A few things to start this off:
Supplements should NOT be taken unless your sleep, nutrition, training & recovery are already very good. The people who think that a supplement will “kick start” them, are the same people who think that coffee comes from beans… it does NOT, technically it comes from the pit inside the coffee fruit. This means in fact we are drinking coffee seeds… but I digress
Just like nutrition, if you take supplements, you should measure the results and be able to quantify their effect, if any, positive or negative, on both health, & performance
Athletes or anyone who will be tested for banned substance, of any kind, should consult their governing body & be fully aware of their guidelines on supplementation. To include the NCAA, DOD, some strength sport federations & every professional sport league.
There are thousands of supplement options on the market. This includes a ton of different products and then the hundreds, if not thousands, of brands that sell them with small tweaks or adjustments to make theirs stand out in the crowd. That’s enough to make even the professionals scratch their head from time to time.
A great resource, written by Dr. Jim Stoppani, breaks down some things to look for when purchasing supplements. He calls them the 5 Pillars; Proper ingredients, proper form, proper dosing, proper synergy and proper timing. For you soldiers, athletes and anyone else potentially being tested or an informed purchaser, wanting to make sure it’s legit, I’ll add one more… Third Party Tested. This is less important to recreational lifters, weekend warriors or those already using illegal substances, but should be valued, and important, to anyone taking supplements.
Let’s break down each one:
Proper ingredients – if there is any ingredient or name in your supplement that you don’t know or can’t quickly research, you should NOT take it. This does not mean you have to receive your degree in food sciences or molecular biology, but it does mean that you and your dietitian, coach, or doctor, etc. should know everything on the label. But is everything on the label going to be in the tub… and in the correct amounts?
We’ll come back to that
Proper form – now that we know our ingredients, are they in the product in the most effective way to be absorbed and used by the body. Much like you wouldn’t make grandma’s pecan pie without shelling the pecans first, you do NOT want unusable variants of the ingredients in the supplement. A great example is creatine monohydrate vs creatine ethyl ester. While the monohydrate is, by far, the most studied supplement on the planet, some supplement companies boasted their product with the creatine ehtyl ester was better. Theic claim was that it increased serum creatine levels. This was great, until the research came back that where the creatine is needed the most, the blood and muscles, is almost completely unaffected by the ethyl ester, while the monohydrate improved it dramatically (Spillane, 2009).
Proper dosing – is there enough of the actual ingredient to have the desired effect? Often times, third party tests have shown, that some companies, often to save money, are using far lower doses of active ingredients. This is at the cost of the person taking the supplement, as most of these compounds only work at these optimal ranges of dosing. If the person is not getting enough leucine or isoleucine (3.5-5g) for example, it will not start the mTOR process for muscle protein synthesis (MPS), the way it is supposed to and often advertised (Volek, 2013). It was also shown that 5g of leucine added to a small dose of whey protein will have similar muscle protein synthesis effects to higher doses of whey. This shows that proper ingredient, leucine, proper dosing 5g are extremely important when picking your product (Churchwood, 2014).
Proper synergy – If the ingredients don’t interact well, or work towards a common goal then the supplement is not a good one. A great example, multivitamins. While everyone thinks they are great, it is important to know exactly what is in the product you are taking. Researchers have shown that increased magnesium intake can decrease Vitamin D deficiency (Deng, 2014). This is a good thing, and most people want high Vitamin D and magnesium intake. The problem is that multivitamin may also have a large serving of Vitamin A, which has the effect of lowering Vitamin D. There is nothing wrong with taking both, but knowing what you are deficient in and how to best solve that problem via real food is more important than just taking a blanket multivitamin that my interact negatively with other ingredients in it. This is important to keep in mind depending on which levels are low for you and your goals.
Proper timing – taking the correct supplement at the correct TIME is important. Just like fueling and hydrating pre-workout or contest is important, it is also important to utilize supplements at the appropriate times. With a long cardio session, for example, you may want to take some caffeine. You know, from conversations with your coach and some experimenting, that you respond well to 300mg caffeine, 30-45 minutes before training. You also know, if you take too much, and too long before your session, it can lead to some GI (stomach) distress and increased thirst during your event. You need to make sure you nail the timing during your training and experiment with different protocols. This is a great time to have a coach on your side who has helped athletes with this before and be prepared with multiple options.
Third Party Tested – Athletes of all kind know the feeling of training for months or years to compete at a high level. To then lose that chance, because of taking a supplement that was adulterated, would be an incredibly bad way to lose an opportunity. We highly recommend any athlete taking supplements gets one tested by a third party. The NSF and other organizations do a great job of having easy to use websites with encompassing databases that allows people to look up just about any supplement that has gone through the tesing process. Don’t see the product you are thinking about taking? Check the other databases, or reach out to the company directly. If they have done third party testing they will make it very easily accessible as it should show the safety of their product and they will gladly show you the information. If they do NOT have it, then it may be best to wait until it has been tested or choose another product.
As you look at the components of the potential supplement to purchase, it is important that it meets ALL of these standards. If it does NOT, then don’t buy it. Remember, supplements are NOT mandatory to make improvements, they are simply the last little bit to push you over the top. If you are not eating well, sleeping well and training with high intensity on an intelligent plan then don’t waste your money.
Another component to think about with supplements, is that if you aren’t taking them with the appropriate timing, consistency and serving size they won’t work, even if they are a great product. Building your habits and nutrition base will also increase the efficacy of your supplements if you decide to take them. This is another example of how to include them intelligently, and we typically don’t recommend our clients or athletes use them unless they are a Level 2 or Level 3 eater. These people have already shown the nutritional maturity and habit forming in order to use them appropriately and maximize their uses. This does not mean we will not have ANY people use products, but it will be for health reasons due to specific issues and will be on a case by case basis.
So, now that you know what to look for in the supplements, how do you choose the ones right for you? You start by contacting us here and then we do a thorough intake, look at your goals and move forward with specific science based recommendations from our Dietitian.
Spillane M, Schoch R, Cooke M, Harvey T, Greenwood M, Kreider R, Willoughby DS. The effects of creatine ethyl ester supplementation combined with heavy resistance training on body composition, muscle performance, and serum and muscle creatine levels. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2009 Feb 19;6:6. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-6-6. PMID: 19228401; PMCID: PMC2649889.
Jagim AR, Oliver JM, Sanchez A, Galvan E, Fluckey J, Riechman S, Greenwood M, Kelly K, Meininger C, Rasmussen C, Kreider RB. A buffered form of creatine does not promote greater changes in muscle creatine content, body composition, or training adaptations than creatine monohydrate. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012 Sep 13;9(1):43. doi: 10.1186/1550-2783-9-43. PMID: 22971354; PMCID: PMC3479057.
Volek JS, Volk BM, Gómez AL, Kunces LJ, Kupchak BR, Freidenreich DJ, Aristizabal JC, Saenz C, Dunn-Lewis C, Ballard KD, Quann EE, Kawiecki DL, Flanagan SD, Comstock BA, Fragala MS, Earp JE, Fernandez ML, Bruno RS, Ptolemy AS, Kellogg MD, Maresh CM, Kraemer WJ. Whey protein supplementation during resistance training augments lean body mass. J Am Coll Nutr. 2013;32(2):122-35. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2013.793580. PMID: 24015719.
Churchward-Venne TA, Breen L, Di Donato DM, Hector AJ, Mitchell CJ, Moore DR, Stellingwerff T, Breuille D, Offord EA, Baker SK, Phillips SM. Leucine supplementation of a low-protein mixed macronutrient beverage enhances myofibrillar protein synthesis in young men: a double-blind, randomized trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Feb;99(2):276-86. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.068775. Epub 2013 Nov 27. PMID: 24284442.
Deng, X., Song, Y., Manson, J.E. et al. Magnesium, vitamin D status and mortality: results from US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) 2001 to 2006 and NHANES III. BMC Med 11, 187 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/1741-7015-11-187