Do You Need Supplements for Optimum Fitness?

Short answer:

Probably not.

Why?

They’re SUPPLEMENTS.

Supplements are to supplement what you really need: a solid diet and a proper training program, which will be MUCH more important than any supplement you take.

So what’s the deal with supplements then?

I think they get a lot of hype for a few reasons:

  • They’re easy to sell. It’s easier to create a supplement to sell, than to sell say something like training hard, eating better, sleeping better, and stressing less.
  • They’re easy to make (check out the classic doc Bigger, Faster, Stronger and see how easy it is).
  • There’s very little regulation (in the U.S. at least) meaning that anyone can go into business without much red tape.
  • Everyone wants results fast and easy. Supplements can prey on this “shortcut” mentality. There’s always a hungry market for fast results with minimal effort.

So if you don’t have a solid diet and training program in place, work on that first, or you’re just mowing the lawn while the house is on fire.

If you do have things in order though, you should still use caution.

The bottom line: if you’re taking supplements thinking they’ll be a panacea, you’re dreaming. The only fast and easy result you’ll get is a slimmer wallet.

Supplements aren’t completely useless, though.

Supplements can be good for three things as I see it:

One: Getting nutrients you don’t or can’t get from food.

Supplements can help you cover your nutrient bases.

If you train hard you need nutrients to thrive, and if your diet isn’t up to snuff you’re going to have a bad time.

In this case supplements can be used as a tool to prevent nutrient deficiencies.

As I said above though, you should strive to get all the nutrients you need from real, whole foods. Supplements are just an insurance policy against nutrient deficiencies.

Two: on-the-go meals and convenience.

Supplements can help busy people find meal solutions on the go.

Shakes and bars can replace a meal or two here or there. They can also help you stay fuller between meals.

I’d rather see someone eat a protein shake or bar than fast food in an on-the-go situation.

Three: pre-workout or post-workout.

If an optimal whole food meal can’t be eaten, supplements can help.

One example is if you train early in the morning. It’s almost impossible to get an adequate meal in 2-3 hours beforehand if you have to get to the gym at 5 am. Supplements such as protein powders, bars, and pre-workouts are pretty easy to get down and digest in this case.

Likewise, if you’re busy post-workout and can’t get a meal in, protein powders, bars, and post-workouts can help you get in some nutrients until your next meal.

And that’s pretty much it. Supplements should be nothing more and nothing less.

Supplement Whiteboard

Here’s what I use and why to give you some ideas.

Fish oil (for Omega 3’s).

The benefits of getting more Omega 3’s have been widely studied, and the effects on health and physical performance are somewhat mixed. [1][2]

But I don’t eat fish (if I did I wouldn’t take the supplement), so I rely on food sources such as cage-free eggs and grass-fed meats plus an Omega 3 supplement just in case.

Caffeine (from coffee).

I wouldn’t drink coffee if it didn’t have caffeine, so I’ll put this down.

Sleep comes first, and then caffeine gives me an extra gear (for work and training).

And no, I don’t use caffeine to “burn fat”. Burning fat is mostly diet, with caffeine being a little bonus. Even if caffeine does raise the metabolism a bit, its not enough to make a serious dent in Total Daily Energy Expenditure (or how many calories you burn throughout the day in total).

Remember: Burning fat comes from a calorie deficit (and to some extent what you eat in that deficit), and not a supplement.

A multivitamin.

I try to eat as much variety of whole foods as possible, but some days are hectic and I just cant eat as much variety as I like. Therefore a multivitamin helps cover the bases.

Whey protein isolate and protein bars.

It’s not that I need extra protein, I just like the convenience that whey protein and bars provide. I’m on the go a lot, so having something convenient is imperative.

Melatonin and L-Theanine.

Melatonin is a hormone made by your body naturally to help signal to your body that it’s time to sleep.

L-Theanine is an amino acid that can help calm and relax the mind.

I’ll use this combo (rarely) if I’m struggling to fall asleep (if anyone here has been in calorie deficit and gotten really lean, you know that sleep quantity and quality takes a big hit).

Sidenote: I also used to take creatine. But I started getting bad headaches from it, so I discontinued using it. I only ever noticed small benefits anyways.

As you can see, I use these supplements to support my solid training program and eating habits.

I’m not living on whey protein, protein bars, multivitamins, and fish oil pills to cover up a terrible diet.

I’m not drinking pots of coffee in the morning and then downing melatonin to make up for terrible sleep hygiene.

And that’s how you use supplements.

As SUPPLEMENTS.

What a novel idea, eh?

To reiterate, here’s what supplements are not for:

  • To be the backbone of your diet.
  • An attempt to cover up less than ideal eating habits.
  • Used as a sole source of nutrition in a crash diets or extreme fat loss attempt.

Look, there’s no way supplements can take the place of REAL food. There’s no way supplements will make up for a less than ideal diet. And you shouldn’t just use supplements to drastically cut calories.

As I’ve already said a million times (and I’ll say a million+ more times): There are no shortcuts and quick fixes. There’s no magical pill or elixir.

There’s consistent hard work.

Use supplements smartly, find what works for you, and use them as supplements.

Supplement FAQ

What about Testosterone boosters?

We can answer this with the Testosterone booster parable:

If Testosterone boosters worked they’d be banned or illegal. So we can suffice to say that legal Testosterone boosters do not work at all or have an effect so small it’s negligible.

Go look at the NCAA’s banned supplement list. That’s what works, and most of those are also illegal (and they’re not a good idea even if they are legal).

And even if you do get a little boost, It doesn’t really matter. You have to have supraphysiological (or way above what’s normal naturally) doses of hormones (*ahem* injecting decent amounts of steroids) to have any sizable effect on strength and muscle gain anyways.

__________ worked for my spouse/friend/brother/dad/nephew. Should I try it?

Maybe.

Just because something worked for someone else doesn’t mean it’ll work for you.

If you wanna try it, try it. If you don’t, don’t (of course, talk to a doctor or dietitian beforehand just to be safe).

Most times when a supplement works, it addresses a deficiency. Say if you’re deficient in Zinc, taking Zinc will help you perform better (by addressing the deficiency). But if you’re already getting an optimal amount of Zinc, taking more will not give you superhuman powers (and it might even be harmful).

Are supplements safe?

That’s a tough question.

There’s very little regulation for supplements. Meaning that you can put anything in any amount in a supplement and market and sell it.

I look at it like this: find a reputable company that stands to lose a lot if they get caught selling tainted or mislabeled supplements. Use LabDoor.com (they test supplements) to verify. As with anything unregulated, you have to be a smart consumer.

What about mass gainers?

Don’t you mean fat gainers?

Most mass gainers are protein mixed with a bunch of sugar and other junk. Gross.

I’d stay away. Instead, get a high-quality whey protein and eat real, calorie-dense foods like dried fruit and nut butters. It’s not that hard to get in a lot of calories. BUT REMEMBER: you want to gain muscle, not fat. Gaining muscle requires a SENSIBLE calorie surplus. In other words: don’t eat anything and everything under the sun in an attempt to gain “WEIGHT”.

BOOM. That’ll do it. If you have any questions hit the button below.

-ETD

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or dietitian. This is not medical advice meant to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease. As supplements can have potential side-effects, always consult your doctor or dietitian before starting or discontinuing a supplement.

References

  1. Hopp, D.C. & Shurtleff, D., 2018. Omega-3 Supplements: In Depth | National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
  2. Macaluso, Filippo, et al. February 7, 2013. Do Fat Supplements Increase Physical Performance? | Nutrients


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