Many years ago, sports nutrition supplements were solely used by sports professionals, athletes and bodybuilders. In today’s world of health and fitness, it’s estimated that one in four every people regularly use sports nutrition products. This predictably has caused an unprecedented surge in sales. Back in 2016, sales of vitamins, minerals and supplements reached an estimated £421 million and by 2021 this figure could rise well beyond £457 million. For some context, it’s estimated that the amount spent by British consumers on vitamins and supplements is 15 times greater than what’s spent on chocolate.
Despite the popularity and prevalence of supplements, their use and application remain far more complex than it needs to be. A lot of this is down to the power of marketing and a general misunderstanding from consumers about what supplements are supposed to be.
For example, fat burners are marketed at making fat loss easy and quick, mass gainers will, of course, allow you to build more muscle and BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) are recommended for both strength and endurance training that can be taken before, during and after a workout to aid recovery.
All of this leads to the self-evident conclusion that supplements lead to outcomes, and therefore anyone who wants to reach those outcomes would be sabotaging their chances by not taking them. It is this clever positioning which has allowed supplement marketers to create a multi-billion-pound industry.
I remain fairly optimistic that despite misinformation about supplements that the internet has given rise to, if you’re a discerning customer it’s usually very easy to tell at a glance which supplements could work and which probably won’t.
The issue there, however, is that evidence can sometimes be hard to come by, and even when it does exist, it’s often kept behind a paywall and not intended for the layperson. In my personal experience, this has caused people to be overly cautious and sceptical about supplements. The danger with this scenario is that, even if someone would benefit from supplementation, they won’t go near certain products for fear that their money will be misspent.
One of the most rapidly growing sections of the supplement market is taken up by prohormones, largely because most people have realised that many superstars who marketed natural supplements were using everything else, too, and that it was these things that actually worked. If you want to look like professional bodybuilder Kai Greene, for example, you’ll need more than the beef protein he’s marketed for years.
That leaves those of us who don’t want to use exogenous (synthetic) hormones in a bit of a bind, with there being very few information resources that are reputable, and even fewer actual supplements that we can trust, and/or that will actually do anything worthwhile. All this may lead you to the conclusion that supplements are a scam, but this is simply not true.
While it is not really the case that supplements lead to specific outcomes, lean muscle or less body fat for example, they are able to assist you in achieving these things by allowing you to (generally) train harder and/or recover more effectively. The improvements therefore will be less pronounced than they would be if you really could buy muscle gains in a tub, but they are no less real and no less desirable.
Throughout both articles, you’ll discover the most well-supported supplements available for the purpose of improving exercise performance and recovery. There are some supplements which may have value for other contexts (mental conditions such as depression, or gut health for those with Chron’s disease for example) but that is beyond the scope of these articles.
In order to effectively talk about supplements, it’s useful to first make a distinction between two different branches. There are supplements designed to help create a complete and balanced diet (referred to as nutritional supplements from this point on) and then there are supplements designed to enhance performance in some way (referred to as non-food supplements).
Nutritional supplements simply work; however, they will not improve your health, muscle gain or performance to any degree that is greater than it would be had you gotten the same nutrients from a regular, wholefood source. If doing so is difficult, inconvenient or undesirable for you then using these supplements can help you achieve better results than if they weren’t used.
It’s well known that consuming sufficient protein is important for building muscle and/or retaining it during calorie restriction. Protein supplements are effective at doing this, but only insofar as they help you get enough protein per day. A huge review of the entirety of the relevant research found that protein supplementation that helps you get up to 1.6-2.2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight per day is beneficial, but any more than that does not help, and so this represents an excellent use of supplemental nutrition products.
Along the same lines, carbohydrate supplements work as they provide a rapid-digesting source of glucose. Most will not need this, but according to the ACSM, consuming 0.7g of carbohydrate per kilogram of bodyweight per hour of continuous activity could potentially allow for greater endurance performance in those training for over an hour. This would ideally be from a mixture of simple glucose and fructose for more effective absorption into the blood, at a 1-1.2:0.8-1 ratio, meaning a roughly equal concentration of each, but with a little more glucose than fructose.
Carbohydrate supplementation is not needed outside of this context, but it is not harmful either and those who believe they benefit from carbohydrate supplementation during more intermittent forms of exercise like HIIT or resistance training should feel free to use these products for that purpose provided the calories are accounted for within the individual’s overall approach.
Similarly, vitamin and mineral supplements are very useful for correcting deficiencies, so those who cannot or do not consume dairy may want to consider supplementing with calcium, those avoiding animal products may need vitamin B12, those who don’t eat oily fish regularly will benefit from omega-3 supplementation and those in the Northern Hemisphere may consider vitamin D supplementation for this corrective purpose, particularly in the winter months.
While none of these nutrients will help improve any aspect of health or body composition in a supraphysiological sense, they can certainly help avoid the negative consequences of not consuming enough, and so they could be a great addition to any nutritional protocol. It can be difficult to say if you will personally need any micronutrient supplements, though vegans, those who don’t use dairy, those who don’t like fish, those living outside the tropics, those with digestive issues, those without a gallbladder and those who don’t eat many vegetables are likely to be at risk.
Blood testing is available if you’re concerned, but of course the average healthy person can’t really go wrong by just using a high-quality multivitamin and fish oil as a safety net. Of course, if you’re anaemic or have any other signs of more severe nutrient deficiencies (brittle hair and nails, weakness, poor blood clotting etc) then speak to a doctor because your case may be a little different.
Beyond these basic nutritional supplements, however, is where things get interesting. Outside of this we are talking not about supplements to correct deficiencies caused by an incomplete diet, but rather about ergogenic aids – things that give us a little something extra.
In part two we’ll be discussing other supplements geared towards performance and a few lesser known, but still potentially useful supplements.