New clients love to ask about supplements.
And they hate my answer.
“Ideally, you’ll take nothing,” I say. “Truth is, probably a few things.
I’ve been in a quasi-dysfunctional relationship with the supplement industry for 20 years. As both employee and consumer.
A part of me wishes I could just quit it. Because in many ways the dietary supplement world is loathsome. An unregulated cess pool of scumbags, wack jobs, and “reformed” drug dealers, guys that would cross any moral or ethical line just to grab a few dollars from some poor sucker’s wallet before the FDA gets wind of their shenanigans.
On the other hand, it also has some amazing minds — brilliant, creative people that live and breathe health and fitness.
These folks could excel anywhere – medicine, finance, pharmaceutical – yet instead they choose to devote their talents to their passion: helping people look, feel, and perform better.
This also explains my hypocrisy. Because as jaded as I am, in spite of the shots I take at the liars and scumbags and douchebags, I still inhale a laundry list of supplements daily and have an entire kitchen cupboard devoted to “my damn pills.”
I’m going to list every supplement I take. And more importantly, why.
However, that won’t be until the next blog post.
Because it’s important that you first understand why I make the choices I do. Cause I strongly urge you to follow a similar playbook. It will save you a ton of money while also improving your results. I guarantee it.
First, supplements are just that: supplements.
Dietary “add-ons” intended to help “fill the gaps” left in a less than “perfect” whole food diet.
You should not enter a supplement store or even read a ridiculous ad until your diet is “extremely good.”
That’s obviously subjective, but if you don’t know how much water you drink every day or how many calories or grams of protein you eat, or how many different veggies you consume weekly (not just buy and let spoil in the fridge; actually cook and eat) then your first stop should be a grocery store. And probably a cooking class.
So if that’s you, stop reading.
But here’s my stance on supplements:
In an ideal world – one where you played Twister all day with the wife in your sunny backyard and the fridge was always stocked with balanced meals prepared from lean meats, fish, and fresh, organic fruits and vegetables – you definitely wouldn’t need supplements.
However, most of us don’t live in such a panacea. Most of us live under constant siege.
We endure prolonged low-grade stress, juggling jobs and family and obligations. We work long hours in stuffy offices breathing recycled air under shitty artificial light.
We then inhale pollution on our way home, absorb xenoestrogens in the bottled water we drink and even in the shower, and then apply endocrine disruptors directly to our skin as paraben-filled wrinkle creams before “enjoying” a short, lousy sleep.
There’s not much we can do about the above, apart from making some aggressive lifestyle modifications.
However, we can control what we eat. So the best of us try mightily to build reasonably healthy meals out of “whole” foods.
But even the “healthiest” commercial meats and vegetables are less nutritious than even 50 years ago, thanks to questionable factory farming practices, depleted soils, chemicals, pesticides, and excessive processing.
And that’s just us. The “try-hards.” There are the millions who don’t even bother trying. The ones who say screw it and grab a preservative-filled gut bomb from a vending machine and promise to do better tomorrow.
Or Monday. There’s always Monday.
So addressing this challenge – supplying the body with the nutrients it needs in an insanely hectic, overly processed, borderline toxic world – is where I put most of my attention.
Your body needs specific amino acids to function properly. It needs protein. And if you’re a heavy exerciser, especially one trying to lose fat, your need is even greater.
Though you don’t “need” a protein supplement — and most of the tubs found on the shelves are utter garbage — a very high quality protein powder or meal replacement makes hitting protein requirements more practical.
Again, not a necessity – but today, it just makes sense.
The same reasoning applies for other hard to get but very important nutrients like the omega-3 fatty acids (most importantly EPA and DHA, found in cold water fish as well as quality fish oil supplements), vitamin D3 (which is actually a hormone), zinc (for men), and even creatine monohydrate, especially for weight trainers who don’t eat much red meat.
I would also include a moderate dose, broad spectrum multivitamin (one with a quality source of folic acid) and perhaps a green drink, especially for bros who consider half a head of iceberg lettuce topped with bacon bits a “salad.”
Finally, there’s my favorite supplement, magnesium. Magnesium is involved in hundreds of chemical reactions in your body and helps with blood sugar management, making it staple for anyone with “carb sensitivity” issues.
However, magnesium’s best quality is that it helps you relax. I take it an hour before bed and fall asleep faster and sleep deeper. And sleep is the most powerful restorative “supplement” you can find.
That’s my top tier. Many could stop and their basic supplement “needs” would be very well covered.
But as anyone who’s ever walked into a health food store will tell you, there’s a lot more stuff on the shelf. Like, thousands more. Most are what I call “conditionally specific.” And most are a scam.
I’ll cover the conditionally essential ones a bro like me uses next time.
The following is more important than any dietary supplement regimen:
1. Get excellent medical care.
It never fails to amaze me when I hear grown adults complain about their doctor. You and your doctor should be a team. He (or she) should know everything you put in your body, and that includes any dietary supplement.
As a rule, if you tell your doc you take X, Y, and Z, and he or she looks at you like you said you still sleep in Thundercats jammies, it means one of two things:
- Your doctor may not be sufficiently up to speed on these things and as such isn’t a good fit for you (possible); or,
- You’re taking untested, snake-oil voodoo garbage (far more likely).
The best thing about working with a good doctor is that they can order blood tests to determine whether levels of key nutrients even require supplementation.
My doc tests my vitamin D3 levels, B vitamins, red blood cell zinc, and magnesium regularly and I adjust how much I take accordingly.
For example, every functional medicine doc says that men need extra zinc. My last blood test revealed my zinc levels were high, so now I only take what’s in a multi-vitamin (and meat of course). On the other hand, my D3 levels are surprisingly stubborn.
This is secondary of course to the key tests your doc should be running for you like lipids, blood chemistry, hormone panels, etc.
Bottom line, get educated and get involved.
2. Body composition supplements should be last on your priority list.
I’ll cover this more in depth next post, but if you optimize nutritional status (quality calories, protein, veggies, omega 3s, etc) and then supplement to maximize sleep, manage stress, and support digestion, that’s likely all the “bodybuilding” or “fat loss” supplementation you need. At the very least, you should start there.
3. Only use quality brands.
I’ve touched on the piss-poor ethics in the supplement industry before. Since you literally have no recourse and are forced to “trust” that what’s on the label is actually in the jar (and does what it’s supposed to do), you have to be discerning. You have to vote with your wallet.
A few years ago I decided that I would only buy from professional brands first – the stuff you find in doctors offices – as the quality control is simply much higher.
It costs me a lot more — about 30-100% more — but at least I know what I’m getting. And I know my dollars aren’t supporting a team of douchebags that spend thousands on over-the-top ads and pennies on actual product.
When I do buy from brands outside the professional category, I first make sure I agree with both the marketing and ethics of the brand. Start doing a little digging into many of these companies and you’ll quickly want to put your dollars elsewhere.
A comment I often hear is, “I know Brand X puts out a lot of cheesy garbage. What about their basic creatine? Is it okay?”
To be honest, it probably is. But is that how you vote with your dollars?
In the end, you either support companies that have your health and not just your wallet in mind. Or you don’t.
In other words, do your leg work and support companies that don’t treat you like such an obvious mark. Even if costs you a bit more in the short run.
4. Use Examine.com
Everybody claims to be “evidence-based.” Few actually have the training to support it. This product does all the research legwork for you, giving you the straight goods on whether a supplement has sufficient evidence to support its claims or whether it’s “dubious” at best.
At the very least, it helps you be an informed consumer. I consider it a must-have for everyone involved in health and fitness. If you don’t own it yet, you can buy it here.
Next post I’ll break down what I take (and don’t take) and more importantly, why.