Updated: Feb 4, 2021
A Brief Guide to Supplements
Starting off with a word of warning! Personal Trainers are qualified to advise on nutrition, they are not qualified to prescribe. So, avoid any Personal Trainer who says they will get a meal plan together for you or say you must use a certain supplement.
The good part is, most people don’t particularly need to go into the depths of nutrition to achieve what they want. For most people, advice will suffice! That’s why the Compete Fitness approach is to adjust and educate. When looking at nutrition, the first step is to look at your current diet and then suggest adjustments from there, rather than just producing a diet plan that you’re more than likely not going to stick to, especially if you have a life!
I encourage you to go and do a bit of nutrition research, maybe discuss with your GP. This article will save you a bit of time if you’re thinking about supplementation; identifying the key areas that will give you the biggest benefits.
Remember that supplements are the last section of the pyramid and should only be considered after first looking at your diet. They will only bring you a small percentage of your results. Looking at the two most common goals, here are the areas you might want to start looking into:
Weight loss – diet and activity levels are going to be your key areas for creating a calorie deficit. If you’re not in a calorie deficit then taking fat burners isn’t going to do anything! Supplements wise, scroll down to the sections on:
· Omega 3
· Fat burners
Improving strength (either from performance or muscle building perspective) – you are most likely going to need to be in a calorie surplus. Repairing muscle takes energy. Macronutrient ratios and meal timings will also be more important for these goals as energy for workouts and recovery are key. Supplements wise, scroll down to:
· Omega 3
· BCAAs & others
Some question whether protein powder counts as a supplement or food stuff. Most protein powders are created by removing protein from foods, e.g. whey protein is a by-product of the manufacturing of cheese, and pea protein comes from… well, peas! If you are consuming the adequate amount of protein for your goal from your diet, then you do not need protein powder.
However, if you’re not, then protein powder may be an easy and cost-effective way to make sure you are hitting the levels you need. Per serving, it’s a lot cheaper than a chicken breast and its super easy to take to work/make, etc.
Try to go for reputable brands to ensure the content is high quality and doesn’t have too much added crap. I personally have had good experiences with MyProtein.
Vitamins & Minerals
A well-balanced diet will provide all the vitamins and minerals we need. But often life can get in the way and achieving a balanced diet can be tough; it takes planning. Multivitamins can be an easy and cost-effective way of ensuring we are covered. Look for one that contains around 100% of the Recommend Daily Amounts (RDA). Some can contain percentages in the thousands which for most situations, isn’t necessary or in some cases even safe.
There are many benefits to getting all your minerals and vitamins in, but for me, the effects on your immune system are a big factor when looking at exercise. Having a full-strength immune system will mean you get sick less and so can be more consistent with your exercise. There’s nothing worse than getting started on a new plan and 2 weeks later having to take a week off because you’re unwell!
Most vitamin and mineral deficiencies are quite specific, so for these I would recommend you speak to your GP or a nutritionist. However, one that is quite common for us Brits is vitamin D. If you’re out and about regularly from late March to early September you should be ok. But if you’re not, and during the winter months, it would be worth looking into a vitamin D supplement. From an exercise point of view, the reason we want it is it will keep our bones and muscles healthy which is important especially when we’re exercising. The NHS website gives some great info: www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-body/how-to-get-vitamin-d-from-sunlight
Without going into too much detail, omega 3 describes a number of fatty acids that we can’t produce in the body, therefore it is essential that we consume them in our diet. A couple that we tend to be short on come from fish. This is why the government recommend we “aim for at least 2 portions of fish every week, 1 of which should be oily, such as salmon or mackerel”. If you don’t hit that then you may want to look into omega 3 supplements.
There is a long list of benefits of getting the right levels, but here are a select few that will relate to weight loss and strength gain:
· Reduce likelihood of anxiety and depression
· Reduce risk of heart disease
· Better bone and joint health
· Improve sleep
Caffeine is a stimulant, its main effect is on the brain, blocking the effects of adenosine (a neurotransmitter that relaxes the brain and makes you feel tired). The first question we should be asking is why are our adenosine levels so high? If you feel like you need caffeine early in the morning then you are most likely sleep deprived and fixing this instead should be your focus. Equally, if it’s because you’re over-trained then take a look at your exercise programming.
Another factor is that we adapt to caffeine, the more we have it, the less of a perceived effect it has. So, we end up having more. I would try and save it for the times when you want the effects the most, for example before a workout. It can help us get more out of our workout, burning more calories or lifting heavier weights.
In terms of how much “In 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that for healthy adults and the elderly, single doses of caffeine of up to 200 mg (approximately 2 ½ espressos or 4 cups of tea) do not raise any safety concerns. For regular consumption, EFSA concluded that caffeine consumption up to 400 mg over the course of 24 hours is not likely to cause any harm to the adult consumer. For pregnant and breastfeeding women, a regular daily caffeine consumption of up to 200 mg per day are safe for the unborn child or breastfed infant. This is equivalent to just over 2 cups of filter coffee or 4 cups of tea.”
One thing to keep an eye out for is the effect on sleep. The half-life of caffeine (the time is takes for half the amount of caffeine to leave your system) can be between 3-7 hours. So potentially, if you had a coffee (say 70mg of caffeine) at 4pm and you go to sleep at 11pm. You may still have 35mg of caffeine
in your system playing havoc with your sleep. Which is not going to be good for weight loss; lack of sleep can mess up the hormones that control the sensations of feeling hungry and full. Also, for strength gain, is not going to be good from a recovery perspective.
Certain people can be quite sensitive to caffeine. Also, if you are suffering from anxiety then caffeine may make your symptoms worse. You may want to reduce or avoid caffeine intake if you fall within these two categories.
Long story short, don’t waste your money. In some cases, you could even be risking your health. If it seems too good to be true, it most likely is! The key ingredient tends to be caffeine, which you can consume in cheaper ways. Also, they tend to contain ridiculous dosages of caffeine which can actually have an adverse response. Any other ingredients will provide such a small effect that they’re not worthwhile paying the money for.
Creatine is one of the most widely researched performance supplements. The main effect of creatine supplementation is to increase the phosphocreatine stores in the muscles which play a key role in producing energy that we use in shorter bursts, such as when lifting weights.
It has been shown to increase muscle mass, strength and anaerobic performance. An added benefit is that a lot of research is coming out about the positive effects it can have on brain health.
If you do decide to take it, make sure you also increase your water intake as it increases water retention within the muscles. If you have any kidney problems then best to speak to your doctor first.
BCAAs & Others
Within the limited supporting evidence category, you can find things like branch chain amino acids (BCAAs) and test boosters to name a few. Often these supplements are extortionate in price and provide little if any of the marketed benefits. Plus, it’s also worth being on the cautious side. It takes a long time to be able to analyse the long-term effects of new supplements. Is it worth risking your health for that 1% improvement when you’re not aiming to be the world’s best?
In summary, a lot of fitness goals are at a level where supplements would have such a small impact, the time and money would be better spent focusing on other areas. For a lot of people, spending the money on some Personal Training instead would bring much better results (#shamelessplug www.olliebooth.com).
However, if you have a solid progressive training plan in place, your nutrition is on point, sleep is bang on and your stress levels are all good then hopefully this guide has helped narrow down some of the supplements that you may benefit from.
Stay safe, Ollie.
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