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A Not So Brief Rundown on Supplementation

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Among the growing and never ending list of things I’d love to change about the fitness industry lies the world of supplementation.  It’s right up there near the top, somewhere between glute bands and toning workouts. People’s craving, allegiance, and misunderstanding of supplementation never ceases to blow my mind.  It has almost become protocol for new weightlifters and exercisers to dial in their supplement stack before they even step foot in the gym. It’s like Step 1: Decide I’m going to start working out. Step 2: I need to buy supplements. 

Wat? 

Supplementation is one of the least important steps to making body composition changes.  It’s worth maybe 5% of the total relative importance when considering performance outcomes.  How it has become more important than your actual diet or training plan is beyond me. There are thousands upon thousands of different supplements on the market today.  Out of those thousands, there are only 4-5 that are worth a damn. Seriously, that’s it. In this article my goal is to show you the ones that could benefit you, list out a few popular ones that are complete dog shit, and teach you how to inform yourself on others so that you know if they are useful.  Let’s start with the good.  

The Good Supplements

Remember this list: Protein powders, creatine, caffeine, multivitamins, and high glycemic carbohydrates. Those are the good ones.  What makes a good supplement is context dependent. Some supplements not included in this short list can be beneficial for the user if they have a specific need or reason for taking that supplement.  For example, if a person was deficient in vitamin B12 then supplementing is a great idea. If a person is not deficient, there is no reason to supplement with it. Finding useful supplements is a combination of finding consensus among the data and practicality.  By practicality I mean is the supplement in question reasonable to include into your diet and training. Not everything that works in the lab works in real life scenarios.

Scientists could find a supplement in the lab that increases power output by 20% when a dose of 2.0g/kg of body weight was taken 10 minutes prior to training.  Sounds awesome when you read it right? That dosage would mean a 60kg person would have to take a 120g dose of the powder. That is around a cups worth, not very practical. 

Protein Supplements

Protein supplements are the most popular supplement for good reason, they work.  A common misconception with protein supplements is that they are specially anabolic or different when compared to regular protein. They are not.  It is just concentrated protein. The benefit of taking a protein supplement is simply to have access to easy, high quality protein in order to help you meet your intake goals.  The proteins are metabolized into their constituent amino acids just like the protein from your chicken breast or eggs. There are many types of protein supplements including milk, egg, beef, soy, hemp, and pea to name a few however they are all not the same.  The quality of protein can be evaluated by a metric called the protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) which is determined by its amino acid content and digestibility. A perfect PDCAAS is 1.0.¹  

Milk Proteins

Atop the mountain of different protein supplements sit whey and casein, each scoring a perfect 1.0 on the PDCAAS scale. Whey and casein are the two primary proteins in milk.  When you open up a new container of cottage cheese there is a watery liquid sitting atop the curds, this is the whey. Casein protein is found in the curds. You can isolate the two different milk proteins by stripping away the carbohydrates and fat in the milk and then powdering the remaining protein in order to create the supplements. 

Whey protein is a fast and easily digestible protein. For this reason, it is great to take intra or post-workout. Whey is also one of the highest quality proteins that exists, it digests almost completely and all of the amino acids are used for beneficial purposes within your body.

Casein protein is a slow digesting protein that is better used during times when you know you won’t have access to food/protein, like when you are sleeping or don’t know when your next meal will be.  When casein protein interacts with the liquid in your stomach, it folds over onto itself and creates a tight ball that is unable to be easily digested. The gastric juices in your stomach will slowly work on these casein globs from the outside in and amino acids will be slowly titrated into your bloodstream. A big dose of casein can take hours to digest. A dose of casein with fat can take up to 10 hours. When muscle growth is the goal, it is important for your body to have a supply of high quality protein feeding the biological mechanisms for reconstruction of muscle at all times.

Alternative Proteins

There exists a growing base of people who are anti-milk because they are lactose intolerant, allergic, or avoid it because of preference.  There are loads of different protein supplements on the market for these people. As a general rule, animal proteins are better than plant based proteins when it comes to protein quality and stimulating muscle protein synthesis.  The amino acid profiles of animal proteins tend to be higher in the amino acid leucine which is the driver of muscle protein synthesis. There seems to exist a leucine threshold in which it is important to cross in order to maximize our ability to grow muscle.  Of all of the plant based powders, soy appears to be the best. It is easily digested, has the full amino acid profile, and fares better than others when compared against the superior milk proteins.    

Creatine

Creatine is likely the most researched supplement there is on the market.  Study after study has shown its effectiveness as an ergogenic aid. Creatine helps your body in times when you have a high energy demand.  ATP (adensoine triphosphate) is the energy currency of your body. All of your movements are fueled by ATP. Your body breaks the phosphate bonds of ATP to generate energy.  When these phosphate bonds are broken, ATP becomes ADP (adenosine diphosphate).

Creatine exists in your body as creatine phosphate. Creatine can donate its phosphate group to ADP to regenerate ATP, which is important for near-maximal efforts.  If you have a lot of creatine in your cell when you’re exercising, you may be able to get a couple more reps because of your increased ability to regenerate ATP. Creatine has been shown to improve strength and power output during exercise and can have minor improvements in increasing anaerobic capacity.² 

There are many different formulations of creatine products on the market and most of them are overkill.  Many of these special formulations claim to be the best way to saturate the muscle with creatine. This is nonsense, creatine monohydrate is able to fully saturate the muscle and it is the cheapest form on the market.  It is also worth mentioning that in the majority of the research studies, creatine monohydrate is used. As far as timing goes, it really doesn’t matter when you take your creatine. It’s probably easiest to just add it into your protein shake but whether that is pre or post workout doesn’t make a difference.  

Caffeine

Caffeine, as many of you know, is a stimulant that can be used to help increase alertness and wakefulness.  It also has ergogenic properties that can assist your training including an increase of power output, anaerobic exercise capacity, and possibly pain tolerance.  Caffeine is often added to preworkout supplements along with a number of other ingredients. These additional ingredients are in many cases unproductive and superfluous. When you are searching for a preworkout supplement, it is important to determine what purpose you want it to serve.  If you are interested in taking a preworkout supplement to boost your energy for your workout, make sure it contains caffeine.  

Multivitamins

The benefits of supplementing with individual or multivitamins has been supported by the literature in individuals who may be deficient in a particular vitamin.  If you eat a variety of whole foods and obtain all of the essential nutrients in adequate amounts then supplementing with a multivitamin is not necessary. You will just pee any excess vitamins out and it will be a waste of your money.  Taking a daily multivitamin may be a good idea for when you are unable to eat a variety of whole foods. For example, in 2014 I lived in Brazil for a short time where I had no kitchen and consuming a wide variety of whole foods was inconvenient.  During this time I took a multivitamin to ensure that I wasn’t missing out on any of the essentials. 

High Glycemic Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the preferred fuel of your body during exercise.  If you train hard and your workouts last longer than an hour than there is a pretty high likelihood that you are using up your carbohydrate stores within your muscles.  Supplementing with an intraworkout carbohydrate beverage can help to spare muscle glycogen. It is important to choose high glycemic carbs here because you want to get those carb molecules to your working muscles as quickly as possible.  You don’t want to have a bunch of fiber included in your intraworkout carbs because that would slow down their digestion.

High glycemic carbs are also beneficial to take in the post workout time period as well. After a bout of glycogen depleting exercise it is important to replenish your muscles with glycogen in order to fuel your next training session.  After exercise your muscles are extremely sensitive to carbohydrates so providing them with some quick digesting carbs can help them refill their glycogen stores. Adding some dextrose powder to you post workout shake or eating some kind of simple carbs like sugary cereal or candy in addition to your protein shake can lend itself to muscle building. Because your muscles are more sensitive to the carbohydrates after glycogen depleting exercise, the timing of post workout carbohydrate intake is something to consider.  Consuming them within 30 minutes of your workout will help ensure that you are doing what you can to aid in the muscle building process. 

Some of the Bad Supplements

There are far too many bad supplements for me to list out every single one.  Instead of doing that, I am going to focus on a select few that I see promoted by health influencers and fitspos on social media.  The idea that these people make money off of telling their followers to buy their useless junk of a supplement under the guise of health makes me blood red mad.  Why is it so hard for people in this industry to have even just a sliver of integrity? I digress though, it’s a fight that will never be won. People are too keen for a quick fix.  Here’s the tea on the bad stuff. 

Greens Supplements

It seems like in the past year that these things have exploded in popularity.  Damn near every fitspo I follow on IG out of spite includes them in their supplement stack.  Don’t fall victim to their swindling ways though, these supplements are about as useless as an accordion player on a deer hunt.  These Greens Supplements claim to have digestive enzymes to decrease bloating, improve gut health with probiotics, and help you get your daily serving of vegetables in with only one small scoop of their proprietary formulation for the low price of $60 for 30 servings.  I am not aware of one randomized controlled study anywhere that shows that these supplements do any of those things.

There are more problems with them than just a lack of evidence though. The most glaring and obvious issue with these powders is how you can fit a days worth of vegetables into a tiny little 2 gram scoop of powder.  It just doesn’t make logical sense. Think of how much volume is in a serving of kale or spinach. It’s almost depressing to see how much you have to eat just to get one measly serving in. That’s not getting concentrated down into a tiny little scoop no matter how you pack it.

You’re flying blind if you decided to take a Greens supplement because they contain probiotics.  Probiotic research is in its very infancy in 2020. What we do know about probiotics is that they are very specific and for them to work correctly the user must find the correct strain of probiotic that matches their need. A proprietary blend of probiotics in a Greens supplement isn’t going to get the job done in all likelihood.

Using a Greens supplement for the digestive enzymes follows a similar path.  Digestive enzymes can be useful but specificity is still an issue and many digestive enzymes require high doses to show promise. Again, our 2g serving of powder probably isn’t going to cut it.

Lastly, even if our 2g scoop of powder was able to concentrate all of the nutrients from the actual green vegetables, would it even be the same as eating the vegetables? Nutrients consumed as part of the whole food matrix are treated differently once they enter into digestion.  When you isolate the nutrients from the foods, there is no telling how it will be treated upon beginning the digestive process. These isolated compounds may undergo chemical reactions once they enter into the acidic and basic conditions of the gut, rendering them useless. We don’t exactly know what happens yet.

Furthermore, if the isolated compound did reach the small intestine unscathed there is no evidence that we have any dedicated transporters to get it from the small intestine into the bloodstream.  If it were to get into the bloodstream, the same problem would occur when trying to gain access to the cells. In all fairness, the absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence but until we can obtain some more data, I wouldn’t waste your money on these. Buy real fruits and vegetables. I know there are people who claim that these Greens supplements do wonders for them but I’m of the belief that it is almost certainly placebo. There is little doubt in my mind that they wouldn’t see real, tangible benefits if there were to simply just eat more real fruits and vegetables.  

BCAAs

Branched chain amino acids are the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine.  They are thought to be the most important amino acids when it comes to muscle growth.  It is important to ensure that you are getting adequate quantities of BCAAs in your diet but supplementation is unnecessary for most people because they already get enough in their regular eating.  Animal proteins contain a significant amount of BCAAs and if you eat enough high quality protein in your day then there is little reason to supplement with a BCAA powder.

For the vast majority of people, supplementing with BCAAs is a waste of money.  A case for BCAA supplementation could be made for individuals who follow a plant heavy diet. Plant proteins are often lower in quality than their animal counterparts. Because of this, it is a possibility that vegan and vegetarian dieters can have trouble obtaining a full amino acid profile in adequate amounts, especially if muscle building is the goal.  It is entirely possible to obtain enough of the essential amino acids from a plant based diet but taking a BCAA supplement for these people would just be a nice insurance policy.  

Detox Supplements

My Facebook feed has been loaded with advertisements of these garbage supplements the past month.  

“Message me if you want to join my weightloss challenge! Only 5 spots available!! No need to diet or exercise, just use my favorite cheat meal product!!!” 

Oh man, how badly I want to message one of these people and have them try to explain to me the physiological mechanism behind how their product works.  These It Works, Shakeology, and other pyramid scheme companies hawking their detox supplements to help you shed weight with ease are all complete bullshit.³ 

There are even seemingly credible people with advanced degrees who do the same thing.  If you have paid attention to my Instagram stories recently you have seen I have expressed my displeasure with Mark Hyman, who is an M.D. He also sells detox supplements claiming to “get you back on track”.  Having an advanced degree doesn’t make you exempt from being a cash grabbing, money hungry, deceptive piece of shit. If you have a fully functioning liver and kidneys, your body is doing all the detoxing that it needs. In the case it isn’t, a little detox supplement should be the least of your worries.

How to Vet Supplements

Vetting new supplements can be hard work.  Dietary supplements are not required by federal law to be proven safe or that any claims made on the label are true before they are marketed.  Obviously this isn’t ideal. To learn about supplements we need to have laboratory studies that have been repeated to gather enough constructive evidence to show that they are effective and safe.  The more data there is, the more likely it is that the supplement being studied has merit.

Some supplements show early promise and as we learn more in the lab they are discontinued because they are either unsafe or we find that they really aren’t as useful as originally thought.  Ephedrine is a good example of this. Ephedrine is effective at reducing fat mass however, as we learned more about it we found that it led to some pretty severe side effects. It is banned in many countries because it is dangerous and can be used as a substrate to make meth.  

The first place I go to if I want to learn about a supplement is examine.com.  They have put together an encyclopedia of nutrition and supplement research that is unbiased and evidence based.  Here is how I use it:

– Type in the supplement in question.  Read the summary section to familiarize yourself with what it does and how it works.  

– Scroll down to the area titled Human Effect Matrix. In this section is a summary of the human studies and how the supplement will affect your body and to what degree. 

– The first place I look is at the column titled Outcome.  Does the supplement in question do what I’m looking for it to do?

– Next, I look at the first column titled Level of Evidence.  How strong is the data supporting that outcome? At the top of the matrix you can click on the legend to see how this is measured. 

– Third, I look at the column titled Magnitude of Effect.  This will tell you how strong the effect of the outcome is.  

– Next, I look in the fourth column to see how consistent the current literature is on the topic. 

– After I have gathered all the information I am looking for in the matrix, I scroll back up to where it discusses how to take the supplement and in what dosage.  

-If I want to obtain more information or read actual studies on the supplement, I will move to pubmed and perform a search to look for specifics.  

For most of us who are just looking for quick information on supplements, I think this method of research is perfectly adequate.  It allows you to obtain evidence based information in a clear and consistent format. Unless you want to learn detailed specifics of a certain outcome, reading individual research studies can be left to the scientists.  

Remember that supplements are named as such because they are meant to be a supplement to your normal diet.  They are not essential and you can get jacked and meet all of your goals without them. The good supplements listed above are great options for you to choose if you want to squeeze out any advantage that you can get.  They more than likely will provide you with some benefit. Spend your money wisely. Research what you want to include in your stack and most importantly don’t fall victim to the money hungry charlatans trying to make a quick buck.

References

  1. Schaafsma, G. (2000). The Protein Digestibility–Corrected Amino Acid Score. The Journal of Nutrition130(7). doi: 10.1093/jn/130.7.1865s
  2. Mielgo-Ayuso, J., Calleja-Gonzalez, J., Marqués-Jiménez, D., Caballero-García, A., Córdova, A., & Fernández-Lázaro, D. (2019). Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Athletic Performance in Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients11(4), 757. doi: 10.3390/nu11040757
  3. Mielgo-Ayuso, J., Calleja-Gonzalez, J., Marqués-Jiménez, D., Caballero-García, A., Córdova, A., & Fernández-Lázaro, D. (2019). Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Athletic Performance in Soccer Players: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients11(4), 757. doi: 10.3390/nu11040757

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