Today's post I would consider a mixed bag among people and how they feel about supplements. Some love them and probably rely a little too much on supplements, while others consider them nothing short of the Devil but could stand to actually add some based on their hectic schedules or desires for increased performance.
Again- this is one of those posts where I am sharing my experience with taking supplements and speaking with people/athletes I respect who have taken supplements and have had their own experiences. This does not mean I am qualified to be giving any nutritional advice, these are simply anecdotal instances. Admittedly- I am not a huge supplement guy. For me and my goals, I can get by without diving too deep into the "supplement game". However, there are some great benefits, as I will discuss.
Before we dive into the supplements themselves, I'd like to bring back up a chart I really love from Renaissance Periodization. Take a look below...
What this chart is is their version of how important/ how much impact each of the different aspects of dieting have on someones performance or ability to reach their weight loss goals. 80% of the chart is made up of your total caloric consumption (50%), and your macronutrient breakdown (amount of protein, carbs, and fats). The rest of 20% being allotted to the timing, actual food composition (GMO vs organic), and finally SUPPLEMENTS. Interesting how the move supplementation all the way to the top of the chart, vs. having it as the base of proper, healthy, and balanced dieting strategies.
Many reputable organizations all support this similar claim, including RP, Precision Nutrition (more on them in a bit), even the IOC (International Olympic Committee) goes on to say
"The amount, composition, and and timing (sound familiar?) of food intake can profoundly affect sports performance...".
I don't mean to bash supplements at all- but I want to make a clear point that I tend to agree with all of these organizations in that a well balanced diet filled with whole, varied foods is ALWAYS a better choice then supplementing.
So the questions becomes- how do you know when to use supplements and when do you need to just eat more, less, or different food?
Let's start by asking a few questions:
1) Do I want to supplement for health or performance goals?
Supplementing for health tends to be different from performance. If contemplating for health reasons- you would be considering supplementing to cover your essential nutrients. These are nutrients present in food that are needed for normal physiological functioning. In other words, we NEED these nutrients.
Typically- people need to supplement essential nutrients for a few possible reasons which include food aversion ("I don't like vegetables"), hectic travel schedule, lack of proper planning, or a calorically restricted diet.
Consider this category your "dinner".
Supplementing for performance may not necessarily line up with health. Sometimes, high performance actually goes directly against health (look at the earlier death averages for NFL, Olympians, and other professional athletes). These refer to supplementing more for the nonessential nutrients. These are all the nutrients that either the body makes enough of, we can get from an adequate diet, or we don't need to function physiologically.
This is your "dessert".
2) Do I get enough of the essential nutrients in my diet already?
If you are already eating enough to cover your calories you need, as well as the proper ratio of marcronutrients based on your health/performance goals, remember you are already hitting that 80% to get to your goals.
3) What physiological system do I want to support by supplementing?
Again- If performance related, which system will supplementing with something support? If you are in a hypertrophy phase (typically associated with high lactate work) beta alaine or sodium bicarbonate might be a better option than creatine, which tends to better support the phosphagen system. This will help narrow down the supplements you would consider taking.
4) Does the supplement have substantiated research backing it?
The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) by law, does not have to check supplements for effectivness, safety, or even purity. Basically, like many things, they've been swayed by money and lobbyist to allow sub-par material on the market. In that case- research is a must when deciding to take a supplement. Some reliable websites to check include merck.com/mmhe (food/supplements don't have bad interaction with medication), wada-ama.org (supplement isn't on athletic banned list), nsf.org, hfl.co.uk, and consumerlab.com.
Side note: A good rule to go by is the less ingredients in a supplement- the better. If you go to buy creatine and it says anything beside creatine monohydrate, find another tub.
Now- you've tried to adjust your diet to meet your health and performance goals with real food. No matter how hard you try, its just not working. You went on to answer some of the questions above- but still may be a little confused of what and why to take a supplement.
To help you out, I have taken 2 charts taken directly from John Berardi's text book The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition.
Essential Nutrient Supplements
(Sorry the pictures don't come out bigger- if you want a copy send me an email at email@example.com)
One of the biggest take aways from this post I would hope is that you learn where a majority of your focus and energy should be placed when considering supplementing. Figure out what your calorie goal each day should be, what that looks like from a macronutrient breakdown standpoint, and if supplementing to help you reach those goals is necessary or not.
At the end of the day- most of do need some help with supplements. They are a wonderful luxury many of us have access to, and help us to reach our health and performance goals. Just be wary and don't get sucked into the supplement black hole by the guy at the gym and the first question out of his mouth is "what preworkout do you take?"
PS- If you liked the info from this post- consider checking out http://www.precisionnutrition.com/. A lot of my own knowledge about nutrition is based on the PN Level 1 certification, and I consider them an extremely valuable resource!