People often wonder if using nutritional supplements is necessary to get the best results out of their training. Should you be using certain supplements, or is it best not to use any at all? To answer these questions, I will use principals I learned while becoming certified as a Precision Nutrition Coach.
There are some key things you should think about when deciding on using a nutritional supplement. First, determine if your diet is deficient in any way, and whether or not you can improve it without the use of a supplement. Is it balanced/varied, are you getting enough of each macronutrient, and micronutrient? If you have a healthy diet that is consistent and wholesome, you don't need to worry. However, if you are deficient in certian areas, work to improve through whole foods first. For example, if you have realized that you are consistently low on protein, add more in through eating more meat, beans, nuts, seeds, etc. If you can do this, then you will not need a protein supplement. However, if you continue to struggle, a supplement, such as protein isolate powder may be helpful to you.
Next, determine the physiological system that you are aiming to improve through the use of a supplement. For example, creatine helps improve the ATP-PCr system for power-type exercise, and therefore when used can be helpful in increasing the body's work capacity, and increasing muscle. However, if you are not training at high volumes and intensities, a creatine supplement will not be very useful.
If you decide a supplement would be beneficial to you, ensure that you have objective and peer-reviewed research on the supplement that demonstrates its effectiveness without causing harm. Do not rely on media, marketing, or other people's opinions and experiences. PubMed is a great resource for reliable articles.
There are two categories of nutritional supplements: essential nutrients, and non-essential nutrients. Essential nutrients are present in food and needed for normal physiological functioning. Non-essential nutrients can either be made by the body or are not needed for normal physiological functioning. Essential nutrient supplements can be used on a part time basis if you are coming up a little short on a certain category one day. Non-essential nutrient supplements such as caffeine, creatine, green tea extract, etc. may be helpful for athletes targeting certain systems. Non-essential nutrient supplements will not likely make the difference for recreational exercisers or athletes.
In United States the FDA does not analyze products so you cannot know for sure the purity, benefits, or risks. Supplements sold in Canada have to pass strict regulations and are therefore more likely to be labelled properly. Generally, the fewer ingredients a product has, the better. If you are a competitive athlete and decide to give a supplement a try, ensure that it is not on the banned substance list. When deciding to supplement, proper research is key.
As discussed, supplementing can be done on a part time basis for days where you aren't quite making your minimums with certain essential nutrients. Remember, try to get as much of your nutrition as possible from whole foods first. Supplements do not offer the beneficial phytochemicals that whole foods do. Here are some essential nutrient supplements that can be used regularly or occasionally.
- Can be a milk, egg, rice, or plant-based protein blend
- Make sure it is an isolate
- Frequency of use will depend on how often you fall short with your whole-food protein
- Food equivalents: dense protein foods such as meat, dairy, eggs, legumes, beans, quinoa, etc.
Fish Oil Supplement
- Ensure it has high omega-3 and at least 30% EPA and DHA
- Can use algae instead if preferred
- 2-3g each day for fish oil, 1g each day for algae
- Helpful since fish contain environmental pollutants and therefore should only be eaten occasionally
- Food equivalents: fatty fish such as salmon, anchovy, sardine
- Ensure the blend is high in antioxidants, strongly alkaline, and vitamin/mineral rich
- Use will be infrequent if you have a high vegetable and fruit intake per day (10 servings)
- Helpful when travelling and fruit and vegetable intake is lower than optimal
- Food equivalents: vegetables and fruits
- A varied diet is key in attaining all the necessary vitamins and minerals needed for optimal health and functioning
- Can be taken every day or on days where dietary intake is poor
- Food equivalents: a varied diet
- Quickly digested and well-tolerated mixture of carbohydrates and protein in a 2:1 or 3:1 ratio of carbs: protein
- Useful during high-intensity exercise when the goal is to increase muscle size and strength and increase athletic performance
- Only use during workouts
- Not useful for people with an endomorph body-type
- Food equivalent: any high protein and high carbohydrate food
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
- Should contain BCAAs leucine, isoleucine, and valine
- Useful for high-intensity exercise where fat loss and muscle/performance preservation is the goal
- Only use during workouts
- Food equivalent: any protein-rich food
Supplementing with non-essential nutrients may be helpful for certain athletes in certain situations. They are not likely to make a huge difference for recreational exercisers. First ensure that your nutrition and exercise program is well designed and you are following them consistently. Next, make sure you understand the physiological system that you are targeting through supplementation. Most importantly, do your research on whether or not it will be beneficial to what you are working to achieve, and whether or not it is safe. Here is a list of some supplements that could be useful for specific situations.
r-Alpha lioic acid
Improves insulin sensitivity and reduces insulin response to meals in athletes with poor carb tolerance and fat loss goals
Tyrosine and Phosphatidylcholine
Helps reduce central nervous system fatigue
Improves central nervous system output prior to competition
Sodium Bicarbonate, Sodium Citrate
Buffers hydrogen ions and acidity during high lactate activity (reduce burn)
Buffers hydrogen ions and acidity during high lactate activity
Helps regenerate ATP (energy) during strength and power exercise
Green Tea Extract
Stimulates metabolism during weight loss phases
Stimulates metabolism, induces apoptosis (death) of fat cells, and down-regulate leptin during weight loss phases