Dietary supplements are one of those things that divide people’s opinions.
Some believe that if you’re serious about losing weight and/or being fit and healthy you have to be taking supplements. Others believe the exact opposite – that supplements are totally unnecessary and nothing but a scam perpetrated by supplement companies to fill their pockets with profits.
So, who’s right and who’s wrong?
Well, as is pretty much always the case in the fitness world, the truth lies somewhere in the middle of these extreme views.
In the interests of full disclosure, I want to make it clear that as a Figure athlete, I personally take quite a few supplements. But that doesn’t mean that I blindly recommend everyone does the same. Every supplement that I take, I take for a reason. My coach and I have discussed and researched each one, and we’re happy that they’re right for me, in my circumstances.
So I don’t consider myself to be biased on the side of supplements, but rather, on the side of research and common sense. In other words, I’m not an extremist who believes it has to be either one way or the other.
Do I Need to Take Supplements?
Ok then, so, the first question that I most often hear people asking is, “Do I need to take supplements?”
The answer to that question is simple . . . No.
No one needs to take supplements. They’re not a necessity, where, if you don’t take them, you can’t achieve a certain result. They are something, however, that can make things easier or better or more convenient or more healthy for you to some degree, or even give you an additional edge, depending on the situation.
The most important thing to understand about supplements is that, as the name suggests, they supplement your diet. So they’re not something to take to make up for a diet that sucks. Doing that is like putting polish on a car that’s covered in rust, dents and scratches – it’s hardly going to make any difference.
So the first rule is that if you want to get any real benefit from a supplement, your diet needs to be as good as it can possibly be first.
Your diet is where your body should be getting practically all of the nutrients and compounds it needs. And if it’s deficient to begin with then any supplement you take will at best simply be making up some of the shortfall rather than providing an additional benefit to help you get better results.
I say “some of” the shortfall because no supplements will ever truly be able to make up for a poor diet.
Contrary to what some people seem to believe, taking workout supplements doesn’t mean you’re going to get results while working less. Nor does it mean you’re going to get better results by working the same amount.
Taking protein powder or Creatine won’t make your muscles magically grow. (Protein powder isn’t a workout supplement as such, but I know some people believe this “muscle food” somehow gives you big muscles.) Taking a fat burner won’t make fat drop off your body while you rest comfortably on your leather couch.
The purpose of workout supplements is to actually enable you to work harder, so that you can get better results. I’m sorry if that comes as a shock to some people!
Weight Loss Supplements
Probably the most misunderstood type of supplements are weight loss supplements. This is most likely because of all the misleading and false advertising that surrounds these products. They’re a huge selling item because, let’s face it, everyone wants an easier way to lose weight.
The general theory behind weight loss supplements, or fat burners, is that they supposedly cause your body to burn more calories through a variety of possible means. They can increase your thyroid activity to speed up your metabolic rate, they can cause your body to use body fat to generate more heat, they can stimulate your nervous system to burn more energy, they can increase your body’s ability to burn fat at a greater rate, and so on.
These supplements can work to assist in losing fat, but once again, they will only work if you do, and even then the difference they make is usually very minimal – only perhaps a few percent. They’re certainly not magic pills as the marketing would have you believe, and you’re certainly not going to get to your weight loss target in half the time, or even 75% of the time, by taking a weight loss supplement.
Are Supplements Safe?
Most supplements are quite safe, especially if you stick to the natural ones. The only supplements I personally have an issue with are those containing suspicious chemicals, which is why I religiously steer clear of pre-workout supplements and fat burners.
My pre-workout consists of a cup of coffee and my iPod, they give me all the kick I need for a great workout. And while I admit there are totally natural fat burners out there that are free of stimulant drugs and other nasties, as I mentioned, the benefit they provide is fairly minimal so I have never bothered with those so far, although that may well change in the future.
I personally have only ever had adverse reactions to supplements twice in my life. The worst was many years ago when I was trying to lose weight but had no idea about fitness whatsoever. My flatmate at the time gave me a container of Creatine which he no longer wanted and told me that it would be good for me because I was working out at home with dumbbells.
When I took a dose it quickly caused my heart rate to skyrocket, which of course frightened me as I thought I was going to die! Needless to say, I steered clear of anything like that for a long time after that episode.
In 2011 when I started training for competition, however, it was recommended that I take Creatine, which I was very reluctant to do after that experience. Fabian researched it thoroughly however and assured me that it was perfectly safe and couldn’t possibly have caused my heart to react like that.
And it didn’t. We concluded that there must have been something else in the product that was responsible, so this time instead of buying a branded mix of Creatine and other ingredients, we ordered 100% pure pharmaceutical grade Creatine Monohydrate, and of course it has never caused me any problems.
This taught me two important lessons about supplements. The first is that just like foods, different supplements can affect individuals in different ways, so it’s important to do your own research and assess how your body responds to a supplement yourself.
And secondly, it gave me a preference not to rely on proprietary blends, but rather to keep things simple by using pure ingredients, or by making my own formulations.
For example, I work out a lot so to maintain healthy joints I buy pure-grade glucosamine sulphate, chondroitin sulphate, MSM and Collagen as powders, and combine them all myself in my preferred dosages. This way I know exactly what I am putting into my body and as an added bonus I save a lot of money as well, as the big-name proprietary supplements can often be quite expensive.
Who Should Take Supplements?
As I mentioned earlier, no one needs to take supplements to get good results. Anyone who’s exercising appropriately for their goals and whose diet is good however, but yet are looking for some additional help or better results, can consider taking supplements.
The important thing is that you understand both the benefits of a supplement you’ve chosen to take, and your reason for taking it. Taking a supplement simply because someone in the gym recommended it or because your favorite fitness model endorses it are not valid reasons. Even though she may be using the product herself, it doesn’t mean you’ll get the same results (there is much, much more that goes into that than the supplements she is using) or that it’s even appropriate in your circumstances.
I train extremely hard as a Figure competitor so in my case, I believe that taking supplements to give me an edge, however slight, is worth it. When I consider how much work I need to put in as a natural athlete to get even minor changes in my physique , every little advantage is well worthwhile to me.
Someone who is simply interested in losing some weight, on the other hand, may not be as interested in taking supplements, or may perhaps consider taking just one or two. At the end of the day it’s up to each individual to decide whether it’s worth the expense for the benefit they’ll gain.
Hopefully this has given you some insight into dietary supplements as a whole. I didn’t want to make this blog post a rundown on all the different types of supplements, which work and which don’t, and so on. That would fill an entire book to address properly.
I simply wanted to start you thinking clearly and intelligently about the topic of supplements and whether or not they’re for you. My goal is that if you do choose to take them, you do so for the right reasons and with the correct mindset.
If you have any specific questions about certain supplements however, please feel free to ask them in the comments below and I’ll be happy to answer them. Also if you’ve ever had any bad reactions to supplements as I did, I’d love to hear about them!