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Supplement use is not necessary to reach your goals. Supplement use can have a place as part of an overall training and nutrition strategy. Other steps come first, including but not limited to:

  • Making a commitment to put in honest effort
  • Putting together a good exercise plan
  • Having a nutrition strategy in place
  • Understanding supplements are not a short cut

The problem with supplements

There are myriad potential issues with supplements. The main areas of concern can be narrowed down to four categories. These are:

  • Scientific evidence back the efficacy of a supplement
  • Effectiveness of the supplement if efficacy is in place
  • Side effects of the supplement versus proposed benefits
  • Logic for use by the person using the supplement

Let me provide you more insight into each area.

Scientific evidence back the efficacy of a supplement

If a supplement does not have scientific backing the question of efficacy is present. Anecdotal evidence or support of a high-profile influencer is not enough. Unfortunately, in my experience too many people use supplement because of an add, because the person selling them do a good pitch, because an influencer said the supplement would work, or similar, non-science based reason without any research.

Science is imperfect. At one time, doctors drilled holes in the head of people to release evil spirits but this practice has, thankfully, been abandoned. As science advances, once held scientific findings are refuted. That said, following science is still better than following the advice of your favorite influencer without thinking about it.

The science supports some supplements, such as vitamin and mineral supplements for people who may be deficient or need help increasing amounts for health related reasons. Even then, it is not a free for all to take the maximum amount you can find. Even at safe amounts, some supplement can have side effects in the presence of other supplements or drugs. These articles from the National Institutes of Health and Harvard cover details of supplements that work, the need for you to do your homework, limitations of supplements, and concerns with use.

Effectiveness of the supplement if efficacy is in place

Efficacy and effectiveness are two different things. The former refers to how a supplement or medicine works in a controlled setting under ideal circumstances. Effectiveness refers to how the same produces work in the real world, such as when you take them at home.

From the lab to your kitchen, amount of the active ingredient in the product, the storage conditions from production to your doorstep, the presence of additional ingredients in the product, interactions with or supplements you take, if you followed the prescribed dosing method, etc. can affect the effectiveness of a product even if the efficacy has been shown in a lab.

This becomes more important when buying commercial supplements than when purchasing pharmaceutical products. Commercial supplements may have the effective ingredient, but the manufacturer may have added other things that are not of benefit to you or even harmful. Worse yet, the effective ingredient may be part of a proprietary blend. A proprietary blend is a mixture of ingredients. Supplement labels often list this blend with total amount of all ingredients instead of the amount each ingredient.

For example, a product may have supplement A, B, C, and D, but list one amount such as 4 grams, with only A as the effective ingredient you are looking for. In this scenario, you do not know how much you get of each. You might get one gram of A, three grams of A, 0.25 grams of A, or some other amount.

My point is, efficacy of a product in the lab does not equal effectiveness of the product in the real world, and you need to look closely at the supplement you buy. In an ideal scenario, the supplement you buy will have been lab tested as formulated, shown effective, only include helpful ingredients, and show each ingredient in the individual amounts.

Side effects of the supplement versus proposed benefits

Adverse reactions can occur to anything you take. Where an allergic reaction or side effect these unwanted outcomes are something to avoid. If you are allergic to nuts, you want to avoid them, if lactose causes intestinal issues for you, it might be best to skip, if a prescription drugs causes you headaches, you might want a substitutes, and if a supplement has an adverse affects, you will want to consider strongly why you are taking it.

Now that can seem dramatic and often people, perhaps you included, think of side effects as some severe type of negative effect. This can be the case but is not always the case and severe side effects are not the only thing to consider with supplements.

One of the simplest examples I can provide comes from pre-workout supplements. Pre-workout supplements are so common that even your grandma who does spin classes may be taking one. Commonality does not make them less important to evaluate.

Pre-workout supplements usually have caffeine and/or other stimulants in them. While you can find those without, it is the less common than those with stimulants. You may not even realize the product you are taking has caffeine in it. For example, one client I worked face to face with always came into sessions energetic. I questioned if she took stimulants prior to working out and she said not, but that she did drink a supplement drink before session. I asked here what it was, looked into it before our next session, determined what was in it, and shared with here in our next session that it had over 200 milligrams of caffein in it, or more than 2+ cups of strong coffee.

Even if you realize caffeine is in your pre-workout, you may not realize how much. For the sake of discussion, let us say you do not even take a pre-workout and instead grab a Starbuck coffee prior to working out. Your logic may be it is only a cup of coffee, but how once measures a cup of coffee is subjective. For some a cup is six ounces for others eight ounces and for others it is the supersized coffee they pick up from the gas station. Speaking of Starbucks, when looking at nutrition data, Starbucks coffees have up to 470 milligrams of caffeine in them.

Caffeine is commonly consumed by people daily, but that does not make it ideal for everyone or every situation. Some main issue with caffeine is sleeplessness, loss of appetite, jitteriness, and nausea. Imagine you experience jitteriness and nausea during a workout, that would likely make it harder to work out. Imagine you need to eat to refuel, but the caffein has curbed appetite, that would make it less than ideal for fueling for the next workout. Imagine you need to get a good night sleep to recover for the next sessions at your gym, but you sleep is disrupted due to the caffeine, that is less than ideal for your performance.

Caffeine and the potential side effects are not my point, but rather my example. Other common supplement ingredient can cause flushed skin, dehydration, gassiness, diarrhea, and other possible side effects. My point is to look into the side effects before taking a supplement, and if you experience these side effects, ask if the potential benefit outweighs the side effects.

Logic for use by the person using the supplement

This might be my favorite supplement topic to cover, and I say that in a sarcastic way. The reason for the sarcasm is the logic behind supplement use for most people is not existent. Yeah, sure, they have a reason, but it is usually something to do with 1) they want a shortcut to results, or 2) someone told them to take it. Does this sound like you?

Both of these reasons are awful. If this is the extent of your logic for taking supplement then you have not though it through. If you cannot articulate ant intelligent reason for taking a supplement, then you have not though it through. If you reason for taking a supplement amounts to “Well, it will help me reach my goals quicker,” you have not thought it through. You must have a solid logic for taking a supplement if you are going to take it.

The logic behind taking a supplement should consider the points I already mentioned. That is, you should consider your goals. Then you should acknowledge that supplement use is not necessary to reach your goals, though supplement use can have a place as part of an overall training and nutrition strategy. You should remember other steps come first, including but not limited to:

  • Making a commitment to put in honest effort
  • Putting together a good exercise plan
  • Having a nutrition strategy in place
  • Understanding supplements are not a short cut

If you have consider these things, have a good exercise plan, have a solid nutrition strategy, and are putting in an honest effort and still want to consider supplement use, then you have to consider the points in the last few sections. Those points are:

  • Scientific evidence back the efficacy of a supplement
  • Effectiveness of the supplement if efficacy is in place
  • Side effects of the supplement versus proposed benefits
  • Logic for use by the person using the supplement

And yes, even though we are in the logic for use section, I included it again. Go over your logic at least four times before you begin supplement use.

Final thoughts

The takeaway here is to consider everything I have already said. I cannot stress it enough. If you decided to take supplements, use them right. Following the dosing, the timing, other recommendations when taking the products, and anything else that is necessary to get the most of out supplement use. If you do, then you will likely get the most out of the supplement because you have taken the time to find a scientifically back product and use it right in conjunction with a quality plan backed by honest effort.

Demetz Personal Training About Nathan Demetz Personal TrainerNathan DeMetz holds degrees in Exercise Science, Business Administration, and Information Technology as well as certifications in strength and conditioning, sports nutrition, run coaching, and other areas. His credentials come from organizations such as Indiana Wesleyan University, Ivy Tech College, Utah State University, and the ISSA College of Exercise Science.

Nathan has 20 years of personal and professional experience in the health and fitness world. He works with people from across the globe, including locations such as Kuwait, Australia, and the USA.