Nothing beats real food. Period.
Whether it’s fat loss or muscle gain, health or performance, eating proper combinations of real whole foods will help you get there faster than any drug, substance or supplement.
However, proper nutrition is not always enough in this day and age.
In this article, I will explain why supplementation is an absolute must for your health or fitness goals in today’s troubled times. Also we will cover what you need to ask yourself before taking any supplements. Yes, there is also a flip side to this but I will elaborate on the dark side of supplements in another article.
Before we begin, I have to mention that at the time of this article I am not endorsed by any supplement company(ies), I do not have my own supplement line so I have nothing to gain by praising supplements. I live a somewhat normal life, I work a normal job that pays an average salary and in my early 40s, I am still working on my physique and performance goals while living a busy family life.
The purpose of this article is to answer your most important questions regarding safe and effective supplementation. You will therefore understand all the small details that can make or break your health and help you reach your goals.
Table of Contents
- 1 WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A SUPPLEMENT?
- 2 WHAT DOES IT DO?
- 3 IS IT SAFE?
- 4 GET DOCTOR CLEARANCE
- 5 DID I DO THE TABLET TEST?
- 6 DID I CHECK THE LABEL FOR ANY NASTY INGREDIENTS?
- 7 WILL IT WORK FOR ME?
- 8 DO I REALLY NEED IT?
- 9 HOW MUCH DO I NEED TO TAKE?
- 10 WHICH ONES SHOULD I TAKE TOGETHER?
- 11 HOW LONG SHOULD I TAKE IT FOR?
- 12 SHOULD I CYCLE MY SUPPLEMENTS?
- 13 HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
- 14 WHICH BRAND SHOULD I BUY?
- 15 Closing Thoughts
WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A SUPPLEMENT?
Supplements are usually isolated nutritional components of food that are used for a specific purpose in specific quantities. Their goal is to help you get the necessary nutrients for your fitness-related purposes (performance/fat loss/ muscle gain) and to give you an edge while you train or go about your ordinary life.
However, I would like to stand at one specific word: “supplement”. This implies that it is not a stand-alone nutritional component. Also, in order for it to work, it needs to be consumed in the right dose, the right time and as part of a properly structured nutritional plan that focuses on your goal. This is the only way a supplement can actually give optimal results.
So in order to be able to safely consume supplements and see the right results, it is essential that you ask yourself the following questions:
WHAT DOES IT DO?
The first thing you need to ask yourself before taking a supplement is: “What does it do?” A few decades ago, supplementation was not so famous due to the lack of knowledge, medical studies and resources. In the age of the internet, you can find millions of articles on any supplement including its benefits and side effects.
However, another problem arises from this overflow of information: it can be hard to distinguish if you are reading the truth or another marketing lie invented by a supplement company backed by bogus research, sometimes supported by actual doctors (for the right price).
So find out exactly what the supplement does.
Then ask yourself the next question:
IS IT SAFE?
We all work hard for our goals but we also need to not lose sight of the bigger picture that is health. Gaining 10 kilos of muscle and living the rest of your life in pain and agony is just not worth it. Then again, there are people who want to pay that price.
It is a personal choice, however, the matter of safety is still important and you need to ask yourself the following safety related questions before taking a supplement.
- How safe it this?
- What will happen to me if I take it?
- Are there any side effects?
- Do I have any medical condition that will make this supplement unsafe for me?
GET DOCTOR CLEARANCE
ALWAYS check with your doctor before starting any type of supplement. It is their job to tell you if you should be taking specific supplements or not. Don’t forget that there are also a lot of herbal supplements that have side effects or can interfere with medication.
Medical advice is not only for people who already have a medical condition. It is for everyone.
Once the doctor has cleared you and provided that you know what it can and can’t do (and you are ready to pay the price literally and figuratively), then you can move on to the next question:
DID I DO THE TABLET TEST?
This is a good test to perform especially when using supplements in tablet form. This test will allow you to see if the tablet you selected can be dissolved and therefore properly absorbed in your body.
How to perform the test
Take your pill or tablet and put it in room temperature water for about 45-60 minutes.
After 45 minutes, check to see if your tablet or pill has been fully dissolved. If not, then perhaps this supplement cannot fully dissolve in your stomach either (even though stomach acids are much stronger than tap water).
You can do a similar test with your amino acid tablets by putting a pill in glass of vinegar for 45 minutes. The pill should be completely dissolved after that time or you will probably end up ‘dropping it’ in the toilet.
DID I CHECK THE LABEL FOR ANY NASTY INGREDIENTS?
You must always check the label for any ‘strange’ ingredients that are or may be toxic.
The most common toxic ingredients found in most powder supplements (especially in tablet form) are:
Cheap inorganic minerals
These are easy to spot as they usually end with -oxide.
The oxide form is the cheapest, most unreliable, least absorbable and most toxic form.
So make sure that your minerals are in the right delivery form such as Magnesium Malate, for example.
Maltodextrin from GMO corn
There is no reason for GMO Maltodextrin to be in your supplement.
Proteins from soy
Often times you can find an amino acid blend that comes from soy protein. There are 3 major health problems associated with consumption of soy protein:
It can mess with your hormonal profile by acting in favor of your estrogens and working against your testosterone production
It is most possibly GMO. GMO products have been shown to create a variety of health problems.
It is possibly hexane extracted.
Hexane is an oil byproduct and this method of extraction creates a product that can cause cancer.
Most of the artificial colors in your supplements are toxic. Some of them are derived from coal tar, which is an oil byproduct that can cause cancer.
Personally, I don’t understand the idea of having colored supplements. I am taking supplements for their health benefits, not for their color, appearance and added vanity factor.
Magnesium Stearate is a controversial ingredient, simply because it has not been proven to be fully harmful but when that happens, it will already be too late.
Some health experts claim that it can cause a biofilm in your intestines that blocks the absorption of nutrients, others say that it can suppress the immune system.
And to think that this ingredient is added to the pills so that they don’t stick to each other.
Titanium Dioxide is used in tablets as a pigment. However, when it is combined with other minerals in high doses (accumulation over time), it can cause immune system problems.
A proprietary blend is used in some cases to protect one company’s supplement ‘recipe’ from competitors. Unfortunately, some companies use this term to push ineffective products at low doses to the market.
In either case, it would be best if you avoided any supplement that features proprietary blend in the label. As a customer, I want to know exactly what nutrients I am getting and in what quantities and I don’t want it hidden behind any fancy terms.
WILL IT WORK FOR ME?
Another component that needs to be taken into account, is the user’s specific needs and individual health profile. There will never be 2 people that will get the exact same results from a supplement. These factors often play an important role in the effectiveness of a supplement.
The dose of the supplement depends on a person’s tolerance and response to that specific supplement. For example, creatine has a 90% response in its users. This means that 90 out of 100 people actually respond positively to creatine and there are 10 people who get absolutely nothing from this supplement.
The fact that your neighbor, who weighs exactly the same as you are, works out the same hours per week, takes this supplement and it works for him does not mean that it will work for you. There are a lot of parameters that come into play when it comes to the personal effectiveness of a supplement that we cannot cover in one paragraph.
DO I REALLY NEED IT?
Each person has a specific set of goals when it comes to their physique and health. In order for you to get there, you will need a solid workout plan. This workout plan will need to be created by a professional according to your needs. It should not be something that is found on an online fitness magazine, posted by some so called fitness experts who were either born with a six-pack or are chemically enhanced. These people are only selling promises and often times cannot provide results for people with bad genetics (and who do not want to use steroids).
This is where you step in and do your homework.
First, you must do your research. Learn what the supplement does and how it can help you.
But you must really be honest about this: Do you really need it? How will it benefit you?
Remember that the supplement is just an extra bonus on your already solid nutritional and exercise plan. There is no golden pill that will get you where you want in 1 day, 1 year or 1 decade.
You will still need to put in the time, effort, discipline and dedication of years to get to where you want. No supplement will ever give you that.
Once you do enough research and find that this supplement can help you with your goals, then it is time to ask the next question:
HOW MUCH DO I NEED TO TAKE?
When in doubt about the instructions you find on a supplement label, consult a real supplement expert, preferably someone who has gone down the same path as you. These specialists can also help you decide if the supplement can benefit or harm you and in what doses.
This is a common mistake that I see people make with fat burners for example: people take fat burners to lose fat and end up getting fatter and with heart, metabolic or breathing problems. Any health coach or fitness coach will tell you that fat burners do not work! (or do work under specific circumstances)
Also, you need to remember that there are supplements that need some extra time before you get to see any kind of results. This can vary from a couple of days (Valerian) up to a couple of weeks (Arginine)
Dosing and timing of supplements usage is perhaps the most important parts of supplementation protocols for both effectiveness and safety.
WHICH ONES SHOULD I TAKE TOGETHER?
Different supplements have different interactions when used with other substances, even those found in real food. If you are not aware of these interactions of supplements, avoid combining them without asking an expert first.
For example, some herbal components act as stimulants so when combined with caffeine, they can cause high blood pressure, heart palpitations or they might lead to heart attacks and heart failures.
Another example is creatine and sodium overload. Most people already eat a lot of sodium in their diet which causes water retention. Creatine also holds water inside the muscle in order to make it fuller. So imagine what happens when you combine these two together.
However that doesn’t mean that creatine is the enemy here. The main mistake in this example, is salt overuse, which should be avoided anyway. But this implies that common sense should also be applied when dealing with the use of supplements.
Another reason why you should avoid supplements with blends or weird ingredients is because they will make it hard for you to properly organize supplementation protocols, especially when it comes to cycling. Cycling becomes very important when dealing with herbal supplements or testosterone boosters.
So when in doubt, do your own research or consult a supplementation expert who can shed some light as to what supplements to combine for best results and which combos to avoid.
HOW LONG SHOULD I TAKE IT FOR?
Usually this is an easy question to answer: Use the supplement until you reach your goals.
But once you have actually reached your goals, you still need to use it for a bit longer (maintenance period) in order to help you keep your results permanently. This, of course, depends on the type of supplement.
For instance, if you stop taking creatine, you might lose some weight, mostly from water. That is not really a bad thing. However, you might also lose the extra power and energy in your workouts but that only happens after 3-4 weeks from the time you stopped using the supplement. During that time you are off creatine, your new strength gains will already bridge that gap and you might not even notice this subtle difference.
That being said, it should make perfect sense that if you followed a nutritional plan with specific supplements and training and gave up on all of them, then you would lose almost all the gains of that period. If you want to keep your gains but still need to stop using certain supplements, you need to keep your nutrition and exercise in check.
Some users choose to stop using supplements for a small period of time. That is known as cycling but it is different that quitting them altogether. After this small period of time is passed, the users begin using them again.
SHOULD I CYCLE MY SUPPLEMENTS?
In one word, always! Some people say that you can use all supplements year round but I do not agree. Taking a period off supplements will not only guard your health but will also boost the effectiveness of the supplements. By cycling your supplements, you will continue seeing results without having your system get used to them.
Let me give you another example: there are people who take BCAA all year round. Since BCAAs are found in the protein in foods, one might think that this not something that requires cycling. However, these BCAAs supplements are not in a ratio that can be found in nature and therefore should be cycled off in order for you system to be able to use BCAAs in a more efficient way.
For some more advanced supplements such as Arginine, taking it for 2 months and then stopping for 1 month is necessary for both safety and effectiveness (after 2-3 months, Arginine plasma levels in your system are so high that supplementation has no effect whatsoever).
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Establishing your budget should be something you do before you start using a supplement. This is because people tend to consider supplementation as a one-time thing. They think that they will take 1 bottle and they will become superman.
I am sorry to inform you: It does not work that way.
When you start taking supplements, you need to decide on your budget. How much am I willing to spend on a monthly basis?
Your budget will then help you decide which ones and how much of each supplement you will be taking in order to see some results.
There are supplements that are quite cheap such as Whey protein and creatine, but there are others that can be quite expensive (such as Tongkat Ali and other testosterone boosters).
Overall, your budget, dosing protocols and the duration of your supplementation plan will help determine which supplements you can actually afford buying.
WHICH BRAND SHOULD I BUY?
There are so many brands out there so which one is the best and which one should I take?
That is not an easy question to answer.
Along with the decent ones, there are also some very dodgy companies on the market today. In some cases, you can tell which ones are crappy because they usually hide behind a marketing trick or a weird sales method like pyramid-sales. In the pyramid-sales method, you have to sign up and then you can sell supplements to your friends and you get a percentage when they sell or buy supplements etc. etc.
I have personally done this with a very famous supplement company and let me tell you this: They make millions on your hard work and their supplements are crap filled with soy. So not only are you compromising your health (and the health of others), but you are also taking part in some very exploitative monetary exchange.
Most of the times, the most reliable and safe ones are the heavyweights such as Jarrow Formulas or NOW Foods. There are some decent health coaches out there with their own supplement lines but it’s up to you to decide that.
Do not buy a supplement because some bodybuilding champion ‘supposedly’ uses it or because it is featured in a magazine. Taking such over-advertised supplements does not mean that you will get their size or ripped physique. Bodybuilding athletes usually take other supplements along with anabolic steroids that we may not know about. So do not fall for that marketing scam.
Also make sure you understand that these athletes spend their entire life in a gym and they have actually put in some Herculean work in order to get where they are now. I wanted to make that perfectly clear as I do not want to be one of those haters who talk shit about bodybuilders because they take steroids. I do not judge people who take anabolic steroids. It is a personal choice and none of my business. It is their choice and I applaud them for going down that road.
Taking all of the above into account will allow you to choose the most appropriate supplement for your own specific goals and individual profile. So do your research, plan everything correctly and if you have questions, seek professional advice from experts who have actually used supplements.
Do you ask yourself any of these questions before taking supplements? If not, which supplements do you take? Let me know by leaving a comment below!
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by Nick Sigma
CWC, EH, E-YRT200