, which helps your muscles work more efficiently. Now, because one’s water weight is increased, creatine can make some feel bloated.
The verdict: If your goal is general weight loss and fitness, don’t worry about a creatine supplement. It occurs naturally in your animal protein sources (like red meat).
However, if your goal is oriented towards powerlifting, increased athletic performance, or weightlifting, it may be something to consider. Do your research and make sure to check with your doctor. There are conflicting reports about consumption of creatine and kidney issues with those who have preexisting kidney issues. Again (as always), ask your doctor first!
Calcium: For most people, the calcium consumed from dairy, dark leafy greens, and/or in a multivitamin is enough. You MIGHT consider taking a standalone calcium supplement, but we do not recommend it. Recent studies have shown that our bodies process calcium supplements differently than calcium from food. Aim to get calcium from real food.
Fiber: If you’re eating your veggies, you should not need a fiber supplement. The goal should be about 25g-30g of fiber a day (about 14g per 1000 calories you consume).
CLA (Conjugated Linoleic Acid): One of the most popular “leaning out” supplements – it’s a fatty acid that’s found in beef and dairy. Some studies claim that it helps reduce body fat mass (in adults that exercise) but other studies show that results are inconsistent or that it does nothing. In our opinion, you should focus on getting CLA through your diet, and not a supplement.
ZMA: This is just zinc, magnesium, and vitamin B. Some sites claim that it boosts testosterone (though we can’t find any good studies to back this up), and performance, though this study shows otherwise. There are studies that show that magnesium and zinc can help you sleep. If you can get enough magnesium from items like nuts and leafy greens, and zinc from meat and/or shellfish, this supplement is not necessary.
Beta-Alanine: Beta alanine is found in a ton of pre-workout supplements. If you’ve ever gotten “tingles” after taking one – this is what they are from. It’s a non-essential beta-amino acid that’s naturally occurring in the body and also found in many meats and eggs, and claims to reduce fatigue helping you get one extra rep. Studies are inconsistent, but many do show a minor improvement. Conclusion? Supplement this naturally through your diet and protein rich foods like chicken, beef, and fish.
One final thing
I’m going to guess that you’re looking to take supplements because you’re interested in getting bigger, stronger, and leaner. I can tell you that supplements make up less than 5% of the equation, and will only work if you’re ALSO eating a great diet and training correctly.
If you’ve spent time in a gym and aren’t getting results, you might not have a plan in place that works for your body type, lifestyle, and physiology – which might be why you’re reading this article in the first place – to get results sooner!
You’re in the right place – if you enjoyed this no-nonsense article on supplements, its because I live and breathe this stuff, helping busy people like you cut through the crap in the fitness industry and just focus on the key things that actually produce results.