Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Week 33 Nutrition Tip: Supplement Wisdom Part 1

Oh the wacky, wonderful world of supplements. For many it is a controversial and confusing topic. Do you need to take them? Are they safe? How much of a difference will they really make? How do you know which ones you should take? Who do you trust when looking for information on supplements? In week 33 of our 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You series, I want to give you some practical tips to help you be a wise consumer if you are purchasing supplements.


My personal story
Back when I was young, dumb and devoid of grown-up responsibilities (e.g. wife, children, mortgage, etc), I had a "brilliant" idea. I decided I would use my body as a lab to test supplements. I decided to take a ridiculous amount of supplements and try to create the perfect supplement protocol. I made up geeky charts and graphs to keep track of exactly how much of each nutrient I was getting. I bought those weekly pill containers that people used to remember their weekly medication and filled up one for each say with my vitamins, minerals, herbs and essential fats. I tried the latest and the greatest supplements so I could give my first-hand knowledge to athletes, clients and students. At one point, I was spending about $400 per month on supplements.

Empty wallet - the result of my
supplement experiment
Soon after I got married and my financial responsibilities grew and changed. I knew I could not afford to continue to this extremely expensive experiment. I had to trim down my supplement use to a few basic staples. However, I trained hard on a solid training program, kept a detailed food log, rested well and as a result, made great progress. Prior to my supplement experiment, I had also made great results using a very limited number of supplements. It was then that I finally I saw the light: all those supplements did little more than drastically shrink my savings account. It was the training, nutrition and lifestyle that really makes the difference. What an expensive, but important lesson!

This post is not designed to be some anti-supplement rant. I still use a small amount of supplements (more on that later) and believe there are some good companies and quality products out there. As a strength coach, a performance nutrition coach, a trainer and university professor, I want to help as many people as possible  to reach their training goals. I want to provide you with quality, non-biased information from someone who does not make a dime from the supplement industry. I want you to get the best possible results for the time you put in the gym. I also want you to learn from my expensive mistake and be a wise consumer. Here are some tips help you with that:

The most powerful "drug"
Nothing is more powerful than the synergistic combination of proper nutrition, proper training and proper rest and a healthy lifestyle. This combination will do more than anything to improve your health, performance and body composition. Never look for a supplement to take the easy way out or to replace good, old-fashioned hard work!

Food first
Remember that supplements are not to be replacing a bad diet. Even great supplements cannot make up for bad nutrition. If used, they should be added to a good diet. Here is a great quote I heard years ago on supplements:
“Taking supplements and not eating right is like wearing deodorant and not showering. It just doesn't cut it.” Author unknown
Go natural
Apply the principle of eating naturally and use supplements sparingly. Real food is the best and the closer a supplement is to the real thing, the better. For example, if you were looking for a vitamin supplement, choose one where the vitamins are derived from whole food sources as opposed to one that is produced synthetically. Avoid artificial sweeteners, flavors or colors. Choose organic, hormone free, non GMO, etc. whenever possible. 

Ask why?
When considering a supplement, ask yourself, "why would I want to take this?" Here are some potential reasons to take a supplement:
  • Correct a deficiency: some times, due to things such as food intolerances, taste preferences, various dietary restrictions or food quality, you may find yourself deficient in a certain nutrient. While I would prioritize a food-solution to correct the deficiency, supplements can help in some cases. 
  • Best way to get a nutrient: for example, vitamin D is best obtained through sunlight. But, what do you do if you live in a part of the world (e.g. Canada) where you do not get sufficient sunlight for at least half of the year? This is where a vitamin D supplement could come in very handy. 
  • Cost: while some supplements are very expensive, others can offer you a cost-savings. Going back to the vitamin D example; it is cheaper to take a vitamin D supplement than to try to get your vitamin D through fortified products (e.g. almond milk) - remember fortified means the food manufacture just added the supplement for you. 
  • Convenience: most people are very busy. A little help from a supplement from time-to-time can make eating right. This like protein powders or greens powders can be very helpful for those traveling or those who are super busy.
  • Training goals: a protein powder could help someone with a muscle gain goal get protein while giving his/her digestive tract a rest and not taking up much space in the stomach.
Foundational vs. performance supplements
I encourage people to divide supplements into two categories: foundational and performance. Foundational are ones that focus primarily on supplying important nutrients to your body. This improves your health and functioning and thus allows you to train optimally for improved performance and body composition. Examples could include: vitamins, greens powders, protein, fish oils, etc. Performance supplements are actually trying to help some mechanism in the body which helps you train harder or longer. Creatine or Beta Alanine would be examples of performance supplements. 

Follow the $
So who do you listen to when it comes to supplements? My advice: follow the dollar. Ask if the source of the information will benefit financially from you buying the supplement. Be careful about what you read on the internet or in fitness magazines. These magazines & web sites exist to sell you supplements and many of the magazines and sites are owned supplement companies. You will commonly see a “ground breaking” article on some new supplement followed by full page ad for the supplement – that is not a coincidence.


Typically, the best sources of information on supplements will come from those who do not sell them. That does not mean that you cannot find good, accurate information on a supplement from those who sell them, but be extra careful and exercise discernment.  

This is why I personally have chosen not to sell supplements. I want to be able to provide people with non-biased information.

Well, this post is getting away on me. Stay tuned for more on on this topic in part 2 of this post next week.

This week's application
Continue to apply the habits you have learned and prioritize good nutrition. If you are thinking about purchasing a certain supplement, consider this advice and ideally hold off until you have read part 2. 

Below are the links to the other weekly habits in this series:
Week 32: Coconut Oil
Week 31: Be Soy Smart
Week 30: Eat Tomatoes 


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