Question: I’ve read a lot about nutritional supplements lately. Are they something I should consider adding to improve my health and fitness? If so, what is the best (and safest) way to start?
I get asked at least a few times a week about different supplements and exactly what people should or shouldn’t be taking to help them reach their fitness goals. In fact, I just got a message from one of my brothers who is digging back into a regular fitness routine and wanted to know what he should be taking. This is the same brother who I can pretty much credit for me being in the fitness field. He was always into working out when we were kids, and was the one who got me hooked on being active. He was my first “trainer” in a sense as he started me out on his good old fashioned Weider cement-filled plastic weights and included me in on all kinds of outdoor activities from playing frisbee (great way to incorporate sprinting) to playing neighborhood games of football, basketball, etc.
Anyway, here’s a recap of what I not only told him, but what I also share with anyone that approaches me for advice/recommendations when it comes to nutritional supplementation: Supplements are just that — a “supplement” to what you may not be getting through your daily nutrition program.
Personally, I choose to supplement. I fill the gaps if there are any, and I do my best to make sure that there never are any. I don’t waste my money on a cupboard full of products. My staples include a quality fish oil, a decent multi-vitamin, vitamin D, and whey protein. This suits me, my eating habits and my physical lifestyle. This doesn’t mean that this won’t change down the road if I shift my goals or change my eating habits.
For instance, for the past year or so I have incorporated Intermittent Fasting (IF) as part of my nutrition routine. This IF plan I’m on involves a daily routine of 16 hours of fasting followed by an 8 hour window where I focus on a couple of good sized meals and a couple of snacks. Because periods of fasting can trick your body into utilizing muscle as a fuel source (that’s why calorie deprivation diets do not work), I have added Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) into my pre-workout routine each day to help preserve muscle. In this case, I adapted my supplementation to fit my person needs & goals.
The big problem with supplements is that many people think of them as a magic bullet. And who can blame them with all of the marketing ads that promote this pill or that powder as all you need to gaining muscle and losing fat. Sorry to break the news, but if you think supplementing is going to give you the body of your dreams you’re sure to be disappointed. Supplements are not bad, but you have to understand that they should serve some kind of purpose. A lot of people take supplements in hopes of the supplements serving the wrong purpose. Get your eating dialed in to 80% clean (at the minimum) and then evaluate how you’re feeling and how your workouts are going.
It’s best to have a chat with your trusted healthcare provider before altering your diet and exercise in any way, but my general supplementation suggestions for the everyday athlete are:
- Take a daily vitamin. Consider it an insurance policy that assures you’re getting the proper amount of essential nutrients.
- If you incorporate strength training into your workout routine, get a decent whey protein into your body immediately after working out to aid in muscle recovery and regeneration.
- If you can’t get out in the sunlight on a regular basis, consider supplementing with vitamin D (I recommend taking this over the winter months if you live in a cold-weather location like I do.)
- If you can’t get fish or other omega-3’s into a regular rotation in your diet, consider adding a quality fish oil supplement.
While supplements are everywhere these days and can be a great addition to a well-rounded fitness and nutrition program, always remember that a supplement is just that — a supplement to working hard and eating right!
Ken Grall a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association, as well as a Youth Fitness Specialist (YFS) through the International Youth Conditioning Association. Learn more on the Meet Our Writers page.