Wednesday 21 August 2013

Week 34 Nutrition Tip: Supplement Wisdom Part 2

In last week's nutrition tip, I gave you some advice on supplements. The goal was and still is not to bash all supplements and supplement companies, but rather to help you be a wise consumer when looking for supplements to improve your health, performance or body composition. In week 34 of our 52 Weeks to Better Nutrition and a New You series, here is part 2 of some tips to help you be supplement-wise.

Note: click HERE for part 1 of this tip.

Be careful in retail stores
Besides the internet, many people get their supplement information from retail supplement stores. Here they find caring sales clerks who appear to be very knowledgeable about supplements. However, how do you know if the person at the store knows what he/she is talking about? Are these stores hiring naturopath doctors and experienced, highly qualified sports nutritionists? Not likely (side note: there is a supplement store near our house that actually has their sales people wear white lab coats like pharmacists and doctors wear - hmmm). So how did these sales people get their seemingly vast knowledge about the supplements they are selling? Sure some have done some studying on the side, but most are likely getting their information from the product information sheets provided by the supplement companies. Not exactly what I would call non-biased information.

Also, many retail stores have sales quotas for their employees. This can tempt sales people to try to get you to buy products that you do not really need. I know of one popular store that also requires their sales people to sell a certain amount of the store's name brand supplements. This again can encourage employees to recommend supplements that may not be the best for you.

Read the research - carefully!
The scientific journals can be very important in making supplement decisions because they can validate the claims that the supplement manufacturers are making. However, you want to consider funding issues. You see, research is driven by money (again, follow the dollar). Compared to things like cancer and heart disease research, there is not a lot of money being funneled into supplement research.

Of the studies that are done on supplements, many are funded by the supplement companies selling the supplements (note: it should say at the end of the journal article who the study was funded by). This is not always bad, but it can create the temptation to do the statistics in a way that shows the results the company would want. Also, when a study is funded by a company, that company will hold the publication rights to the research. As a result, if the research found that product X was not effective, they could simply prevent that study from being published. In all my years of reading research, I have never come across a supplement study funded by a supplement company that showed their product did not work.

It is also important to note that unlike drugs, supplements do not need research testing prior to being placed on the market. As a result there are many supplements out there that have no research on them to support their safety or effectiveness.

Watch out for "borrowed" research
Sometimes supplement companies will use what is called borrowed research. I have looked on supplement labels and found several references to actual academic research articles from reputable journals. However, often times these are at best loosely related to the supplement (e.g. they talk about a mechanism that the supplement claims it helps, but they did not test the supplement to see if it worked or even mention this specific supplement in the article). While this looks impressive and makes the supplement seem scientific and credible, it is just a sneaky trick some supplement manufactures will pull to fool the average consumer (who they know is not going to go look up those articles).

Look for trends
When it comes to training and nutrition, many people make the mistake of getting all caught up in the 10% of the time that the experts have conflicting opinions. However as Alwyn Cosgrove wisely pointed out, about 90% of the time, the top experts will usually agree and it is this 90% that you want to focus on. When learning from top strength coaches and nutritionists who are not connected to or sponsored by a supplement companies, here are the most commonly recommended supplements:
  • Fish oils
  • Greens/superfoods powders
  • Protein powder
  • Vitamin D
  • Possible additions
    • BCAA's (branched chain amino acids)
    • Digestive (e.g. probiotics)
    • Creatine
Consider the type of company
In the supplement industry, there are great companies out there producing quality products and making an honest buck. There are also dishonest companies who are ripping off the consumer. According to Tim Ferris, author of The 4 Hour Body, some companies even budget for fines and lawsuits! Consider buying from companies who have been around for a long time and have a solid reputation for producing quality products. Ask around, investigate. This is your body so you need to care about the quality of the products you put in it. Also, consider where the company is located. For example, Canada has much stricter regulations on supplements than the USA. 

Step back, wait, watch, listen and read
In part 1, I told about my embarrassing and expensive supplement experiment. Now that I am older and wiser, here is my new approach to learning about supplements: step back, wait, watch, listen and read. When a new product comes on the market, I no longer rush out to buy it. Instead, I let others spend their hard-earned money to test the product. I listen to what others are saying. I wait for quality research to come out and I wait to hear the opinion of colleagues who I trust and respect. I read information on the supplement from quality sources and then I make my decision.

Consider what has stood the test of time
You can only fool people for so long. After a while all the hype and smoke from the marketing campaigns will clear and you will be able to finally see a certain supplement for what it really is. If it was garbage, people will figure it out and drop it for the next latest fad supplement. Many supplements make a big break into the market and then quickly and quietly fade away. If it stays on the market long enough, it will attract the attention of curious researchers who will investigate its effectiveness.

Are you a drug-tested athlete?
Athletes who compete in leagues/sports that tested for banned substances need to be very careful when taking supplements that contain banned substances. This obviously involves reading ingredients carefully to ensure that the supplement does not contain a banned substance. However, simply reading the ingredients are not enough as research shows that a significant number of supplements can be tainted with unlabeled banned substances that could cause you to fail a drug test. You can reduce your risk of this by getting singular supplements (e.g. creatine) as opposed to a combination supplement (e.g. a pre-workout mix). Also, getting a protein powder at say Costco would have a lower risk than the Mega Mass ZX4000 (I'm making this name up) supplement from the local bodybuilding supplement store. Getting supplements that are pharmaceutical grade further helps to reduce your risk as they a required to contain only listed ingredients to maintain this special certification. Currently the safest way for athletes to use supplements is to choose supplements that are NSF certified (i.e. independently tested and certified to be free of banned supplements). From more information, click HERE

Choose singular supplements
I know I just wrote about this above as a way to reduced the risk of a failed drug test. However, this also helps with saving money. A common trick companies will play is to put a mix of a bunch of different supplements into a product. However, they can play with the ratios of each (adding more of the cheaper ones and less of the expensive ones) while still keeping the price up and thus increasing their profit margin. Good for them, not for you. Buy singular supplements and make your own mix if needed.

Do a cost benefit analysis
Always weight the cost and benefits
Let's say that you find a good quality, research-supported supplement. What do you do then? The best advice is one which I received from the wise coach Dan John. Try it while changing NOTHING else in your training, nutrition or lifestyle (note: if you change a bunch of stuff at the same time, how do you know what worked or did not work?). Then, carefully examine the effect that this one supplement had and ask the all important question: do the results I get from this supplement justify it's cost? 

This weeks' application
Re-read part 1 of this post. Then, apply this wisdom to any future supplement purchasing decisions you make.

Below are the links to the other weekly habits in this series:
Week 33: Supplement Wisdom Part 1
Week 32: Coconut Oil
Week 31: Be Soy Smart
Week 30: Eat Tomatoes 

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