Supplements – The Good, The Bad, and How to Decide if Supplements are For You – Part 1

Supplementation is a big deal in the fitness, health, and sports industry. For the longest time I was not an advocate of supplements. I thought that physical activity and healthy eating would suffice. I have learned through personal experience that supplements can elevate mood, energy, activity, focus, and can improve physique.  I have skirted talking about this issue because I personally use supplements, and I did not want to present biased information. Also I have avoided talking about supplements because there are literally hundreds of supplement companies out there. They all claim to help burn fat, build muscle, improve stamina, and improve wellness. With all the supplements out there it can be overwhelming. People want to know what all the hype is about and why thousands of Americans are taking and benefitting from supplements. There are skeptics perhaps because supplementation does appear as a fitness “fad”. Also there are stories of people using supplements and ending up sick. I have a case now where a woman needed to lose weight. Her doctor prescribed a weight loss medication. The medication had high abuse potential. Not only did this medication lead to abuse of the drug but this medication caused the woman to become mentally ill and needing psychiatric hospitalization. No wonder so many people say they do not believe or trust in supplements. Here I discuss evidence for and against supplements and offer some tips for how to benefit from supplements. 

Let me be clear, there is no supplement that can replace the benefits of healthy, well-balanced eating and physical activity. Eating well and remaining physically active are the best cure.  Etiological studies suggest that our earlier ancestors needed to be able to consume large amounts of food. Early in our history our ancestors traveled long distances, worked physically demanding jobs from sun up to sun down in the house or the field, and could go days without eating. The ability to eat large amounts of food at that time was adaptive and necessary. The body stored the food for energy. Our bodies still have this characteristic. That is the problem. We no longer work physically demanding jobs. Most Americans work sedentary jobs. And rather than waiting days for the next meal we only have to wait a few hours. Not only are our eating practices questionable but our food lacks quality. Foods contain pesticides, antibiotics, chemicals, and processed items to bring it flavor and to keep it fresher longer.  This compromises the nutritious quality of food so it lacks the minerals, vitamins, and nutrients the body needs. Eating organic and clean will counteract this and will offer greater nutrition. However even organic growers are subject to guidelines regarding soil, irrigation, farming, and selling and The Cleveland Clinic reports this decreases the quality of even fresh meats, fruits, and vegetables. The problem is that our food may not give enough of what we need. The Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine cites that food in America is seriously lacking.  

This is why supplementation is helpful. Supplements offer the body the missing vitamins, minerals, and nutrients we are not getting even with a healthy, clean and well balanced diet. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that Americans consume all vitamins A -Z. Literally there are 23 recommended daily Vitamins and Minerals.  These will be discussed later in this series. The Federal Food and Drug Administration implies the daily recommended values come from consuming the right amount of food each day. However most do not eat the recommended daily amount. Even those that eat healthy do not consume enough. Federal Guidelines suggest Americans consume 5-9 servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Sadly reports from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillence System indicate that only 20% of men and 30% of women follow these guidelines. 

On the other side of this argument is that supplements can be harmful and may increase illness and disease. A recent study at Rutgers University found that increased antioxidents and Vitamin E promoted lung cancer cells. Here is the problem with research studies like this. For one this was an animal study. Although animals closely mimick humans there are obvious DNA differences.  Secondly most research shows a relationship and not that one thing causes the other. This study is not saying that antioxidents causes cancer rather the use of antioxidents is related to increased cancer cell production.  For one the antioxidents work by improving cell reproduction (this is a good thing and we want our cells to reproduce). However the antioxidents cannot differentiate between healthy cells and cancer cells. In this case increased antioxidents can be harmful.  Lastly people can overdose on supplements.  People do not use supplements correctly and this was a factor in this study. Studies indicate that people take various supplements that combine vitamins, and people do not follow directions and vary how they take supplements. Miller, Vasey, Short, and Hartma warn this can increase risk for illness. All of this research is legitimate. The studies that cite supplements increased risk of illness involved individuals with pre-existing conditions. It is not that supplements are harmful.  It is clear they are helpful but also clear that supplements need to be used with awareness and caution. 

It can seem that supplements are just a fitness fad. Perhaps the popularity of supplements is due to the amount of research currently exploring supplements. There are thousands of research studies citing the benefits of supplements. There are thousands of research studies citing the risks. There are thousands of supplement companies competing for your business and ensuring you they are safe and effective. This can make supplementation seem like a fad. However the number of research and increased popularity suggests this is something of value. 

The sheer amount of research and the number of supplement companies competing for your business can make this notion of supplements seem overwhelming and pointless. So how do you choose if supplements are for you?

  • First consult your physician. If you are under the care of a medical provider for anything please talk with them about using supplements. Supplements, as discussed can increase risk and can complicate medications. However there may be a supplement your doctor would recommend for you to help with your illness. 
  • Do you feel you need an extra push, an extra dose, an increased edge?  Then supplements can be used to add to your healthy practices. For example I eat healthy 80% of the time and workout hard. I take a supplement that adds extra vitamins to add to what I get from foods I eat. I also take supplements to improve my workouts, help me push harder, and have more energy during my workouts.  Adding supplements pushed my workouts to a higher level where I could add gains and make progress. If this is what you want then supplements may be for you. 
  • Read labels and ingredients. Know what vitamins you are taking. And follow the directions included on the package.  Knowing what is in your supplement can help you decide what you need or what you don’t need. 
  • Choose products that are medically validated, supported, and researched. For example Advocare products are created by a board of experts of doctors, professors, and clinicians that run clinical trials of the products. This ensures the products are quality. If you are what you eat then I would prefer to eat the best so that I can be the best. 
  • Stick with one brand. Variety on products can cause adverse reactions. Sticking with a brand implies the products will work in cooperation with one another. 
  • Rememepber the importance of healthy, balanced, and nutritious eating. You can find the best brand of supplements but eat poorly and cancel the effects.

The message to take away from this is that supplements are not a cure or a solution. Rather they are an aide to promote and support health, weightloss, energy, stamina, and focus. Supplements, when added to a healthy lifestyle, can help further improve and benefit the affects of healthy eating and physical activity.

*My preferred brand of supplements is Advocare. They are created by an experienced board of expert scientist, doctors, and researchers. Advocare is safe and effective. And professional athletes in all sports endorse and use the products. 

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: The Eternal Debate: Does Organic Living Require Supplements | Recipes for a Healthy You

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