Last week we talked about a topic that doesn’t get mentioned much, overtraining. This week, we’re going to begin a series diving into one of the most heated topics in all of fitness: supplementation. There is so much conflicting information in the supplement market that it can be confusing to a casual user looking for information. In practice, the best way to understand what you should be using is to understand exactly what it is you’re putting into your body. Companies who sell you supplements would like you to believe that by adding their pill or powder to your diet, your weakness will go away, but it usually doesn’t work that way. That’s why over the course of the next few weeks I’m going to dive into many of the vitamins and minerals that are normally supplemented for the sake of athletic performance. But first, we’re going to start with some basics…
Why do People Use Supplements?
This is a really simple question without a simple answer. People take supplements for a variety of different reasons. People who lift regularly probably take some sort of protein shake after they lift in order to ensure maximum muscle hypertrophy (growth). Endurance athletes take pills that help replenish the ions (magnesium, potassium, etc.) in their bodies so they can make up for the massive amount of fluid loss they endured during exercise. On a more everyday level, people take supplements in order to make up for any nutritional deficiencies they may deal with. Some of the more common supplements among this group are fish oil (for Omega 3,6 and 9s), iron, and zinc.
That last bit is where it gets confusing. There are 31 vitamins and minerals that appear on the recommended daily intake list. How is it possible to ensure that you’re getting all this in your diet? The best way is to eat a healthy diet while living a balanced lifestyle. Many of the items on the RDI list are only supposed to be taken in trace amounts – in fact in some cases, it can be toxic if you take too much, as is the case with iron. Furthermore, many people take so much of one supplement, that they don’t even realize their body isn’t absorbing most of it (most commonly seen with Vitamin C).
That being said, supplementation can be important. Deficiencies in vitamins and minerals are commonly seen and spotting it through tests can be the difference between being energetically healthy or lethargically unhealthy.
What about Health Supplements?
In the modern world, a one-a-day vitamin that satisfies your vitamin and mineral intake just isn’t good enough. There is now maca powder, spriulina tablets, and oregano drops, all of which promise a variety of different benefits, from decreased inflammation to increased virility. These dietary supplements have their upside. I have read reviews of customers who feel great after taking them, and even talked to some people who swear by them. But I’ve read just as many reviews from people who were dissatisfied with the product, have no idea what it’s doing, and don’t understand what all the fuss is about. The bottom line is these supplements are no substitute for a well-rounded diet, and good healthy habits. Regardless, later in this series we will be talking in depth about many of them.
Naturally Occurring and Synthetic Supplements
This is one of my favorite topics, because it inspires such strong opinions. I know people who swear by organic; they think if it didn’t come out of the ground then it’s not fit for human consumption. But there are people who swing the other way; science has engineered synthetic supplements to be better than that of organic ones. When people ask me what I think about the difference between these two I recall a very simple anecdote my old biology professor told his class. He recalled walking through a vitamin C factory and being told that 80% of the world’s vitamin C is produced in China. Think about that for one second, 80%, there’s a 4 in 5 chance that your organic vitamin C is produced at a factory in China. This is just a consequence of the modern world we live in, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, but there is no scientific evidence that says organic supplements are any better than those synthetically produced.
How are Supplements Monitored?
This is quite possibly the most important piece of information I can leave you with for the time-being. Supplements are food products, and as such are not monitored as drugs or pharmaceuticals by the FDA. That means that a manufacturer of supplements doesn’t need to test it, or the effects it has on people. They are free to make claims, as long as they clearly print the ingredients on their label. This is the most common misconception among supplements. I could sell you a root I found in a tree in Los Angeles and tell you it’s going to give you the energy of ten ironmen, or claim my pill is going to help you cut weight. Unless there is something harmful in the product, it’s not going to be pulled from market. It’s important for you to know exactly what supplements are supposed to be doing what and monitor their effects closely.
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to talk about each vitamin, mineral, and many supplements while discussing their effect on the human body. We’re going to equip you with enough knowledge to make informed decisions about supplements – giving you a better opportunity to live a fuller, healthier life. Until then, get after it au natural.