Are supplements really necessary? or can you still live a healthy lifestyle and make progress in your fitness journey without them?
With the fitness industry becoming significantly overcrowded on social media; full of dishonest marketing and false claims, this has led to huge amounts of uncertainty about what is and what isn’t necessary to reach your health and fitness goals.
Pretty much every time I scroll through my Instagram, I see countless fitness influencer’s hyping about their BCAA’s and their ‘metabolism boosting’ pills. They take selfies holding their shakers and rave about how fantastic and life changing their supplements are for body composition and performance.
It’s not hard to see why the nutritional supplement industry is now a multi-million dollar business. They pay incredible looking fitness models to pose with their branded products, the public associate that supplement with the ‘perfect’ physique also in the photo, then they purchase it; believing that it’s the KEY to unlocking their dream body.
I don’t have anything against social media influencer’s at all; I just really don’t agree with the false information and the excessive encouragement of unnecessary products some of them promote.
I’ll be the first to admit I fell into this trap and wasted a lot of money on gimmicky products that were artfully marketed to me by beautiful Instagram models and fancy advertisements.
For the context of this post, I am primarily referring to fitness supplements, which are marketed to improve your physique and body composition. So, I want to make it perfectly clear that these supplements are NOT NECESSARY. Unless you have a diagnosed illness, hereditary problem or nutritional deficiencies, you do not need to take ANY supplements. Regarding building muscle and losing fat, there is no powder, pill or potion that will do the hard work for you. The three most important elements that will contribute the most to helping you achieve your goals are:
1. A balanced and nutritious diet specific to your goals; whether that is fat loss or building muscle.
2. Weight training with a focus on progressive overload.
3. Good quality sleep.
If you adhere to a comprehensive training plan, eat a nutritious diet, get sufficient good quality sleep and a live a healthy lifestyle (and you really want to knuckle down on the smaller less important aspects and ‘go the extra mile’) then you could consider supplements; but literally to SUPPLEMENT your training and diet.
(For the record, this EXCLUDES the fat burning pills, carb blockers and the appetite suppressants). The supplements you’ll want to consider will be those that boost your energy and stamina during intense training workouts, increase the rate of protein synthesis and aid in recovery and repair of muscle tissue.
So, if you’re not giving it your absolute maximum in your workouts in addition to nailing your nutrition, taking supplements will do absolutely nothing for you… other than rob your bank account.
My Philosophy on ‘bodybuilding’ and ‘fitness’ supplements.
Despite the fact that supplements are not necessary, I do occasionally use a few supplements, however, I am fully aware that they probably only make a 5% – 10% difference in my results.
I have picked my 7 ‘favourite’ / ‘most beneficial’ supplements; some of which I use on a day to day basis, and some which I intermittently take throughout the year. I will give an overview of what they are, why I take them, how they can benefit you and who will benefit from taking them the most.
1. Protein powder
Whey protein powder is something that I use every single day. I used to believe that I had to consume 25g of whey protein seconds after finishing my workout or I would depreciate the ‘gains’ I could potentially make (HA). This is definitely not the case. With that said, whey protein is rapidly digested; causing a spike in amino acids in the blood; which is then quickly shuttled to your muscle cells. This then initiates the process of creating new muscle tissue; thus ‘speeding’ up the recovery and repair process. So consuming protein powder post-workout is ideal and also much easier to throw in your gym bag than a chicken breast. However, overall protein intake is far more important than protein timing and the “anabolic window” does not shut off 30 minutes after you finish your workout.
Reasons why I use a protein powder supplement
- It’s a high quality protein source (some brands of protein powder will have the same macronutrient breakdown as a chicken breast).
- They’re rich in vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids; needed for building muscle and aiding in recovery.
- It’s convenient and portable.
- It helps me reach my daily protein intake (if you’re trying to build muscle a good reference is to consume 0.8 – 1.2g of protein per lb of bodyweight)
- It tastes amazing (I always use an overly sweet tasting protein powder like chocolate peanut butter, chocolate marble cheesecake or golden syrup) so it massively helps keep my sweet tooth in check without me having to eat an actual cheesecake.
- It’s VERY cheap per serving in comparison to alternative protein sources, such as grass-fed meats, seafood and free range eggs.
- You can use protein powder in SO many recipes and add it to other foods to up the protein content or even improve the taste.
Creatine is the most well-researched supplement in the current literature with thousands of studies supporting its beneficial impacts. Creatine is NOT a steroid which seems to be a common misconception around the supplement; with many people thinking it’s something only males should take. According to researchers at Baylor University, approximately 70% of studies conducted on creatine and it’s enhancement of physical performance, report statistically significant results.
Creatine is made up of three different amino acids: glycine, arginine and methionine. It is produced naturally in the body and can also be found in high protein foods such as red meat and fish.
I made an Infographic to simplify the biochemistry process behind supplementing with creatine, so that you can see exactly how it works.
HOW DOES CREATINE WORK
Benefits of supplementing with creatine
- It enhances your body’s capacity to perform at a high intensity which makes it beneficial for people who perform fast and explosive movements such as sprinting.
- Creatine itself is a fuel source, and the body’s preferred choice of stored energy for anaerobic exercise (weight-lifting) is your creatine phosphate stores. Therefore, supplementing with creatine will increase these stores; thus giving you more energy to exert more power and force in your lifts, pump out more reps and sprint at a faster speed.
- Creatine can stimulate natural biological processes that can increase protein synthesis; thus enhancing your muscle growth and size.
- It can aid in muscle recovery and repair; allowing you to train more frequently.
I started taking creatine last year when I was following a progressive overload training plan to increase my strength. I took 5g per day over the course of 8-12 weeks and I noticed significant differences in my strength (managed to squat 100kg for 3 reps and comfortably squat 80kg for 10-12 reps), and also my performance in high intensity exercise. I noticed my power output improved a lot and I could sprint at a faster pace for longer. Although supplementing with creatine was probably only a small contributing factor to my progress, I would definitely recommend trying it if you’re serious about your performance in the gym!
So initially I started taking probiotics due to suffering from excessive bloating and tummy cramps. Also, my immune system wasn’t great – I used to get tonsillitis literally every month so I eventually had them removed. However, instead I became prone to getting ear infections, chest infections and kidney infections. Basically, I was taking antibiotics constantly which is really bad for your gut health. In simple terms, antibiotics disrupt the balance between healthy and harmful bacteria; which can result in problems in your intestine and your gut.
I buy my probiotics from Holland and Barrett; and I take them religiously every day. They significantly reduce the amount of bloating I get, they’ve reduced my stomach cramps, they’ve massively improved my digestion and I never get ill or need to take antibiotics anymore. This is probably also from eating healthy and exercising etc, but studies have shown that probiotic supplementation can strengthen the immune system so I’m sure that they have helped with my bodies ability to fight off infections naturally.
You can also get probiotics in foods such as:
- Aged cheeses
I think a lot of people underestimate the significance of gut health in overall well-being. The gastrointestinal system is involved in the elimination of toxins, immune response, hormone regulation, digestion, the body’s ability to absorb vital minerals and vitamins and it’s also closely related to brain and mental health. So if you take your health seriously or suffer with any digestive issues, I would definitely recommend taking a probiotic supplement.
4. Fish oils
I would say I’m someone who really benefits from taking a fish oil as I don’t eat any fish at all (hate the stuff) and I rarely eat nuts, which significantly limits the amount of omega 3s I consume in my diet. Omega 3 is essential for our health and for us to function properly; our bodies are not capable of making it so we have to consume it either from our nutrition or a supplement. On the other hand, if you can eat foods high in omega’s (mackerel, salmon, chia seeds, walnuts, flaxseed oil) then it isn’t necessary for you to supplement with fish oils.
Fish oils benefits:
- fights depression and anxiety
- Improves sleep
- Cancer prevention
- Improves heart and brain health; thus reducing risk factors
- Improves gut health
- Reduces inflammation
5. Vitamin D
Vitamin D is a fat soluble vitamin which we can only make through UV-B radiation on the skin (exposure to sunlight), and we can also acquire it through our diets. Vitamin D is important as it’s involved in the adsorption of calcium from foods we eat, it plays multiple roles in a number of diseases and it’s involved in our immune system. It closely resembles a hormone rather than a vitamin due to it’s direct influence on our genes and cell development.
If you suffer from muscle pain, weakness and cramps, joint pain, fatigue, low mood, restless sleep, headaches and poor concentration then you may be deficient in vitamin D. I always supplement with Vitamin D in the winter months due to the reduced sunlight.
6. Vitamin B12
I highly recommend that vegetarians and vegans supplement with vitamin B12 as it’s likely that they’re deficient due to not obtaining it from foods they eat. For example, the foods highest in vitamin B12 are meat, fish, eggs and dairy. I don’t always use a vitamin B12 but when I feel like I have very low energy, muscle aches and weakness, constant tiredness and mood swings then I will supplement with it and I do notice these symptoms start to improve.
Vitamin B12 aids with your metabolism because it’s needed to convert carbs into useable energy in the body (this is why people who are deficient suffer from fatigue and low energy levels). It’s also important in the regulation of the nervous system and impacts certain mood disorders such as depression and anxiety. Moreover, vitamin B12 has a significant impact on our cognitive abilities and concentration levels. It can also benefit your skin, hair, heart health and digestion.
I wanted to include BCAA’s as I’ve noticed its increasing popularity, and also because this is a supplement I used to take religiously because I used to believe they were necessary for protein synthesis and preventing muscle breakdown. I don’t take it anymore because, in my opinion, it’s completely useless if you eat adequate amounts of protein through your food choices (which I do).
What a lot of people don’t realise is that BCAA’s are abundantly found in the foods we consume. If you’re eating complete protein sources such as meat, fish, protein powder, yogurt, eggs etc, then you will already be consuming a high percentage of BCAA’s. Moreover, by getting your BCAA intake from whole foods, you will also be getting additional nutrients, vitamins, minerals and EAA’s (essential amino acids) which will deliver far more nutritional benefits than BCAA’s alone.
A waste of money?
Thanks to shady marketing plastered all over Instagram, in the past I was led to believe that working out without my BCAA’s would result in me ‘burning muscle rather than fat’ and that I would ‘suffer from increased muscle soreness and impaired recovery’, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s simply just a way that the supplement industry can make money. From the research and studies I’ve looked at, the only people who may benefit from BCAA supplementation are those who do not eat enough high quality protein sources (vegans and possibly vegetarians). For anyone else, supplementing with BCAA’s on top of eating a diet high in protein is a waste of money and will not deliver any additional benefits.
I hope you find this informative and helpful when considering the supplements you want to take. I also hope it clears up any misconceptions regarding the supplement hype plastered all over social media. Feel free to message me if you have any questions!