Vitamin, herb, and nutritional supplement manufacturers have a keen financial interest in making you believe you need their products. But the real question is, do you? If you search the web, you’ll find a wide variety of answers, from supplement companies, professional athletes, doctors, personal trainers, nutritionists, and everyone else who feels like voicing their opinion. You could easily find ten different views, and like most people, you’d probably be reasonably confused. So what’s the truth?
I’m going to lay out the real truth, and you probably won’t like it very much. First of all, let me preface this by saying that as a very active and athletic guy, I take a lot of supplements. So I do my part to support the quality supplement companies out there, and I can tell you for a certainty that some products do work. But the question wasn’t do they work; it was do you need them.
We all need certain levels of vitamins daily. Some of those vitamins our bodies can store (fat-soluble – A, D, E, & K) and some we cannot (water-soluble – B-Complex & C). There are definitive harmful effects of high doses of specific vitamins, especially the fat soluble ones. Large doses of vitamin B-6 (300-500+mg) have also been linked to irreversible nerve damage. You’ll find many that contend refined and processed foods lose much of the nutritional content, and in more extreme cases that soil depletion and hybrid farming are creating fruits and vegetables with lower nutrient content. In any case, there are valid arguments for supplementing certain vitamins in normal quantities. It may be that you don’t eat certain types of foods that contain the nutrients you need, or there may be other reasons. In any case, I would suggest that essential vitamin supplementation within normal limits is a good thing, but it still doesn’t answer the question.
The bottom line is we really don’t know if you need more vitamins, or how certain supplements work. In most cases the research is performed with a specific end in mind. This is the desired result by the company paying for the research. Sure, it may be a blind or double-blind study, but how many failures did it take before they had marginal success? How were the numbers manipulated to make it sound better than it really is? We just don’t know. Let’s assume we do know the supplement works well now, but what effect will it have on your body after ten years? How will you kidneys deal with the extra strain? Same answer – in almost every case we really don’t know. We must come to grips with the fact that we are lacking a great deal of knowledge on the human body and the many substances we put into it, and that we are very far from having the necessary level of knowledge to really answer this question. It’s not a pretty answer, but it is the truth.
So what should you do? My advice is to be selective with the things you put into your body. Make sure they come from a reputable manufacturer and look into the research. Be skeptical and realize that you are taking a risk. In many cases, the risk is just that you’re wasting money, but in others, it could mean temporary or even long-term damage to your body. Only you can decide if it’s worth the risk to increase athletic performance or to get in shape.
Here are some of my specific opinions on certain supplements. Remember, we don’t have hard data on these things, so these are just my opinions, some of which are based on my experiences. First and foremost I would never recommend any sort of stimulant products, especially for weight loss. I would recommend everyone take a good multi-vitamin. There is some very promising research on Omega-3, so I would also highly recommend taking that, as long as it contains no impurities. While I don’t know if it’s necessary for everyone, I do also think a quality “green drink” made from dark green vegetables is one of my top three supplements.
I believe that competitive athletes who want to get stronger need some degree of protein supplementation. You may be able to modify your diet to get this (more fish, chicken, etc.), but many of us rely on whey protein shakes especially after a hard workout to get more protein into the body. I do not recommend soy protein, as it’s not as readily useable by the body. Be sure to look hard at the ingredients though, as protein powders often have much more in them than just protein. I avoid artificial sweeteners and have found that it can be difficult in many brands of protein powder.
I think performance enhancing supplements are the second most dangerous next to weight-loss pills. That said, there are some I do believe work very well. Again, I think there is a potential risk, especially with long-term use and possible kidney damage. But if you’re willing to take some risk for performance, I would recommend arginine alpha-ketoglutarate and pre-workout Creatine in various forms. I don’t recommend Creatine loading. HMB (beta-hydroxy beta-methyl butyrate) also seems to offer potentially good results in muscle recovery. In general, I think it’s crucial to go entirely off these supplements periodically to keep your body producing necessary substances and to recover from possible over-supplementation.
There’s nothing wrong with a thriving supplement market. It currently amounts to around $22 billion annually, so don’t doubt big money behind the fancy labels on your supplement bottles. The FDA recently approved stricter regulations for purity testing by supplement manufacturers. This won’t go entirely into effect for a couple of years, but it should eventually help to assure the quality of the supplements coming into the market.
It is vital to understand what you’re putting into your body and in what quantities. It’s good to be skeptical because much of the hype behind supplements is nothing but creative marketing. On the other hand, while the information may be scattered and still a little sketchy, I do believe that in general most of us, especially in the US, require some vitamin and mineral supplementation to be as healthy as we can be. But I also think we get far too excited about new supplements, hoping they’ll be the next magic pill that will make us leaner and stronger without all the hard work.