In Australia, it has been estimated that 47% of women and 34% of men take some form of supplement, with vitamin and mineral sales totalling AUD $646 million in 2013. That is a lot of people – and a lot of money!! The irony is, that it is more common for people who already have healthy food and exercise habits to be the ones taking the supplements! So, are they really necessary? It’s a prickly subject!
There are two distinct types of supplements, the first being formulated sports food and the other dietary supplements. We will look at each of these below and outline some of the pros and cons of taking them.
Formulated sports food
These are designed to help athletes achieve specific (often performance-related or weight-loss) goals. These include sports drinks, protein bars and powders, and electrolytes. If you are a regular consumer of these foods and drinks, there is some good news. There is evidence to show that supplementary sports foods can aid with muscle recovery and soreness, hydration and training adaptation. However, these benefits are not set in stone – they are POTENTIAL, and very minimal at that, so don’t expect to get jacked just because you smashed down that shake the second your barbell hit the floor.
BEFORE YOUR WORKOUT
Pre-workout mixes are popular with a lot of the athletes we see at the gym, and taking them is a completely personal choice. Do they offer benefits? Sometimes, but the main benefit from these expensive concoctions simply comes from the caffeine. If you drink coffee already, a pre-workout is probably not necessary and could actually be dangerous. For non-coffee drinkers, the same applies but if you like the taste and feel it works for you, I encourage you to only buy from a reputable brand, check the ingredients and take consumption slow. Overuse has been shown to create jitters, palpitations, anxiety and can induce an amphetamine-like response in people. Some brands have also been shown to include contaminants, and may contain agents banned under anti-doping regulations – so be careful.
AFTER YOUR WORKOUT
Where people see the most benefit from taking gym supplements, particularly protein, is in the convenience. It is easier to throw a protein bar in your bag or take a pre-measured powder and shake along with you than pack food (and they are often easier to consume quickly). Sometimes this is perfectly justified! These foods can be a great stop-gap for when you are busy, on the go or just have not had the time or energy to prep anything else. Similarly, hydration drinks can make you feel better after a particularly brutal workout, but for the most part, water will do the trick.
When it comes to the debate over whether to use formulated sports foods, I encourage you to take a ‘real food first’ approach wherever possible. Protein actually requires carbohydrates for transport to the muscles, however most protein powders are low-carb. If you do take a protein supplement, you can overcome this by having a piece of fruit with it or some wholegrain crackers. Alternatively, having a meal is the best way to get a mix of macros plus fibre and other micronutrients. A post-gym meal can be as simple as a few slices of meat and some veggie sticks, fruit and Greek yoghurt, a boiled egg and crackers, or a wholemeal cheese sandwich.
If you are getting enough protein throughout the day, you don’t NEED extra protein after your workout. And creatine, another common shake additive, is also not necessary for most people. Creatine helps regulate energy production through regenerating ATP, the energy source for your cells. It can be useful for increased performance during high-intensity brief duration activities with short rests, for example, HIIT. For longer workouts with more rest, creatine is likely a waste of time and money. Meat eaters usually get enough creatine in their usual diets, but older adults, vegetarians and vegans may wish to discuss their creatine needs with a qualified professional.
While we are on the topic of protein powders and shakes, the myth that you need to eat something as soon as you finish your workout also needs busting. Your body carries enough fuel readily available to get through your session and begin recovery for 30-60 minutes after, at least. That gives you time to get home for a shower and decent feed, or find a lovely cafe and browse the menu. The only exception to this is long-duration exercise efforts, such as running a marathon or triathlon. Distance athletes may need some refuelling along the way to keep carbohydrate levels adequate for health and performance, but if this is your jam, please seek more specific information for your body and your sport.
These are described as therapeutic compounds or supplements not classified as food. Should you be taking fish oil? What about vitamin C? I have heard taking antioxidant vitamin E is beneficial for health, should I buy some? Not so fast.
Firstly, before you take any form of supplement, particularly dietary supplements, it is wise to seek advice from a GP or other qualified health professional. Some can be a total waste of money in incorrect doses (or just in general, cue expensive pee), or outright dangerous. Occasionally, vitamins and minerals may interact with other prescribed medications or underlying health conditions.
According to the Australian Dietary Guidelines, with the exception of pregnant women, most people only need to take a supplement if they are eliminating a food group from their diet. Supplementing a crappy diet with pill-form nutrients means you miss out on the fibre, water, micronutrients and – most importantly – the taste and experience of eating real food. In addition, your wallet will take a beating, because those things are not cheap!
First and foremost, make sure your diet covers all of your major nutritional needs. If you are unsure, reach out for a consult and we can go through your day-to-day eating and lifestyle habits and see where we can make small but meaningful changes. It doesn’t take an overhaul, just one little step at a time will greatly improve your health and wellbeing over time, naturally.
Not what you paid for
Unfortunately, the supplement industry is rife with hacks, false promises and, quite frankly, concerning products. Supplement companies spend big bucks marketing their products to you but don’t be fooled by the ripped models and buy-one-get-one-free offers. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Always remember they are called ‘supplements’ for a reason; these products can supplement a well-rounded diet and lifestyle, not make-or-break it.
If you are going to dabble in taking supplements, always buy from an Australian or New Zealand company where the product is made locally. Over here, we have strict guidelines regarding what can and can’t be sold, and products are rigorously tested prior to exposure on the public market. Overseas brands can vary incredibly in terms of quality, efficacy and risk.
According to a 2014 study conducted by Human & Supplement Testing Australia (HASTA);
“Of 63 samples analysed; 6 (10%) were positive for contamination with one or more stimulants and 4 (6%) positive for 1 or more steroids; overall 10 (16%) of products tested were found to contain WADA [World Anti-Doping Code] prohibited substances not declared on the label.”
In this study, samples were selected at random both locally and online across a range of performance categories for both men and women, aiming to ensure the testing was as representative as possible for the market. This finding is concerning, and a good reason to do your research before you invest.
In conclusion, my advice is to treat supplement use like a beautiful, lush green plant. The soil and roots are the foundation, representing the hard work, habit-forming actions and positive behaviours that help you live a healthy and happy, well-balanced life. Without these, the plant suffers. The stem and leaves are the food and drinks you consume in alignment with your foundation, the nourishing fuel your nurture your body with every day. Supplements are the flowers that bloom on top. The plant is still stunning on its own, but in some cases, the flowers can offer that little extra dazzle, as long as they are matched to the leaves beneath.
If you are unsure whether supplementation in sports foods or dietary additions is right for you, I encourage you to speak to your GP before making any decisions. When it comes to help with your foundations, that is where I come in. As your nutrition coach, I help you make the lifestyle and nutrition changes you need to thrive by using a habit-based approach. We aim for long-term success, not quick fix, ensuring you gain the skills and daily practices you need to reach your goals and feel great.
To book a consult, email firstname.lastname@example.org or contact me via my website.