Let’s begin with my admission of bias on the topic of supplements: beyond a multivitamin and the fish oil pill I take each morning, I am not a nutritional supplement user. Moreover, while I don’t have anything against you using supplements to try to gain an edge in your weight loss or performance, it is up to you to know what works and what makes for expensive toilet flushes.
So without further ado, here’s the disclaimer: As a fitness professional I am not licensed as a nutritionist or dietician and this advice is meant neither to diagnose any health condition nor to prescribe a remedy for any health condition. Seeking the advice of a Registered Dietician or Nutritionist, in concert with your physician, to examine the details of your particular case is recommended.
The production and sale of dietary supplements has never been as rigorously controlled by the Food and Drug Administration as pharmaceuticals. However, prior to 1994 the FDA did maintain control over pre-market approval of vitamins, minerals, protein supplements and herbal nutritional substances. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act changed all this and removed much of the FDA’s control over oral supplements while expanding the category to include substances such as ginseng, fish oils, enzymes, hormones and steroid-like substances. Since the DSHEA’s passage into law, all a supplement producer has to do to enter the marketplace is to send a letter to the FDA stating that no negative side effects are expected from usage of the product in question. Furthermore, the maker is allowed to make statements about how the product affects the structure or function of the human body, but may not assert that the supplement can cure or treat a disease. For example, a manufacturer may state, “Calcium builds strong bones,” but may not claim, “Ginkgo Biloba prevents dementia.”
This rhetorical gray area didn’t seem to bother anyone who contributed to the billions of dollars the nutritional supplement industry earned in 2012. Was the money well spent?
“Supplements can enhance a diet where there are shortfalls, but a handful of vitamin, mineral or other dietary supplements can never take the place of a healthy diet,” says David Grotto, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
“Foods are so complex, offering not only vitamins and minerals, but fiber, nutrients, phytochemicals and a whole host of nutritious substances that science has not fully identified that work together with other foods and provide the benefits of a healthy eating pattern,” adds Mr. Grotto.
In other words, food is your best source for the nutrition you need. With that assertion in mind consider the following:
If you’re still reading and haven’t thrown up your hands in confusion over whether or not the $50 you spent on vitamins, protein powder and L-arginine last week was worthwhile, here’s a look at some of the most popular supplements:
Multivitamins have long been considered nutritional insurance against dietary shortfalls, whether they are from eating too many processed foods, not eating your veggies or just not paying attention. The best bet when choosing a good multivitamin is one which offers a wide array of vitamins and minerals. There is some research to support greater utilization of the multivitamin by the cells if it comes from whole food sources and is not synthetic.
Sports nutrition supplements are marketed to everyone from the athletes for whom they are designed to average people, who may or may not workout with enough intensity to require these products. This broad category includes both performance enhancers (think of pre-workout drinks, recovery powders and creatine) and weight loss supplements.
“You can’t use a sports supplement for a week and expect to gain pounds of muscle, but if used properly they can provide a slight, not overwhelming edge,” says Andrew Shoa, PhD and Vice President for the regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition.
Kris Clark, PhD, RD is Sports Nutrition Director at Penn State University is more specific when she says, “I rely on the major nutrients in food, timing of meals and fluids to enhance athletic performance, and in general I discourage dietary supplements, other than the use of sport shakes, bars and gels after practice or events for muscle cell recovery.”
Creatine is one of the most popular and studied sports nutrition supplements. This supplement is best for those engaging in high-intensity, short-burst activity such as sprinting or weight lifting. Recreational and endurance athletes won’t benefit from creatine, which allows your muscles to hold more water and recover faster after a strength workout. This makes proper hydration essential when using creatine.
Whey protein is a by-product of dairy production and is a complete protein (containing all 21 amino acids). Whey can be used before or after a workout to help repair muscle tissue. It is also an easy source of protein for those who do not eat enough of this macronutrient.
Weight loss supplements are a dubious category and can be potentially dangerous. More outrageous and false claims are made for supplements in this area than any other category. However, maintaining the recommended daily intake of calcium, supplementing with conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), getting the recommended 25 grams of fiber daily and judicious caffeine usage appear to offer some benefit in conjunction with exercise and a healthy diet. Do your research before using supposed weight loss aids.
Fish oil supplements contain the essential fatty acids EPA and DHA which help reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, prevent muscle breakdown, enhance joint tissue rebuilding and encourage fat loss. Wow! Is it as miracle pill? Maybe fish oil in pill form or from fish sources like salmon or tuna is beneficial, but there is not universal agreement. An analysis published in the April 2012 Archives of Internal Medicine found fish oil may not do much to ward off heart attacks and strokes in people with heart disease. On the other hand, the American Heart Association continues to recommend fish oil supplements to those at high risk of a heart attack.
So, what to do? How do you know what works, what doesn’t and how much to spend? First, remember your best source of nutrition is from your diet. Second, if you choose to use supplements look for trusted brands with a track record of safety. Third, if a product offers results which seem too good to be true, they probably are. Fourth, follow the recommended dosage of any supplement you use and pay attention to any changes in how you feel, your appearance or your behavior. The most important thing to remember is you are responsible for what you put in your body. No matter what the studies report, beyond the latest episode of Dr. Oz and regardless of what your trainer says, you are the one in charge of your health.