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Which Supplements Should I Take?

Posted by Michael Alfaro on


The views of those who don’t use supplements generally fall within one of several categories: “I don’t take supplements because I prefer to do things naturally,” “I eat a healthy diet, so I get all the nutrients I need from food,” “supplements don’t work, the industry is simply selling lies,” “Supplements? Isn’t that for athletes, I don’t need to take them right?” and “I’m new to this whole supplement thing, I wouldn’t know where to begin.” If you fall into one of those categories, this will hopefully shed some light on the importance of supplementation in our daily lives ... whether we are physically active or not.

What Are Supplements Exactly?

For those who are already familiar, feel free to skip this part. For those who think they know, but are unable to clearly explain it to a beginner, an inability to simplify this concept may mean you’re not totally understanding of what a supplement is yourself. For those of you who believe all supplements are ‘artificial’ and therefore somehow harmful or unnatural to your body, this will hopefully open your mind.

In short: the purpose of supplementation is to supplement your diet with the necessary tools to promote better health, reduce the chances of dysfunction/malnourishment/disease and to support an active lifestyle. They are essentially concentrated amounts of nutrients/minerals that are already found in our food supply or they are herbal extracts, some of which originate from centuries old healing practices (ex- Chinese medicine). Some nutrients/extracts are synthetically created for the purpose of availability and ease of manufacture. The synthetic creation of supplements however is currently a hot topic with the FDA as that is deemed to cross the line from a food supplement to a drug, even if it is a duplicate of what is already occurring in nature.

While ‘naturalists’ will point to this synthetic creation as being a source of concern, the true issue is not always the way in which the supplement was created but rather the potency. Life is about moderation and taking too much of anything good can eventually be a bad thing. The same goes for supplements that are deemed ‘safe’, herbal products can have toxicity levels that when not used according to the directions can be harmful. So the synthetic versions of herbal extracts can be quite potent and this is what creates the safety issue, not the ‘synthetic-ness’ of the ingredient itself. So it’s using a supplement as directed that is the major concern, not so much the witch hunt for how the ingredients were created (assuming you are already buying from a reputable brand and what is on the label is in the product).

Our Food Isn’t What It Used to Be

‘I prefer to do it naturally, I get what I need from my diet’, is a phrase I’ve heard often. But let’s put things into perspective…many nutritionists, physicians and experts like Dr. Tieraona Low Dog (yes it’s a Native American name) believe that the FDA’s daily value recommendations are too low. The FDA has responded by rolling out increased recommendations and new recommendations for nutrient intake that won’t hit nutrition labels until 2018. Despite this response, the fact is that even with today’s undervalued recommendations for vitamins and minerals, 85% of Americans still don’t hit the daily value requirements according to the FDA. Many nutritionists see statistics like 75% of Americans don’t consume enough vitamin D (2009 study Archives of Internal medicine) and respond by saying that we have a malnourishment issue in this country and we’re not even a 3rd world country. So if you plan to get what you need from food, do you a.) truly know what you need based on a doctor’s recommendation or a physical activity you’re involved in and b.) how sure are you that the foods you’re eating will be enough to get you there? Could you tell me how much calcium you had today?

The issue for many Americans is not just our choices for the food we eat, but the quality of the food we eat. Our grown food isn’t as wholesome and as nutrient dense as it used to be. Peer reviewed scientific journals like ‘Environmental Monitoring and Assessment’ are tracking the rates of soil erosion in the United States as the quality of our soil continues to since production, not conservation, is prioritized. It’s no secret that the FDA has allowed for basic items like bread, milk and cereal to be fortified with vitamins to counter the loss in nutrients in our basic foods. So if we don’t get as much of what we need from food anymore and our choice of foods is poor to begin with, then how do we get what we need from our diets? Answer: we don’t.

It’s not just vitamins that keep us healthy either, many people forget the wealth of other nutrients found in food that support our day to day health and can also benefit athlete’s in concentrated amounts as well. For example: when you were young you were always told to eat your broccoli because it made you strong. Then when you got older you found out that broccoli was just fiber and water and it was protein that made you strong…so you stopped eating broccoli right? Well: Broccoli contains Diindolylmethane (DIM for short) which helps to promote a healthy balance of estrogen. It also contains sulforaphane which has potent anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects. So if you’re a lifter, you better still be eating your broccoli!

So now that you know it’s bigger than just vitamins, now enters supplements to the rescue, the ones providing vitamins and the ones providing additional nutrients found in food. Let it be known that no article can replace a doctor’s advice, so it’s recommended that you talk to your physician about what your nutrient deficiencies might be and what you should be taking. Drugs are like ‘reactive’ treatments, something is already wrong and your doctor prescribes you a drug to mask or patch the problem (possibly leading to a reliance on said drug), whereas supplements are ‘preventative’ courses of action. They can in no way be used to treat a disease but they are proven to lower your level of risk and hopefully reduce your number of trips to the doctor. Let’s take a look at some basic suggestions for healthy living below:

Vitamin D- Supplement with 1,000IU to 5,000 IU’s a day. This is well above the current daily value (400IU) but that number is going up according to the FDA. If you don’t get much sunlight or live in an area up north where sun is hard to come by during the winter time, you better be supplementing with vitamin D.

Calcium & Vitamin K2 - many of you already know about calcium already and its benefits for bone health. But there are concerns among physicians about high amounts of calcium supplementation (do not supplement with more than 400-500mg/day) leading to calcification or calcium buildup in places you don’t want (smooth muscle tissue, kidneys, etc.). Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption, but the lesser known fat soluble vitamin K-2 helps to ensure calcium is transported to the right place.

Omega 3s - a necessity for promoting cardiovascular health but it is often left out of many American diets. Supplementing with at least 1,200 IU’s per day is recommended.

Potassium & Magnesium- sodium tends to be a major part of our diets, but your recommended intake of potassium is twice that of sodium (2,400mg to be exact), it is necessary for proper muscle function and it’s an electrolyte that is important for hydration. Magnesium is another electrolyte that is involved in many of the body’s metabolic activities and it can also promote relaxation to help you get to sleep faster when taken at night (supplement with 400mg/day).

B Vitamins - B vitamins have less of a risk factor when it comes to supplementation since they are water soluble and can pass through the body (whereas vitamin D and vitamin K2 are fat soluble). They are involved in cell metabolism and are especially beneficial for athletes.

Zinc- zinc is essential for everyone but supplementing with at least 25mg a day is a must for athletes. It supports immunity, hormone balance, supports lean mass and nutrient absorption.

Why Athletes Need Supplements

So now that we covered the deficiencies seen in the American diet, what does that mean for the average/advanced athlete? If supplements are concentrated amounts of what is found in food, but food is unable to deliver to our bodies what we need, then it stands to reason that athletes have a higher requirement/greater need for supplements. Even if food was nutritious enough for us, an athlete pushes their bodies to the limit which puts demands on their body above the human adaptation for ‘energy for labor to produce more food’.

Some athletes who are genetically gifted may have gotten by without supplementation at all. But these athletes aren’t representative of all of us and even they won’t know where they could have taken themselves had they been adequately nourished to match their volume of training. In addition to this, there’s the convenience factor for athletes. Many strength and conditioning experts believe athletes should come close to matching their bodyweight in dietary protein. So instead of a 200 pound athlete having 10 chicken breasts per day, they can supplement with a few scoops of protein powder to reach their daily goals.

Despite the fact that the sports nutrition industry is plagued with companies making false claims for their products, there are go-to supplements backed by years of safety studies and peer reviewed research that may very well benefit any athlete.

Whey protein- most bioavailable of protein sources (highest absorption rate), high in BCAAs (will be covered later), supports the immune system and rapid digestion time makes it ideal for use around (primarily after) the workout.

Creatine monohydrate- arguably the most proven supplement for promoting strength and lean mass. Many untrue myths exist around water retention (occurs in a genetically susceptible select few) and kidney stones. Creatine does improve muscle volume by drawing water to your muscles similar to the way carbohydrates do, but it’s not subcutaneous (water under your skin associated with bloating or water retention). So some of that muscle volume is lost (what people refer to as water weight), but it is proven for boosting strength and promoting increases in new muscle mass independent of the added muscle volume from water. So it’s not all ‘water weight’, it is proven to help promote muscle growth. As far as dehydration concerns, adequate water should be consumed, but whey protein comes with dehydration concerns as well. As a general rule of thumb when taking any supplement, you should ensure that you are properly hydrated throughout the day. Creatine has however been shown to be great for outdoor sports in the heat due to your bodies improved ability to regulate temperature due to the added muscle volume. This goes against the myth of not using creatine with outdoor sports because of dehydration. And for those who view it as too synthetic or compare it to a steroid, it should be known that creatine is naturally occurring in our bodies as well as in any animal meat. So if you’re trying to avoid creatine because you think it’s bad for you and you eat meat…well you’re not doing a good job of avoiding creatine.

BCAAs- the branched chain amino acids are found in high amounts in whey protein which is one of the reasons it is considered to be a superior source of protein. BCAAs stand for branched chain amino acids and they are made up of leucine, isoleucine and valine. Leucine is the most popular of the 3 as it has been singled out as being responsible for signaling protein synthesis. Together the BCAAs support recovery by offering your body amino acids for repair if muscle is being broken down (from exercise, caloric deficit or reduced physical activity) and signaling muscle repair as well. They are a great tool to use during the day and around/during exercise to signal growth and repair when used in conjunction with adequate protein consumption as proteins are responsible for the actual repairing.

The Obesity Epidemic

Another major issue we’re facing in this country is the obesity epidemic that can essentially be described as the growing of the waistline. The larger the waistline, the higher the probability you will develop metabolic x syndrome which is a group of risk factors that increase the likelihood of an individual developing diabetes having heart disease or a stroke. The Industrial Revolution at the beginning of the 19th century rapidly changed our levels of physical activity and reduced manual labor for a larger percentage of the population. Bring in a larger and more processed food supply during the 20th century with further declining rates of physical activity and you’ll find that too much food, too much processed food with carbs and calories that bring little nutrient value and lower caloric requirements make the perfect combination for today’s obesity epidemic.

Your typical grocery stores keep the real/essential food at the back and to the sides of the store while the ‘food like products’ fill the shelves in between adding forms of carbohydrate that might act like sugar in your body in large amounts to your diet.

When it comes to circumventing the pitfalls of the average American diet, general recommendations would be to practice portion control, shop only on the outside/back of your grocery store, buy almonds, unsalted peanuts, natural peanut/almond butters (they are typically not found on the outside of a grocery store) and turn to Ezekiel bread, potatoes, rice and unflavored oatmeal as sources of carbohydrate. Alsom, focusing more of your diet on healthy fats and protein will help shift the focus away from carbohydrates. Carbohydrates aren’t bad for you and they’re necessary, but they are an energy source for physical activity and many Americans consume way more than they need. Excess protein is typically excreted whereas excess carbohydrates are stored as fat.

If you are looking for supplements to manage your weight, healthy fats in the form of supplements like CLA (a fat found in beef and dairy) have been shown to promote weight loss along with medium chain triglycerides (MCTs for short, found in coconut oil) when used in conjunction with a low carbohydrate diet. A cayenne pepper extract called capsicum is supported by research to increase caloric expenditure and send fat to the blood stream to be used for fuel. This is a mechanism of action induced by caffeine as well (releasing triglycerides into the blood stream). There are also ingredients on the market like potato protein extracts  and glucomannan with mixed reviews for supporting appetite control. Although there are a few ingredients on the market that support weight management, nothing will overcome a bad diet or high calorie intake.


So hopefully your mind is a either a bit more open to supplement use, or if you are new to supplementation you have a good base of understanding to begin taking your next steps. If you ‘prefer to do it naturally’, the truth is you’re missing out on nutrients found in your food anyway. If you ‘get what you need from food’ it’s worth noting that our food is no longer what it’s cracked up to be. If you believe that ‘supplement’s don’t work’ there is a wealth of industry research that says otherwise and we recommend you start with a reputable company to improve your chances of having a good first experience. If you think ‘supplements are for athletes’, think again, they are necessary in all of our diets. Last, if you didn’t know where to begin before, hopefully now you do.

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