Fit Food: Do You Need Supplements?

00supplementsThe quest to be fitter, leaner, stronger and healthier has given birth to an entire industry. Nutritional supplements promise to help us achieve our goals faster and easier and every year millions of people spend billions of dollars looking for a magic pill. This doesn’t exist, but there are some supplements that can be beneficial for someone living an active lifestyle, depending on your goals.

Before we look at the research I want to make one very important point. Even if a supplement has been shown to work, keep in mind it is only a supplement. It is meant to supplement the work that you are already doing. In most cases this means that the supplement will enable you to work harder and longer in your workouts, which in turn will lead to better results. So it’s not the supplement specifically that is giving you the improved results, but rather your own work. None of the following supplements will give you overnight results and some of them may not even work for you at all. When adding any supplements to your routine I always suggest only adding one thing at a time and determining efficacy before adding something else. If you start taking more than one supplement at the same time you have no way of knowing what works and what doesn’t. Why waste your money on something that may or may not be working? Now that I’ve said that, let’s look at the research.

1. Whey Protein or Soy Protein – Protein powder has become so ubiquitous that many people don’t really think of it as a supplement anymore. Years of research has shown that supplementing with protein powder, especially after a workout, is beneficial for lean muscle and strength gains. (1, 2, 3) When shopping for your protein powder do some research online first to determine which brands are high quality and what you should be looking for. Some protein powders also have added carbs and fats and are known as Mass Gainers due to the extra calories. This may or may not be what you need. Once you have done your research and know a few brands that are reputable, try to obtain some sample flavours. Some nutrition stores will let you sample and sometimes if you contact the company directly they will send you samples. rec-whey-protein-powder-07-20-11-mdThis is important because I have found that flavour preference is very individual. What I love you may hate and you don’t want to drop a ton of money on a tub of protein powder that you won’t use because you don’t like the taste. If you have friends that already use protein powder then I would ask them if you can try some. Once you have picked a flavour or two start taking your protein powder after your workouts and anytime throughout the day as added protein.

2. Creatine – Creatine, also known as creatine monohydrate, is a popular supplement for those looking to gain muscle mass and is often taken in conjunction with protein powder. The research has also shown creatine to be effective for increased lean muscle gains as well as strength gains. (2,4) Side effects of creatine supplementation can include some digestive upset and bloating, so start with small doses and increase over time. For specific dosage instructions follow the instructions on your brand of creatine.

3. Glutamine – The research on glutamine supplementation is mixed. Some studies show improved strength, muscle gains and body fat losses, while some studies show nothing. (5,7) Other studies have shown improved immune function with glutamine supplementation, which can be helpful for athletes who train very intensely and/or for long periods of time. (6) If you find that you get sick frequently or have digestive issues you may want to try supplementing with glutamine.

4. CLA – Conjugated Linoleic Acid, or CLA, also has mixed results in the research, with some studies finding it beneficial for small changes in body composition and decreasing the catabolic effect on muscle post exercise 8, some studies finding it beneficial in combination with creatine and whey protein 9, and some studies finding no effect at all 10. This is one that you would have to try for yourself to see if it works for you.

89681814_XS5. ZMA – ZMA is a specific combination of zinc and magnesium that has been shown to help you sleep better and therefore recover more fully from exercise. It has also been shown to increase anabolic hormones, which aid in muscle growth. 11

6. BCAA’s – Branched chain amino acids can be taken either as pills or as a powder mixed with water. BCAAs supplementation has been shown to enhance muscle recovery and support the immune system. 12, 13

7. Multivitamin – Although it is difficult to isolate whether taking a daily multivitamin is beneficial or not, due to many conflicting factors, many health professionals agree that it is prudent to take a daily multivitamin to “fill in the gaps” in areas your diet may be lacking. It is not harmful and may be helpful so I would recommend taking a daily multivitamin.

I know it’s tempting to buy anything and everything that could help you with your progress but I would really encourage anyone in the first 6 months of making changes to your diet and starting to workout to not add any supplements other than protein powder and a multivitamin. Focus on getting the diet and exercise right first before you add anything else. Your body will be going through enough changes as it adapts to your new habits, so don’t overload it with supplements. If and when you do add supplements, add them one at a time and monitor your progress carefully to see if they help. Make up your mind about one supplement before switching or adding something else. Be patient and carefully track your progress. Consult a fitness professional if you have further questions or specific needs.

Happy Lifting!

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9 comments for “Fit Food: Do You Need Supplements?

  1. May 11, 2013 at 7:46 pm

    Good stuff Dara. I don’t take a ZMA but do take zinc and magnesium separately and like the combination. I feel like ZMA’s don’t give you enough zinc. I’ve definitely noticed the quality of sleep got better when doing this too.

    Also your advice about trying things separately is spot on. I’m going to be trying glutamine again later. I used to take it but didn’t feel it did much, but I was also doing just what you talked about and trying way too much at once.

    • daracoxpt
      May 12, 2013 at 8:07 am

      Hi Colin! Interesting point about the zinc. I would be curious as to why we need more zinc? Just as an interesting point the studies done were done on a specific ratio of magnesium to zinc. It seems like you have had the same results taking them separately as well, which is good. I would love to know the benefit of more zinc though!

      In respect to glutamine I took it last season and I know that it helped me not get sick as much. Then I stop taking it. When I started taking it again a couple of months ago the digestive issues I had been having stopped immediately and I haven’t been sick at all, despite many of my personal training clients and colleagues being sick. So I believe in the power of glutamine! Let me know how it goes for you!

      • May 12, 2013 at 4:48 pm

        Hey Dara I just like to get a little more zinc as zinc deficiency is very common and it has been shown to help with so many things such as raising testosterone levels, insulin sensitivity, and is crucial for your immune system. ZMA’s usually get you 30 mg’s, I opt for a 50mg pill. I’m sure either way is great though!

        I will definitely be trying glutamine again at some point!

  2. May 11, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    Great read Dara. Reading this post reminded me that I may want to try ZMA again. If nothing else it seemed to improve the quality of my sleep. Also, I swear by creatine, but prefer creatine ethyl ester as opposed to creatine monohydrate. I wrote about the difference between the two some time ago if anyone is interested:

    • daracoxpt
      May 12, 2013 at 8:11 am

      Hi Matt! Thanks for pointing out about creatine ethyl ester. I should have included it under the creatine point. I had done some research on the two a while ago and determined many of the same points you put out in your article. I simply neglected to include it!

      And I would definitely try ZMA! Sleep like a baby and grow those muscles!

  3. May 11, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Good Read! Eating foods with no label is key to top nutrition for our body and mind wellness.My supplements enhance my daily meals, just like my friendships, Big Smile!

    • daracoxpt
      May 12, 2013 at 8:13 am

      I agree completely Jessica! If you read my first article, My Food Philosphy, you will see that I recommend building your diet from foods with no labels. And like you said, supplements are simply meant to enhance that nutrition! Thanks for reading!

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