In this article I will talk about snake oils in the supplement industry and what you need to do to protect yourself from the greed of this beast. If you have been reading this blog for a while, I hope you have come to understand the importance of supplements for improving health and body composition.
According to an article, the sports supplements industry is expected to reach US$6.17 billion by 2018 due to the increase of supplement demands and people’s increasing occupation with sports related activities.
As you understand, it is a very lucrative industry and just like with all multibillion industries, this also has a couple of skeletons in its closet.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is a snake oil or golden pill?
- 2 1. There is no golden pill
- 3 2. Knowledge is power
- 4 3. Not all supplements work for all people in the same way
- 5 4. You still need to work for it
- 6 6 ways to protect yourself and your health
- 7 1) Avoid supplements that are overly expensive
- 8 2) Research supplements
- 9 3) Use them correctly
- 10 4) Keep it simple
- 11 5) Go for high quality
- 12 6) Ignore the hype!
- 13 Closing thoughts
What is a snake oil or golden pill?
You see, this industry is making money out of people’s assumptions that taking 1 (or 20) supplements will help them reach their target faster. This is the concept of the golden pill or snake oil.
In the Old American West, people used to sell tonics or other weird concoctions by claiming it would cure diseases and ailments in the same way that the Chinese medicine ‘snake oil’ used to do. The original snake oil medicine brought by the Chinese to the US, is made from the oil of the water snake which is high in omega3s which can lower inflammation. Chinese workers used to rub this on their joints to recover from the hardship of their work and soon enough they shared this secret (or were forced to) with their American counterparts.
Coming back to the ‘faux’ snake oil tonic, the innocent clients bought this tonic from indecent and ‘quacky’ non-Chinese who wanted to benefit from people’s hope and pain, only to soon find out that the tonic didn’t do anything for them or their condition.
Are there snake oils in the supplement company?
Of course there are.
Just like with all things that can be used to make money, the supplement industry has both a good and a bad side.
The good side is, that supplements that can really benefit one’s health are constantly being available to the market. If you do your research or consult a nutritionist or supplement expert, you can really optimize your progress and health by using very cheap and very simple ingredients and supplements.
The bad side is that they tend to sell a lot of garbage as well (a.k.a snake oil supplements). After politics and the food industry, the supplement industry is perhaps the most overhyped, filled with over the top marketing claims that could make a blind man hope that he can see again after taking ‘the new and improved formula’.
Here are 4 things that you need to understand about supplements:
1. There is no golden pill
The ability to grow or repair is already embedded within your DNA. If you are fully healthy, the supps will only add 5-10% more to your existing ability and that’s it.
If you are not healthy however, supps can improve your health by even 50% in a matter of months.
2. Knowledge is power
If you don’t know what you are putting in your body, how it works and how much you should take and for how long, you are setting yourself up for failure, a broken bank and a broken body. You can do irreversible damage to yourself if you exceed the dose that is appropriate for you (which may or may not match the recommended dose on the label) or if you have a condition and you take something that it not recommended for your situation.
This is where experts come in. Taking advice from the internet can only take you so far and it’s always very risky.
3. Not all supplements work for all people in the same way
There are responders and non-responders. Responders are those who respond well to a supplement, and non-responders are the people who do not get any response from taking the same supplement.
Non-responders are always hasty into reaching conclusions about a supplement by claiming ‘it doesn’t work’. Those who actually have been in the fitness world for some time, actually say “it didn’t work for ME”, which is a better placement.
The other thing you can do is experiment. How will you know if something works for you or not? However, doing so should be done only after consulting your physician and making sure you do not have any contraindications or medical situations that would oppose the usage of the specific protocol.
Other things that are equally serious, are the activation dose (the dose which works for you), the timing of the supplement (when you should take it) and cycling – if applicable (if you should take it for a while and then take 1-4 weeks off to maximize its potential).
4. You still need to work for it
You still need to have a solid nutritional and training program in place in order to make any gains.
I think this is common sense but I am putting it here just in case you missed it.
But how can you make the best out of the supplements that are available to you and not spend tons of $ trying stuff that don’t work?
6 ways to protect yourself and your health
Here are a couple of guidelines to make sure you are still supporting the good side of the supplement industry and avoiding snake oils:
1) Avoid supplements that are overly expensive
Yes, you do get what you pay for but there are a lot of overhyped products which actually do nothing.
Such was always the case of calcium where people were paying to take chalk pills.
I remember when ZMA first came out it was ridiculously expensive (10-20$ per bottle) while you could buy Zinc and Magnesium separately which each cost a fraction of the price (5$ for a bottle with double the quantity of pills).
2) Research supplements
It is your responsibility to learn about how each supplement works before buying something expensive that doesn’t work!
Other overhyped products are those G.H boosters that actually are expensive amino acids. G.H is made up of a complicated and very specific chain of amino acids. It is not as easy to construct and made into a supplement and even if that is the case, you will still not have proper absorption from it, if you take it orally.
3) Use them correctly
You must use supplements for what they are originally intended for!
Glutamine is not what people think it is. It does not build muscle directly, it does so INDIRECTLY by healing your gut, protecting your liver and strengthening your immune system which means you get less colds and recover faster. Now THAT builds muscle.
So don’t expect steroid-like effects when you take glutamine.
4) Keep it simple
Stop buying supplements with too many ingredients!
The more ingredients a supplement has, the less the chances that it actually works.
If you want a NO booster, take arginine or citrulline malate.
If you want more energy in your workouts, get a drink with electrolytes and take some plain caffeine.
If you want something for recovery, take a good protein and /or BCAA.
By taking a supp like that, you have no control over what ingredients, quality and in what proportion you get in a supplement. The best thing you can do in some cases, is to make a supplement stack yourself!
This is where the biggest trick of the supplement industry comes into play:
The proprietary blend fallacy
Manufacturers, in order to protect their successful patents, hide their quantities behind the proprietary blend on the label. So you only can see the total of the ingredients but not its individual quantities.
So in a supplement that contains 2gr of creatine, NO, BCAA and caffeine, you might as well be getting 500mg of each, or you might be getting 1000mg of caffeine and 330mg of everything else. In the last case, you would be better off just drinking coffee rather than taking the supplement as you will be paying for a very expensive caffeine supplement.
5) Go for high quality
When choosing a supplement, go with high quality ingredients and the best delivery methods appropriate for each one of them.
While chelated are supposed to be the best mineral supplements in the market, I believe they are overhyped. There are also other mineral delivery methods that also work like citrates and glycinates which are less expensive.
Plus, you should be rotating among different types anyway to keep your body from getting used to them.
What you want to do is avoid -oxides and aspartate at all costs, as they are neurotoxic and bad delivery methods.
Another type of delivery method is based on the type of the supplement.
For herbal blends and supplements, the best delivery method is using a tincture or a sublingual pill since in this way, the nutrients will enter the bloodstream and you will absorb more than you would taking a pill that may not get absorbed when it reaches your stomach.
Another good method is enteric-coated pills as they are dissolved in the intestine directly and bypass the G.I tract completely intact.
6) Ignore the hype!
Stop buying supplements you see advertised in popular bodybuilding magazines!
Unless you have lived under a rock for the last 2 decades, the supplement industry is heavily linked/supported by the bodybuilding magazine world.
Professional bodybuilders swear how they gained 20-40 lbs of muscle in 3 months by using X product but fail to mention the cocktail of steroids and the gruesome training and eating regimen they had to go through to get to where they are now.
People actually still believe they can take a pill and lose 10-20lbs overnight.
And it’s normal, since the marketing copy used on the ads plus the physiques portrayed on those ads would make anyone buy into them (I have also fallen for this in my younger years).
On a closing note, while I strongly believe in the value of supplements for optimal health, people need to understand that lifestyle changes are, in most cases, stronger than any supplement.
Finding ways to minimize the stress in your life and resting more while eating high quality food at the proper amounts, will already give you 50% more gains than any supplement on the market today.
Once you have that in place, then you take into account the steps mentioned in this article (do your research or consult a specialist, etc.) and you will be able to avoid all snake oils out there while still being able to safeguard and improve your health by using affordable supplements that give results for your situation.
Have you ever bought a supplement that did not deliver what was promised? Which one was it? What did you do with it? Let me know by adding a comment below!
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by Nick Sigma
CWC, EH, E-YRT200