Do We Really Need Supplements?
If you’ve ever belonged to a gym, stepped foot into a nutrition store, or followed any fitness gurus on social media, chances are someone has tried to sell you some kind of supplement. Or 10. There’s a pill, shake, or tea for just about anything you can imagine. A lot of it is totally useless at best and actually harmful at worst. I’d like to say I’ve always seen through the gimmicks and fancy branding, but I’ve spent my fair share of cash on supplements. And I’m not alone. Vitamins, Minerals, and Supplements (VMS) was a $32 BILLION industry by 2012… and it’s projected to reach $60 billion by 2021.
So, is that all wasted money? I don’t think so. It’s not all gimmicks and empty promises. There’s a lot of scenarios where supplementation is helpful, or even necessary. However, I’d venture to guess a good 80% of it is crap. Despite what companies would like to make you believe, not every person has a vitamin deficiency and a neon-colored drink won’t give you a six pack.
Below is a rough guide to what supplements I believe are worth the money… please keep in mind though: I am not a professional. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist or somebody that has more schooling than me before starting a vitamin or supplement. I try to base the information below on reliable research I’ve read over the years. I’d like to think it’s more reliable than whatever “advice” a nutrition store sales clerk will give you to make a sale. However, it’s just a cliff notes version of other people’s work and includes some anecdotal, personal experience. In other words: THIS IS A BLOG, NOT A MEDICAL JOURNAL. I am just a woman who spends too much time reading articles online.
Supplements Worth the Money
Vitamins or Minerals You’re Deficient In
Well, duh, right? It’s actually not as obvious at it seems. First off, I think people (ahem, myself included) love taking vitamins because it makes them feel healthy. What’s more health conscious than popping a multivitamin? Well, if you’re living off of fast food or tv dinners, taking a multivitamin might be a good idea. However, a multi-vitamin has a “one-size fits all” mentality, giving you recommended allowances of pretty much every vitamin and mineral. If you’re eating a fairly well-balanced diet, chances are you don’t really need extra support for every vitamin out there. The fact is, a lot of the medical community thinks a multi-vitamin is a waste of money.
So, to hell with vitamin supplements! Wait, not so fast. Vitamins are not useless. Actually, a lot of Americans have vitamin & mineral deficiencies. I have an iron deficiency, which is fairly common among women. Vitamin B6 and Vitamin D are two of the other most common deficiencies. The key is going to see a doctor or nutritionist to figure out if there’s any vitamin or minerals you’re deficient in and how much you should be taking. Don’t fall for one-size fits all solutions, find what’s right for you…you are a beautiful little snowflake, so treat yourself that way, dammit!
It’s pretty undisputed that Omega 3 is great for you. There’s been studies done to suggest it benefits cardiovascular health, reduces inflammation, improves brain function, clears skin, and even helps preserve muscle mass in older adults. Even though not all researchers will agree on all of the benefits, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article claim Omega 3 is harmful in any way. Omega 3s consist of ALA, DHA, & EPA. ALA can be found in a variety of foods like flax seeds and walnuts, but DHA & EPA can only be found in fish.
If you’re eating fish multiple times a week, you’re probably getting enough DHA & EPA. However, if you don’t regularly cook fish or you hate the taste and never touch it, I’d recommend looking into a fish oil supplement. It may be a placebo affect, but I swear taking a fish oil supplement has given me clearer skin since I started taking it.
Sometimes eating enough protein is hard, especially if you have a busy schedule and trouble carving out time to sit down and eat a meal multiple times per day. So, protein supplements can be really handy. A lot of athletes will also take BCAA (branch chain amino acids) supplements, but it seems like if you have a high quality protein powder, a BCAA isn’t too important. Most protein shakes I’ve seen on the market have one of 6 protein sources (or a combination): whey isolate, whey concentrate, casein, soy, pea, or hemp.
Whatever type of protein supplement you choose, keep an eye on the ingredients. A lot of brands advertise delicious-sounding flavors, but they’re full of artificial sweeteners and sketchy-sounding chemicals. Like most things in life, the simpler the better when it comes to protein.
This protein is most commonly seen because it’s rich in amino acids, quickly digested by the body, and studies have suggested it aids in muscle growth. Whey isolate is a more pure, stripped down version compared to whey concentrate. So, whey isolate is preferred by hardcore bodybuilders and those who don’t do well with dairy (it’s lower in lactose than whey concentrate). Whey concentrate is cheaper, and in my experience, tastes a little better. A lot of brands will do a mix of concentrate & isolate to try to balance quality and affordability. If you want to get into the nitty gritty details of isolate vs concentrate, check out this article.
Casein is another dairy-derived protein, but your body digests it more slowly than whey and it has more lactose. A lot of bodybuilders will take whey in the morning and casein at night… but two protein shakes a day is kind of a lot for the average person IMHO.
Vegan / Non-Dairy Proteins
I’m not a fan of soy protein due to its endocrinological impacts. So, if you’re looking for a non-dairy / vegan protein source, I’d recommend a pea (it has higher protein than hemp). A lot of vegan protein powders will contain a mix to maximize the number of amino acids and for better taste, so just look for one that uses pea protein a top ingredient and doesn’t use soy. My personal favorite is the chocolate Vega Sport.
* I am not necessarily recommending caffeine pills, please read what I’ve written below!
The fact is caffeine is performance-enhancing, and most Americans consume caffeine anyways. You’ll find a lot of sports supplements contain caffeine, because it can have such a positive impact on sports performance (and possibly aid in weight loss). However, you don’t have to shell out a ton of money for a glorified caffeine supplement; your regular cup of joe will work just fine! That being said, coffee’s acidity and it’s tendency to result in “oh man, I’ve got to poop” situations may have you hesitant to down a cup right before a workout. That’s where a caffeine pill or pre-workout supplement comes in.
A word of caution: BE AWARE OF YOUR TOLERANCE FOR CAFFEINE. For example, I’m pretty sensitive to caffeine, so if I have one scoop of a regular pre-workout supplement, I’ll be shaking and having heart palpitations. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to pay money for something that’s going to give me a heart attack. So, I take a quarter of a scoop of Vega pre-workout first thing in the morning before hitting the gym. I like pre-workout supplements because many will also contain other things that are good for energy like ginseng, b-vitamins, etc. However, when you’re shopping, read the labels. Just like protein powder, be wary of artificial sweeteners, crazy-sounding chemicals, or ones with high amounts of regular sugar.
Post Workout Hydration
If you’re saturated with sweat at the end of a workout, you might want to consider drinking something with some electrolytes. Gatorade will work in a pinch, but there’s a lot of other options out there that are better quality.
A Note About Creatine
Personally, I’m a little wary of creatine. It has some devastating side affects for people with diabetes, kidney disease, or bipolar disorder… so, it makes me a little worried it’s not the best thing to be putting into your body. That being said, there’s not a lot of scientific backing to my concern. If you follow as directed (and do not have any medical conditions that could result in negative side effects), creatine can help increase muscle mass. More studies and research have been done around creatine than other muscle-building supplements out there, and it’s use is approved by NCAA. So, if you really want to take a supplement to build muscle, creatine is probably the safest bet.
As I mentioned before, you don’t have to take any of these supplements. Diet and exercise are going to have the biggest impact on your health and fitness no matter what. None of these supplements are going to be life changing. That being said, we could all use a little help from time to time! If you want more guidance on specific brands to buy, I think the website LabDoor is great for quality reviews!