Should I Take This? Supplementation 101

Supplements are everywhere, and they aren’t all effective. Deciding what to invest your money can be really confusing (wouldn’t be like nutrition companies to mislead the general public would it?). So, I think it’s important to have some general guidelines to go off – and hopefully save yourself from making the same financial mistakes I did *cries in BCAAs*.

When it comes to supplementation, it can be helpful to ask yourself the following questions.

#1: What Does It Do?

This is the most important question to ask yourself – what the hell does it do? It is vital to establish the claims of the product, and exactly why you are taking it. You might decide to supplement with a fat burner (well, you won’t after reading this) because you want to burn more fat. You might take a protein supplement to increase your protein intake overall.

This is a key question that can help identify some gaps in your thinking. I think if you’re going to invest in something, you should be able to explain to yourself why. And listen, I’ll be the first one to admit I blindly took supplements because I saw everyone else on Instagram do it *cries in BCAAs again*. Nothing wrong with that, but as we enter the realm of supplementation, it can be helpful to be a bit more critical of your motivations.

#2: How Does It Do This?

Supplementation is the land that scepticism forgot. The supplement industry thrives off the absence of critical thinking amongst the general population. In my opinion, you should be incredibly cynical when deciding whether something is worth investing in. If it seems too good to be true, it more than likely is.

Once you start to dig around the mechanisms of action of most supplements, they crumble. I’m not saying you need to go off and do a nutrition degree before you order a bag of protein – but a brief Google search can generally help you decide if a supplement is worth it for you.

Case in point – fat burners. Fat burners like to dazzle the consumer with buzzwords and BS such as “increases energy expenditure”, “stokes your metabolic fire” (LOL I’ll still look to TakeThat for lighting my metabolic fire thank u), “green tea”, “increases fat oxidation”. This all sounds very promising. Buuut, you’ll notice that there is no actual REASON given as to how fat burners are going to fix all of my life problems.

And the reason for that is – most legal fat burners are BS. The main active ingredient in these fat burners is a TON of caffeine. Caffeine will do all of those lovely things – increase energy expenditure, increase fat oxidation etc [1]. It is the caffeine that drives the individual to increase their overall activity and thereby creates a calorie deficit. It is not the magical fat-burner fairies that enter the blood stream and start dissolving last night’s curry chips.

There are plenty of more palatable and more cost-effective ways to get the benefits of caffeine than an expensive fat-burner supplement that cannot hold a candle to the taste of a white Monster.

This is just one example. You can apply this logic to any supplement, and in most cases you’ll save yourself a fortune.

#3: Can I Get This From My Diet Alone?

This is a really useful follow-up question to ask. Once we have a brief idea of what the product is trying to achieve, we can apply it to our own situation. This is where we rely less on the science, and more on the human in front of us. As a general rule, it is best to try and get the majority of nutrients from our diet alone. This generally tends to be the most financially sound and effective means of getting the nutrients in.

Of course, this isn’t always practical. We are going to park my disdain for misleading supplements, and bring in a supplement with known benefits – creatine monohydrate. Individuals may choose to take creatine for its well-studied benefits in improving athletic performance, maintenance of skeletal muscle, potential cognitive benefits or general overall positive contribution to health [2,3]. Love that.

If we apply this “get everything through diet alone” dogma here, a lot of people will struggle. The recommended daily intake of creatine for health/performance benefits ranges from 3-5g [4].

To get this through diet alone, you would need to eat 400-600g of pork, 300-500 g of salmon or a KILO of chicken breast daily [5]. Now that is a LOT of meat, which is definitely more expensive over time than a creatine monohydrate supplement. For veggies and vegans, they are going to struggle even more, as creatine is primarily found in animal tissue. Prepare yourself for a severe fibre overload from the metric tons of plants required for vegans to achieve this benefit.

So the answer is remarkably clear – it is far more financially viable to use a creatine supplement.

Supplement Specific Reviews

It can be a pain to be a sceptic. It can also be time-consuming to seek out research, and if you don’t have a scientific background, it can be confusing to know where to start. So, can’t someone else do it? Of course they can! You can go to trusted sources of nutrition information (read: not the sports nutrition retailer website), such as content creators you can actually trust (shameless self-plug), or you can visit the website Examine.com (https://examine.com/). Examine is an invaluable resource whereby you search the product you’re wondering about, and it ranks the claims of the product against the research testing those claims. It’s really, REALLY helpful, very user-friendly, and recently got a brand new overhaul.

Product Specific Information

Once you’ve decided on a supplement, now comes the next hurdle – actually deciding what brand to go for.

Different brands make products that differ in price, dosage, quality and blends. Enter Labdoor. Labdoor is an independent company with no company affiliations (yet). They test all of the products independently, and rank them based on effectiveness. Labdoor might not have every single brand of the product you’re looking for, but it can be really helpful in guiding you to a similar product.

Conclusions

Supplementation is a big chaotic mess of confusion and capitalism. Armed with your newfound scepticism, you can safely navigate this wasteland. And always remember – fat burners are never the answer.

References

  1. Hursel R, Viechtbauer W, Dulloo AG et al. (2011) The effective of catechin rich teas and caffeine on energy expenditure and fat oxidation: a meta-analysis. Obesity Rev 12(7),. 573-581.
  2. Branch JD (2003) Effects of Creatine Supplementation on Body Composition and Performance: A Meta-analysis. Int J Sport Nutr Ex Metab 13(2), 198-226.
  3. Avgerinos KI, Spyrou N, Bougioukas KI et al. (2018) Effects of creatine supplementation on cognitive function of healthy individuals: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Exper Gerontol 108(15), 166-173.
  4. Hall M, Trojian TH (2013) Creatine Supplementation. Curr Sports Med Rep 12(4), 240-244.
  5. USDA Food Data Central Database (2022) https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/ [cba referencing this properly, sue me].

Published by Michelle Carroll

I am an online coach (MSc Sports & Exercise Nutrition, EQF Level 4 Personal Trainer, PN Level 1) and radiographer (BSc). I believe in empowering others to make better choices for their health through education. I think that the fitness industry has created a disconnect between best practices and “evidence-based” practices. I hope by chronicling my experience as a healthcare professional and my education as a fitness professional I can assist others on the path to bettering themselves.

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