Nutritional supplements are not a substitute for a nutritionally balanced diet.
Over the years, sports supplements have risen in popularity not only among athletes, but also among average gym-goers. In fact, if you walk into most commercial gyms, you will be greeted by a line of vending machines selling protein bars, protein shakes, energy drinks, and allegedly “performance-enhancing” snacks and beverages.
Some popular websites like Bodybuilding.com sell their own supplement line, and many professional athletes become supplement “brand ambassadors” and advertise these products on their social media pages.
Off the internet, some coaches and personal trainers swear by certain supplements as the secret ingredient to their own and their clients’ incredible results.
In this article, I aim to cover:
What are supplements and ergogenic aids?
When we’re talking about sports foods and drinks, we’re thinking of energy bars, drinks, powders, liquid meals, protein bars, sports gels and other high-carbohydrate supplements. In general, these are used to meet daily macronutrient and micronutrient requirements along with common foods.
On the other hand, an “ergogenic” substance is supposed to improve athletic performance and recovery. Some examples of varying efficacy include BCAAs, green tea, caffeine, creatine, HMB, and any other products claiming to help with fat loss, muscle gain, or training performance.
It’s important to remember that supplements are meant to supplement a balanced diet (duh!). They shouldn’t “make up” for a bad diet, except in circumstances when it’s unavoidable.
For instance, athletes who travel a lot might need sports foods and drinks to achieve their higher than normal energy intakes in spite of their inability to have sit-down meals on a regular basis.
Or, if you have to rush to work right after a morning workout and you can’t bring breakfast with you to the gym, packing a banana and an energy bar might be your best compromise to get adequate fuel for recovery.
Therefore, if you can have “normal” food, a sports foods or drink is redundant.
In general, nutritional supplements, such as vitamins and minerals, are overkill. We can get all the micronutrients we need from a balanced diet, with only few exceptions.
Moreover, additional vitamins and minerals from artificial products may not be absorbed and utilised as efficiently as natural micronutrients from food. Lastly, if you were to consume excessive quantities of the micronutrients we can store, such as minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, they could have a toxic effect or impair absorption of other nutrients.
In some cases, supplementing might be a good idea. For example, if you live in a country where you can’t get enough sun exposure, you might think of supplementing with vitamin D. Nevertheless, it’s best to do so after consulting your doctor and under the guidance of a suitable nutrition professional.
Apparently effective supplements for lifters
There are hundreds of products available on the market, but this article will only focus on the ones that have enough scientific evidence to support their use, that is:
Protein powders can be useful to reach your daily protein target if you struggle to do that with food. If you don’t, then protein powders are likely a waste of money, as they don’t seem to have any other benefit but the fact that they provide a low-fat source of protein.
The best powders contain a high percentage of high-quality protein, such as whey, casein, soy, and egg.
Unflavoured powders consisting of at least 90% pure protein are less likely to contain additional ingredients, like carbs or fat, which ramp up the calories, or contaminants and illegal substances that aren’t listed on the label. (Unfortunately, this isn’t too rare. The supplement industry is as of yet very loosely regulated on a global scale, as I will talk about in more details at the end of the article.)
Creatine is considered legal by international organisations, like the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and has been shown to be a safe and effective ergogenic aid.
The most studied and most effective creatine supplement to date is called creatine monohydrate. Although other more expensive, fancier supplements have been introduced to the market, creatine monohydrate gives you the best bang for your buck (literally).
Creatine is found naturally in meat, fish, and poultry. It can also be synthesised within the body from the amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine. In fact, vegetarians and vegans, who don’t get any creatine from their diet, have to manufacture all the creatine they need from amino acids.
When used as a supplement, creatine has been shown to have a number of interconnected beneficial effects on performance and physique.
First and foremost, it plays a role in the production of ATP, the “energy currency of the body”. As a result, supplementation can help fuel short, high-intensity activities, such as feats of maximal strength and power.
In other words, you may be able to do more sets or reps with heavy loads. In turn, this improves performance, causes greater adaptations to training, and increases muscle mass.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, creatine may also enhance recovery from training and help with injury prevention, among other benefits.
Historically, athletes have implemented a rapid-loading strategy, taking high doses of 20 to 25 gr of creatine for five to seven days, then switching to a maintenance phase of 2 to 5 gr per day for up to 28 days.
However, research shows that supplementing with 3 gr every day produces the same results as the rapid-loading strategy, which is therefore more expensive without any additional advantages.
The only caveat to the lower-dose daily supplementation strategy is that it takes about 28 days for creatine stores to be saturated. So, if you take 3 gr per day, you may have to wait to see any meaningful difference in your performance.
Nevertheless, if time isn’t of the essence, this second strategy will yield the same results as the first without using quite as much creatine, which helps to cut costs.
According to the studies conducted so far, healthy individuals should not experience adverse effects when supplementing with creatine. In fact, it’s even been suggested that consuming about 3 gr per day in the diet can be beneficial for overall health in aging individuals.
Nonetheless, if you have any liver or kidney dysfunction, it may be better to ask for professional advice before taking creatine.
Caffeine is the second most studied and most well-known ergogenic aid after creatine. In fact, a new umbrella review of 21 meta-analysis on the effects of caffeine has once again confirmed the positive role caffeine can play in the context of various physical activities, including strength training.
A quantity of about 3 to 6 mg of caffeine per kg of bodyweight has been shown to have a positive impact on endurance and high-intensity strength training performance. Even as little as 1 to 3 mg per kg can be effective, particularly for someone who doesn’t normally take much caffeine. Capsules and tablets seem to be more effective than drinks like coffee.
Caffeine stimulates the central nervous system, increasing alertness and reducing perception of effort. You may find that working out feels easier, so you can sustain high intensities for longer.
Furthermore, caffeine appears to increase the release of calcium into muscle cells and the susceptibility of muscle to calcium, which triggers muscular contractions. Last but not least, it also seems to help recruit more muscle fibres, resulting in stronger contractions.
Unfortunately, caffeine can have unpleasant side effects, such as anxiety, tremors, insomnia, restlessness, and increased heart rate. If you experience any of the above, you would be better off avoiding it.
It can also have more severe repercussions on health, including hypertension, poor bone health, and potentially raised blood cholesterol.
Lastly, research has highlighted that you can build up a tolerance to caffeine. This means that, the more you use it, the less effective it becomes.
If you are interested in caffeine as an ergogenic aid, you may get better results if you reduce consumption or avoid it altogether until 30 to 60 minutes before a session, but only when you need it most. For example, you could take it if you felt especially tired before a workout you couldn’t reschedule, or if you expected the session to be more taxing than average.
Abstaining from caffeine every few weeks can also help reduce your tolerance, which means you will get more out of it when you start taking it again.
Lastly, a review of the studies conducted so far on the interaction of creatine and caffeine suggests that caffeine might prevent creatine from working its ergogenic magic. We have limited research on this topic at the moment, so the mechanisms involved are still unclear. However, if you wanted to play it safe, you could simply choose one or the other.
Do YOU need a supplement?
If you lift three to five times per week, eat well, and meet your protein target with little effort, you’re already checking all the right boxes. If you aren’t, then focus on these areas first and only consider supplementation after.
Ultimately, even though protein powder, creatine, and caffeine may be effective, with relatively few side effects, they can’t replace hard work and consistency.
So, if you think you can’t get strong and jacked without creatine, or you can’t get through leg day without caffeine, you may want to re-evaluate your current training program.
You should also assess costs and benefits of each individual supplement with the help of your coach, a dietician, or other qualified professional.
In particular, as previously mentioned, bear in mind that supplements may contain unlisted ingredients, which can be illegal, detrimental to health, or both.
For that reason, you should only purchase supplements that have been tested for contaminants and banned substances by a reputable lab.
To access reliable data, you can consult the website Examine.com, one of the most comprehensive online resources on the supplement industry.
As a nutrition coach, my primary approach is to help my clients change their diet. I find that small, long-term tweaks are much more effective than any supplement.
If my clients are still interested in any of them, then my role is to share information, so they can make informed decisions for themselves.
As a bodybuilder, I take creatine and use protein powder on days when I’m struggling with my protein intake.
I don’t use caffeine at the moment. I might experiment with it in the future, but I’m wary of its potential side effects on creatine and on myself. I’m a little ball of stress and high energy without any stimulants.
Other than that, I follow the Three Fs Philosophy: food, first and foremost!
In Future Episodes:
There is a lot of misinformation in the fitness industry, when in fact most fitness concepts are simple (not easy!). In next week’s article, I explore some concepts that many fitness people don’t want you to know about… or you might stop buying their expensive and quite useless products.
How has this article changed your view on supplements?
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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