Nutrition Series, Part 3: Supplements
Should I take vitamins and supplements to support my strength training program?
Vitamins, protein powders, fish oil, Creatine, BCAA’s: Do these sound familiar? No doubt everyone reading this article has some form of dietary supplement in their cabinet or gym bag. Whether you are a seasoned athlete, or just getting started, you have probably been told by friends, family, or coaches to add vitamins and various supplements to your diet and exercise routine. But are certain supplements necessary? Do they do what they claim to do? Are the ingredients in the bottle what is stated on the label? These questions are important to ask when deciding to add vitamins, minerals, and other supplements to your daily routine.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is responsible for the regulation of all dietary supplements. However, the stringency of regulation is not what you may think. Let’s talk specifics, according to the FDA “Dietary supplements include such ingredients as vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, and enzymes. Dietary supplements are marketed in forms such as tablets, capsules, soft gels, gelcaps, powders, and liquids.” While food manufacturing has an abundance of rules, safety requirements, inspections, and oversight, dietary supplements are only subjected to “guidelines” and suggestions. Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) “provide for systems that assure proper design, monitoring, and control of manufacturing processes and facilities.” For example, the supplement manufacturer is responsible for producing a safe and uncontaminated product and should not be misleading in their labeling. Manufacturers are required to produce dietary supplements in a quality manner and ensure that they do not contain contaminants or impurities, and are accurately labeled according to current Good Manufacturing Practice (cGMP) and labeling regulations. If a serious problem associated with a dietary supplement occurs, manufacturers must report it to FDA as an adverse event. FDA can take dietary supplements off the market if they are found to be unsafe or if the claims on the products are false and misleading.1
There is no requirement
for proof of the efficacy of a supplement
before it hits the shelves.
Some companies will have independent lab testing, however, none of these products are mandated to undergo testing prior to sale. Supplements “are not permitted to be marketed for the purpose of treating, diagnosing, preventing, or curing diseases,” and can be reported to the FDA.
Should I take vitamins and supplements?
That is a great question, and the answer is different for each individual. For example, if you follow a strictly vegan or vegetarian diet, you may have difficulty getting enough B12 in your diet, which is mainly found in the flesh of animal proteins. In this case, a B12 supplement would be prudent and helpful since B12 is needed for red blood cell production. A very low-fat/fat-free diet can hinder the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. In this case a fat source would be recommended (i.e. olive oil, canola oil, peanut butter, avocados...) to aid in the absorption of these vitamins.
Some people may take Fish oil capsules to supplement the diet as well.
Supplementing with Whey protein is extremely common in sports and exercise and has shown to be effective at stimulating muscle protein synthesis with just a 20g serving. Some of us take supplements to prevent micronutrient deficiencies, others take supplements for their reported “ergogenic” (performance or recovering enhancing) effects.
Let's talk about a few specific supplements commonly found or mentioned in #gymlife…
Caffeine is a prime example of an ergogenic aid. It acts as a stimulant and provides us that push to "run faster, jump higher", or in the bodybuilder's case "lift heavier". However, in too high doses caffeine is lethal. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), "caffeine intakes of up to 400 to 500 milligrams a day seem safe in adults. Teenagers should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 100 milligrams a day. Taking 500 milligrams or more a day can reduce rather than improve physical performance, disturb sleep, and cause irritability and anxiety. Taking 10,000 milligrams or more in a single dose (one tablespoon of pure caffeine powder) can be fatal."2 Working in the hospital setting, I, unfortunately, have seen the latter.
BCAA's, or "branched-chain amino acids", are a very common supplement in #gymlife, and are reported to increase muscle strength, size, and recovery. These appear to be safe for regular intake and many come in flavors that will encourage increased water consumption during exercise. The BCAAs are Leucine, Isoleucine, and Valine, and while there is not a large amount of research available, there is promise, particularly with the amino acid Leucine.
Creatine is another popular supplement. According to the NIH, "creatine supplements can increase strength, power, and the ability to contract muscles for maximum effort. But the extent of performance improvements from creatine supplements differs among individuals. The use of creatine supplements for several weeks or months can help with training. Overall, creatine enhances performance during repeated short bursts of intense, intermittent activity (lasting up to about 2.5 minutes at a time), such as sprinting and weight lifting. Creatine seems to have little value for endurance activities, such as distance running, cycling, or swimming. Creatine is safe for healthy adults to take for several weeks or months. It also seems safe for long-term use over several years. Creatine usually causes some weight gain because it increases water retention. Rare individual reactions to creatine include some muscle stiffness and cramps as well as GI distress."
It should be noted that as the name implies, supplements are to supplement the diet, not replace it. All of these ingredients are found in our food sources, however, the concentration of each varies per source, and given the stress put on the body during extremely hard activities, athletes' needs may be greater than the average gym-goer. Talk with your physician or sports dietitian about supplements you are interested in taking. Some supplements affect medications, either enhancing or negating their effectiveness in your body. For example, fish oil is a natural blood thinner. If you are taking a blood thinner, for heart attack or stroke-risk reasons, taking excessive fish oil would increase your risk of bleeding by reducing your body's ability to clot quickly. Talk to your doctor if you are taking prescription medicines for a chronic illness or for preventative reasons.
There is not a sufficient body of research available to recommend certain supplements to everyone across the board, it must be an individualized decision for each lifestyle. Due to ingredient purities and concentrations varying among manufacturers, research should be done into the products you wish to purchase. The manufacturer's website should provide information on their supplement's ingredients and any outside lab testing done to ensure purity. A few labs and organizations that manufacturers can submit their products for testing and verification to are Informed Choice, US Pharmacopeia, or NSF International. Credible organizations, such as these, provide a label or seal for products that undergo their testing requirements.
Bodybuilders in particular have a fair amount of supplements in their routines since their diets tend to be more restrictive than other sports or standard weight lifting. Being more of an aesthetic sport, bodybuilding needs and rationale for intakes are specific for the individual preparing for a competition within a certain timeframe. The restrictions of contest prep should be viewed in light of the sport-specific symmetry and aesthetic standards being looked for on contest day.
There are many brands to choose from when purchasing dietary supplements. Comparing the cost and level of purity standards that are important for your lifestyle is up to you as the individual. Thankfully there are websites that you can use as resources as you do your research into which supplements, if any, are needed or desired in your routine.
Having a well-rounded, planned-out diet is always the best approach. Stay tuned for our articles on meal planning and prepping!
About the author Jessie Gall, MS, RD, LD
Jess is a Metro-Atlanta-based dietitian in the state of Georgia with 8 years of experience as a Registered Dietitian in the hospital setting, as well as corporate wellness events, and individual counseling. She received her Bachelor of Science and Master of Science from Georgia State University and is a Licensed and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist.
Jess enjoys helping her patients have the “lightbulb moments” in their nutrition care and recommendations. Her “food philosophy” is that food is functional and fun! Eating for health does not have to be boring or tasteless. All things in moderation make for a more enjoyable, and healthy relationship with food. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, but there are research-based recommendations, and she enjoys helping each patient/client find what works for their lifestyle, goals, and needs. Jess is also an NPC Bikini division competitor, NASM Certified Nutrition Coach, and mother of twin boys.