Are you feeling overwhelmed by the myriad of nutritional supplements on the market? Unsure if you need whey protein, fish oil capsules, vitamin pills, creatine, caffeine pills, test boosters, L-carnitine, or branched chain amino acids? I feel your angst. I too was once a young stud pulling my hair out in frustration over the sheer number of nutritional supplements at my disposal.
The Naïve Teen
A young, baby-faced, lanky teen with an Afro (Ludacris would be jealous) walks into a nutritional supplement store for the first time. His eyes bulge out of their sockets in excitement as he walks down the aisle. He comes across protein powders, natural test boosters, nitric oxide, and creatine supplements promising to increase lean muscle mass and strength. Further down, he finds energy pills, chews, and drinks purporting to deliver the most intense and hardcore workout of his life. He even finds supplements promising to increase his sexual performance (wink, ExtenZe).
The supplements give him a glimpse into his future: arms the size of 22 inch Escalade rims, a barreling chest, legs so enormous that his friends call him quadzilla, and bodacious babes – lots of them. He grasps as many supplements that his two string bean (soon to be gigantic python) arms can carry. He is on his way to Arnold Schwarzenegger status.
That Campus Elite Swagger.
Who is this young, dashing teen? Why me, of course (yes, I really had an Afro). I’m not embarrassed to say that I was naïve enough to think nutritional supplements would pave the way to success. At the time, I knew very little about nutrition; if you told me that drinking a protein shake while hanging upside down would increase protein absorption, I probably would have believed you. Now a days, I would like to think I’m less naïve—at least when it comes to nutrition.
Hopefully, reading this article will give you a different perspective on nutritional supplements and you don’t fall victim to the same line of thinking that young Myles did so many years ago.
“Haha, Myles, what a sucker.” -Supplement Company
Through clever—perhaps cunning—marketing and advertising schemes, supplement companies make it seem like your strength and muscle gains or overall health are dependent on their latest and greatest supplement. It seems to be working; nutritional supplements are a multibillion dollar industry.
I’m not saying all supplement companies are bad, rather, I want you to keep in mind that they won’t have any reservations about taking your hard earned money. At the end of the day, just like any other business, they are trying to make a profit.
What I find alarming is that nutritional supplements are not tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for efficacy. If the nutritional supplement doesn’t contain any banned substances and isn’t detrimental to human health, it can be sold to the public. As a result, supplement companies often take ambiguous data from studies or use anecdotal evidence to sell their products. This leaves many consumers wondering if they are getting what they paid for—results.
Seeing Through The BULLSHIT. You Don’t NEED Supplements To Succeed Or Thrive
In my experience, I had the best gains (increase in lean muscle mass and strength) when I reduced my intake of nutritional supplements in favor of whole foods. Not only did I experience greater gains, but my mental acuity improved, and my wallet was a lot happier with extra green in the clip. I’m not the only one who has benefited from a diet rich in whole foods – Jack LaLanne, Mark Sisson, and Paul Check to name a few. These guys are all over the age of 50 and still look phenomenal. Their secret; a diet rich in whole foods!
“Hold on Myles, this can’t be true. What does whole food mean? Sounds like some hippie shit to me. Why did you experience greater gains and feel healthier?” Excellent question, my friend.
What Is A Whole Food? What’s So Great About Whole Foods?
Whole foods are minimally processed and are free of preservatives, additives, or other synthetic substances—the way Mother Nature intended food to be (I do sound a little hippie). Despite popular believe, there is more to food than macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Whole foods contain a host of bioactive chemicals, vitamins, and minerals that are vital to living a long, strong, and healthy life. For instance, numerous studies have shown that polyphenols in fruits and vegetables have good antioxidant activity, which may be relevant to heart disease (reduction of inflammation associated with atherosclerosis) and cancer (chemopreventive intervention during the early stages of carcinogenesis).
Whole Foods Are King. Supplements Are Court Jesters
Where do you think supplements comes from? Many supplements are extracted from whole foods. For instance, whey and casein protein powders are extracted from cow milk, vitamin A can be extracted from fish liver oil, and EPA and DHA are derived from fish oil. Some supplements are synthetic–made in the lab from chemical precursors. Vitamins in vitamin pills–unless otherwise stated–are usually synthetic.
The problem with isolating and extracting nutrients, is that the manufacturing process alters the chemical structure of the nutrient, which consequently affects the breakdown, absorption, and bioavailability in the human body. For instance, according to a study conducted by Lawson and Hughes, EPA and DHA are better absorbed as natural triglycerides compared to ethyl ester triglycerides (processed form). Most fish oil supplements contain ethyl ester triglycerides because they are cheaper to manufacture. Shocking, right? I’m amazed by how many people believe supplements are “better in every way” when compared to whole foods. As you can see, this isn’t always the case.
In addition, when manufacturers isolate a nutrient from a whole food or make it synthetically, they are excluding other vital nutrients. Why is this important? Let’s say I want to increase my vitamin C intake–doctor says I have a deficiency. I think to myself: that’s easy, I’ll take a vitamin C pill. But wait, is there a better solution? I think back to my general nutrition class. Yes, yellow peppers are loaded with vitamin C. Plus, remember the polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables I mentioned earlier, yellow peppers also contain polyphenols! I’m killing two birds with one stone by increasing my vitamin C intake and ingesting polyphenols. In essence, I’m getting the best bang for my buck when I buy whole foods.
Overall, supplements are not always superior to whole foods. Extracting or creating synthetic nutrients can alter the chemical structure, which can influence—negatively or positively—the absorption, assimilation, and function in the human body. In addition, nutrient absorption and utilization in the human body may be dependent on the presence of other nutrients (e.g., fat, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals).
Are Supplements Pointless?
Let me qualify myself by saying that supplements are still useful. For instance, maybe you are on a tight schedule and it isn’t plausible to eat a whole meal. In this case, drinking a protein shake is more time efficient and cost effective. Perhaps you don’t have access to high quality fish or it’s too expensive for your budget, and you want to increase the amount of EPA and DHA in your diet. In this case, a high quality fish oil supplement may be the best alternative. If you’re an elite bodybuilder, powerlifter, or athlete, supplementation may give the edge you need to crush the competition. At this level, every advantage helps.
Wait A Second, You Didn’t Answer My Question: Should I Take Supplements X, Y, and Z?
Yes, no, maybe?!
The point of this article wasn’t to sell you on supplements X, Y, and Z. Rather, I want you to seriously question whether or not you need these supplements to reach your goals. Be honest! Is your diet on point? Do you have your workout routine down to a T. If not, work on those aspects before you think about taking supplements. Otherwise, you may be throwing your money down the toilet–literally and figuratively.
Also, reflect on your goals. Are you looking to improve your strength for leisure or recreational activities? Maybe you are looking to lose 10 pounds in a month or you want visible abs. If so, do you really need supplements X, Y, and Z to reach these goals? My guess, you will be just fine with a diet rich in whole foods. Elite athletes, powerlifters, and bodybuilders are a different story. Like I mentioned in a previous section, if you are a competitive athlete—-especially elite—supplementation may give you the extra push you need to reach gold.
Check out Campus Elite’s free Supplement Crash Course here.