Supplement sales are huge business, and pose the daunting task of making the right choice for most consumers. Unlike choosing which entrée you want at a restaurant with a multi-page menu or selecting which snack food is best in the grocery aisle, the anti-supplement faction will have you believe that a wrong choice may be deadly!
Determining Fact From Fiction
First and most important, there are no “legal” miracle products. Without hard work and exercise, no product can make drastic changes by itself.
Secondly, there really are no dangerous products despite media persuasion. True, some products may cause various side effects, some even pleasant, but only a super small percent of the population may have severe reactions to a particular substance. But even that poses little risk as you should know that you or your client has allergies or medical issues, and those should be considered and matched up against the ingredients within the product you are questioning. By comparison, more people are likely to suffer anaphylactic shock eating shellfish or peanuts, and both are still available to everyone everywhere.
Third, there is plenty of good research and educational material to help you learn more about the constituents within most every product on the market. But, it is up to you to learn.
Regulations and Efficacy Claims
Because supplements are loosely regulated, many manufacturers use claims that are generally due to the expected physical outcome of simulating a physiological environment that SHOULD happen.
To make matters worse, some supplement companies use studies that are generally from research done on a population that is deficient in some ingredients within that particular product which they are now adding to their diet.
While research controls are getting tighter, there are still a few supplement companies that are manipulating the science to give credence to their claims rather than ensuring their claims are accurate. However, not all companies are simply trying to pull wool over consumer’s eyes. In fact, many practice what they preach and a few, take their science and education seriously, pay strict attention to FDA regulations, labeling issues, and truly back their claims with solid evidence.
Do your homework.
Take a good look at the products, the ingredients, and the company making it.
Fat Burners and Energy Boosters
The addition of fat burners and energy drinks over recent years has caused more confusion and given less credibility to an already volatile industry. Both fat burning and fat mobilization does occur and can be enhanced by supplementation but without exercise and altering the diet, pills alone will have little effect. That being said, the combination of certain ingredients within some fat burning and appetite suppressing products, along with a good training program, can create some remarkable results.
Trainers know the value of exercise in improving metabolism already, so adding a little help, may not be such a bad option after all. But remember, if consuming these dietary pills really were the magic bullet, America wouldn’t have an obesity epidemic. Nothing gobbles up fat and transports it out of the body. If there was truly such a miracle drug, don’t you think the multi-billion dollar fast food industry would be selling it along with their triple cheeseburger?
As for Energy boosters, research confirms that stimulants help with focus, fat metabolism, and overall energy. Too much of course can be hazardous to those who have medical issues or the potential for medical issues.
Additionally, continual habitual use, forms overuse, and thus requires more to get an effect. Over stimulation causes jitters, sleep disorders, and will negatively affect training.
So be smart. Moderation is the key and being aware and understanding limitations, following directions and proper use of these products may actually improve body composition and performance.
The bottom line in this category is that diet and exercise are absolutes – they need to be added to your day. The extras can help if managed properly but on their own, well, that has yet to be proven.
How Supplements Work
Whether a supplement will work for you or not is based on several factors, most are unknown until you try the product. Since the body only uses what it needs, knowing what it needs is far harder then determining when it needs it. Generally, a product is created to provide that edge in training or daily life.
By accentuating intake of specific compounds, the body’s normal functions are accelerated, increasing the speed, efficiency and magnitude at which normal human anabolic events occur. Once a product is digested, it is broken down in to smaller constituents, which are then absorbed by blood and transported to various organs and cells throughout the body. Along the way, depending on need, and the digestion process itself, it is possible for a particular compound to be rendered ineffective. If it does not stay intact, by the time it reaches its destination, its effect may be minimal at best.
So whether or not the product actually works is largely dependent upon whether it can break down when it should and handle the stress of the voyage – something that many compounds do not do well. However, with advancing science, chemical alteration and various “coatings”, targeting specific receptors has gotten much better.
Still, absorption rates of these compounds vary and each person responds slightly differently. Some chemicals can pass through the lining of the mouth (or nose) directly in the bloodstream (many narcotics work fast because of this reason) while others must wait until they make it through the stomach into the small intestine (where most chemical absorption occurs).
The stomach is a harsh environment and few compounds are absorbed through its walls (alcohol and acetaminophen are some exceptions). Most substances are broken down so much by the digestive juices, the “important” stuff never makes it out alive. Whether the substance is used or not is based on timing; your body must be in need, otherwise it will reject and reform the compound for use somewhere else.
How to Read a Nutrition Fact Panel
In general, the labels of products are designed to catch your eye and tell you of the magic that the supplement possesses. In reality, most label claims have not been approved by the FDA and in many cases have not even been substantiated in good research. However, a good trainer will take a closer look at the list of ingredients.
Some products are loaded with fillers, while others are really well designed. Some so-called fillers are necessary to hold the product together, improve absorption and prevent clumping, so not all are bad. The words proprietary blend certainly adds to the confusion. While anti-supplement people will tell you it is to trick you, more likely it is for supplement makers to protect their research and investment from others “knocking it off.”
Unfortunately, the only way to find out the actual composition of the proprietary blend is to ask someone who really knows, and that is not likely going to be known by your sales person. But, you can rest assured, the actual content of every ingredient and its clarity and purity are both well known and properly kept by the manufacturer.
As a trainer, the most important concern should be when you see a laundry list of ingredients in a single product. Not because the list is so long or that anything is dangerous, more because it should make you question if the supplement maker really knows what the product is for. In the world of research, we call it “the throwing the plate of spaghetti against the wall and seeing what sticks” approach. In English: if I give you everything, something in there should work! Look for well organized and clear labels that indicate the “whats and whys”.
How to Use Supplements
Taken in enough quantity, something should make it to the destination for cellular success. Unfortunately several products on the market fit this description and quantity is the only way it could be effective. However, some supplement makers use quality ingredients and provide specific instructions on quantity and timing.
But the truth is, even with good timing, some things will work for some and not for others. Every person is different and the only way to truly tell if something is helping is to try it under similar conditions for at least 3 to 5 consecutive uses. So for a “Pre Workout” product, it should be consumed at the same time before each workout using the same amount.
Both research and practice has validated the positive benefits of nutrient timing, and is now accepted as one, if not the most, important aspect of supplementation. However, some products are more effective when taken throughout the day. There are only a few, and generally have very low serving sizes (1g-5g).
Which Supplements Do You Need
To think that I or anyone could tell you what you need just by looking at you, or for that matter stereotyping you into a category of athlete, etc., would be a complete guess at best. Each person’s diet, training background, general daily activity level, and hormone and enzyme concentrations must be considered. And it is true; everyone responds differently and each person is unique.
Ask yourself or your client why you exercise and what results are you trying to get versus what you are doing with exercise to get there. Without a doubt, well-timed supplements will enhance your workouts and improve recovery. Try a product you trust. Decide if you like the taste, how it makes you feel, and if you notice any changes.
BUT do not expect to see wholesale changes by taking something one or two times. Try to understand the mechanism by which the supplement is supposed to work before deciding if it is something you need.
Where to Go From Here
Do your homework.
You studied to become a trainer. You have tried umpteen million exercises and programs and are still looking for something better, so why believe that finding the right supplement should be a snap. Don’t be afraid to do your own research or ask about a particular substance that may be in the product you are considering.
A prudent exercise scientist will confirm facts, so you will need to find out if what you were told is actually true. And remember, anecdotal information, especially when it comes to performance, is not always bad. Placebo effects, when accompanied by exercise, can have profound effects, so why burst bubbles when improvement is occurring.
David Sandler, MS, Master Trainer