Everyone is always looking for the magic pill or the secret powder to help them reach their fitness, weight loss, or performance goals. Indeed, dietary supplement manufacturers claim that supplements make you bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, and better. How many of these claims are actually true, and what separates fact from fallacy in the billion-dollar supplement industry, can be difficult to tell. But, with a little bit of guidance from science and some good common sense, you can be a savvy supplement shopper and begin a supplement routine that can aid in the achievement of goals.

Before we review various supplements, let me begin with two disclaimers. First, by and large, there is no supplement on the market today that can hurt you (the FDA has done a good job of pulling all of those off the shelves), and there is no truly indisputable evidence that any given supplement won’t help you. So, if you’re willing to spend the money, go for it. Secondly, a supplement is just that – a supplement, not a replacement or substitute for a good diet or training program. In fact, no supplement on the market works without a good exercise program; supplements can only help to accelerate the process of adaptation. They can act as the catalyst, but not the ignition. So, I’m sorry to say that your magic pill is not out there.

With these two disclaimers in mind, we can take a brief journey into the supplement world in an effort to determine what is a worthwhile purchase, and what is a waste of time and money. From a physiological mechanism perspective, supplements are essentially designed to do one of three things: (1) provide fuel for contracting muscles by enhancing stores of limited energy sources (carbohydrate, ATP, etc.); (2) improve health/immune function; and (3) aid in the synthesis (or limit the breakdown) of muscle or other important structural proteins in the body. We’ll primarily focus on supplements in categories one and three, but briefly touch on number two.

The first thing you’ll notice about the three classifications of supplements discussed above is that nowhere in there did I say “lose fat.” The reason this is absent is that no type of dietary supplement has EVER been shown to directly aid in fat reduction; in fact, quite the opposite is true. The overwhelming number of independent clinical trials conducted on so-called “fat burners” report one common theme: they don’t work. Contrary to the marketing efforts of supplement companies, and despite rather compelling before and after pictures, these supplements do little (if anything) from a physiological perspective. In fact, research shows that the reason most people perceive fat burners to work is that they typically start a diet and exercise program ALONG with taking the fat burner. It is the diet and exercise – not the fat burner – that results in fat loss. Enough said on fat burners: don’t waste your money.

So, what supplements are worth the purchase? Here’s a quick list of products that have been shown, through research, to meet their label claims and accomplish one of the three mechanisms outlined above.

1) Vitamins & Minerals: A good general rule of thumb is that no one has a nutritionally perfect diet; in fact, most of us are very far from it. Vitamins and minerals (either taken in the form of a multivitamin or individually) are a great way to make up for potential deficiencies that may exist in certain micronutrients as a result of a less-than-perfect diet. Your best bet here is a good multivitamin. These should run you about $0.75-$1.00/day, and you can pick up a good multivitamin at nearly any local health food store. Women over the age of 35 may also want to consider supplementing with an additional 1000 mg of calcium per day to aid in bone health.

2) Creatine Monohydrate: Despite some “bad press” in the mainstream media, creatine has stood the test of time from a research perspective. In over 750 studies, creatine has been shown to enhance strength and power output, as well as aid in muscle growth. These same studies report no ill-effects of creatine use, when dosed as recommended by the manufacturers. Creatine is a great supplement for any athlete looking to improve strength performance, as well as even novice exercise and fitness enthusiasts looking to improve muscle mass and strength through resistance training. Of all the types of creatine on the market, the powdered monohydrate version is the type shown most safe and effective in research. The ideal dose of creatine is approximately five grams daily (on training days it should be taken either before or after exercise).

3) Sports Drinks and Carbohydrate Powders: Any drink or powder form of carbohydrate (or sugar) falls into this category. We’ve known about the effectiveness of these drinks since the late 1960’s, when researchers at the University of Florida developed Gatorade (a beverage containing sugars, electrolytes, and water). Gatorade, and other sugar-based powders and drinks, acts to replenish water lost through sweat, and carbohydrates burned as energy for moderate-to-high intensity exercise. One of the criticisms of Gatorade is its sweetness; alternatives can include flavoring dextrose or maltodextrin (bought in bulk at health food stores) with a small amount of Kool-Aid, and then diluting the mixture based on palatability. For energy provision, exercisers should consume 15-30 grams of carbs from these beverages 20-30 minutes before exercise, and another 15-60 grams per hour of exercise. To enhance recovery, another 15-60 grams can be consumed within 20 minutes of terminating exercise.

4) Protein Powders, Meal Replacement Shakes, and Amino Acids: These all fall into the category of supplements that aid in the buildup of muscle proteins or prevent their breakdown. Although there are an infinite number of products that can be discussed, I want to focus on two: whey protein and Branched-Chained Amino Acids (BCAA’s). Whey protein, which is derived from milk, is a fast-acting, fast-absorbing form of protein. It is low calorie (especially when in its isolate form, with the dairy fat and sugar is stripped away), and chock full of essential amino acids (EAA’s are the aminos your body can’t produce, which is why they’re essential). All whey proteins aren’t created equal, however: higher grade wheys are about $1/serving, and they have a higher EAA content. When choosing a whey protein, look to see that whey protein is the first ingredient on the label, and try to choose a whey isolate (rather than a whey concentrate), as this provides you with only the protein. Try to consume about 20 grams of whey protein per day, and on training days consume it after your workout. The other supplements I’m placing in this category are the BCAA’s, which are the three critical EAA’s. These amino acids, particularly Leucine, have been shown to be the three critical amino acids for protein synthesis (and prevention of breakdown). Consuming 5 grams of BCAA’s before, during, and after exercise can greatly reduce muscle (and other protein) breakdown during exercise, as well as accelerate the buildup process post-exercise.

5) Nutrient Timing Supplements: These supplements combine category three
(carbohydrate drinks) and category four (whey proteins). Examples include Accelerade, Endurox, and AFS’ Nutrient Solution. Nutrient timing supplements extend the concept introduced by Gatorade by adding whey protein and/or BCAA’s to sugars typically found in sports drinks. This combination has been shown to be extremely effective at providing more energy, preventing more muscle breakdown, and enhancing more muscle buildup than either whey protein or a carb drink by itself. For best results, one serving of a nutrient timing supplement should be consumed 20-30 minutes before training, another 1-2 servings should be consumed per hour of exercise, with a final 1-2 servings consumed within 20 minutes of terminating training. For more information on nutrient timing, go to this article: Nutrient Timing Supplements Critical to All Training Adaptations.

Now you know the story on evidence-based supplements. Next time you’re in your local health food store, hopefully this makes you an informed shopper, and provides you with the information necessary to make educated purchases.