Everyone is always looking for the magic pill or the secret powder to help them reach their fitness, weight loss, or performance goals.
Indeed, dietary supplement manufacturers claim that supplements make you bigger, stronger, faster, leaner, and better. Not many of these claims are actually true.
Before we review supplements, there are two major points to be made.
- First, by and large, there is no supplement on the market today that can hurt you if taken as prescribed.
- Secondly, a supplement is just that – a supplement, not a replacement or substitute for a good diet or training program. In fact, no supplement on the market works without a good exercise program; supplements can only help to accelerate the process of adaptation.
Weight Loss with Supplements: A myth
No type of dietary supplement has EVER been shown to directly aid in fat reduction; in fact, quite the opposite is true. The overwhelming number of independent clinical trials conducted on so-called “fat burners” report one common theme: they don’t work.
Contrary to the marketing efforts of supplement companies, and despite rather compelling before and after pictures, these supplements do little (if anything) from a physiological perspective. In fact, research shows that the reason most people perceive fat burners to work is that they typically start a diet and exercise program ALONG with taking the fat burner. It is the diet and exercise – not the fat burner – that results in fat loss.
Supplements vs. whole foods
Supplements aren’t intended to be a food substitute because they can’t replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables. So depending on your situation and your eating habits, dietary supplements may not be worth the expense.
Whole foods offer three main benefits over dietary supplements:
- Greater nutrition. Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs — not just one. An orange, for example, provides vitamin C plus some beta carotene, calcium and other nutrients. A vitamin C supplement lacks these other micronutrients.
- Essential fiber. Whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, provide dietary fiber. Most high-fiber foods are also packed with other essential nutrients. Fiber, as part of a healthy diet, can help prevent certain diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and it can also help manage constipation.
- Protective substances. Whole foods contain other substances important for good health. Fruits and vegetables, for example, contain naturally occurring substances called phytochemicals, which may help protect you against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Many are also good sources of antioxidants — substances that slow down oxidation, a natural process that leads to cell and tissue damage.
Who needs supplements?
If you’re generally healthy and eat a wide variety of foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, low-fat dairy products, lean meats and fish, you likely don’t need supplements.
However, the dietary guidelines recommend supplements — or fortified foods — in the following situations:
- Women who may become pregnant should get 400 micrograms a day of folic acid from fortified foods or supplements, in addition to eating foods that naturally contain folate.
- Women who are pregnant should take a prenatal vitamin that includes iron or a separate iron supplement.
- Adults age 50 or older should eat foods fortified with vitamin B-12, such as fortified cereals, or take a multivitamin that contains B-12 or a separate B-12 supplement.
The Hidden Dangers of Dietary Supplements
The best way to use supplements safely is to avoid supplements you don’t need.
- Select supplements with only the ingredients that you need. If you need vitamin D then select a supplement that only contains vitamin D.
- Avoid supplements with more than one herbal ingredient. It is very difficult to determine the effect that multiple herbs will have on your health.
- If you take prescription medications or have health conditions, ask your physician if the supplement you are considering is safe for you.
- Avoid supplements that claim to help you lose weight or improve sexual or athletic performance. These supplements may not only be contaminated with prescription medicines but also with dangerous analogs.
- Purchase supplements in retail stores rather than over the Internet.
- If you experience a side effect from a supplement: Stop using the supplement, inform your physician.