If you go to any health food store, you’ll be inundated with the pick ‘n’ mix-like selection of supplements. From Vitamin C to Zinc, you name it, it’s there. We all know someone whose cupboard consists of every supplement known to man and more. This leads to the question of whether these supplements are providing us with an array of superpowers or…. Are supplements a waste of money, when you could eat a balanced diet?
People love to focus on supplements. With nutrition, they are the tip of the iceberg. Eric Helms has supplements on the tip of the nutritional pyramid. What you need to focus on first are:
- Meal timings
- Then supplements
(Nutrition Pyramid, cited from Eric Helms)
Most of us start upside down. Focusing on the pebbles, before laying down the large slabs.
Most of us get everything we need from food. Everything in supplements can be found in a varied balanced diet. As with everything in nutrition, it’s not a 100% straight answer. There is nuance and exceptions, there are some supplements, which may be worth taking for an array of reasons. These supplements tend to be:
- Vitamin D
- Fish oil
- Creatine monohydrate
- Protein powder
Next time you’re on Instagram and some influencer is pushing a supplement, with their discount code. You’ll know if it’s worth it, or if they’re trying to make a quick buck out of you.
Disclaimer: This is not medical advice, this is informational advice only. If you have any medical or clinical issues, please speak to your medical practitioner or Registered Dietitian.
Getting enough Vitamin D through your diet alone is tough. The main source of Vitamin D comes from the sun. Therefore, if you’re not getting enough sunlight or live in a cold climate. It’s recommended to supplement with Vitamin D. This is even more crucial during winter and autumn months when sunlight is scarce.
If like me and your darker-skinned and live somewhere cold, it’s even more important. It’s been known for darker people to have Vitamin D deficiency (1). However if are lighter-skinned and work outside, such as my dad with his manual job.
It’s recommended that adults consume at least 10 micrograms (µg) per day (400 IU). (2) If you want to go for a higher dose, such as 25 micrograms, that’s fine, I do. However a lot of Vitamin D supplements are 100 micrograms (4000IU), I’d strongly advise against buying any that strong. First, it’s totally unnecessary, we’re not cows, we don’t need that much and second, too much of a good thing can cause issues too. (2)
So when looking to purchase Vitamin D, make sure it says on the package “each tablet contains 10µg of Vitamin D”.
The role of Vitamin D is to keep bones, teeth and muscles healthy and functioning well. All important stuff as we age. Deficiencies can lead to rickets and other hosts of bone issues.
One last thing. If you can get them in “gummy” form, I would, as gummies are tasty and more fun than swallowing tablets.
Fish oil (EPA & DHA)
It’s recommended we eat at least 2 portions oily fish per week (a portion being around 140 grams).(3)
Most of us aren’t. However this is where fish oil comes into play. Fish oil contains the essential fatty acids omega 3, which are rich in DHA and EPA’s.
The benefits are vast. This is one of many reasons, those in the Mediterranean and Japan have such long lives. And why their rates of heart disease are a lot lower than ours.
While I would recommend getting it from fish, as there are so many other benefits. I understand not everybody wants to or can.
While it’s confusing with all the various fish supplements out there. Find a supplement that contains at least 400mg of both EPA and DHA.
As for vegetarians and vegans, I have you covered too. Algae is where fish get their EPA and DHA from. Therefore for you guys, you can go straight to the source. The only downside is, the capsules contain less EPA and DHA, therefore you may have to consume more capsules, which will cost a little more compared to fish.
So, if you’re consuming oily fish consistently, don’t worry. But I know most of us aren’t, so I would recommend supplementing with a fish oil or algae.
Oily fish (fish oil) benefits
- Reducing bad cholesterol – Lots of studies, show there is a correlation between intakes of oily fish or fish oil and lower cholesterol. (4)
- Good for eyes – Higher levels of EPA and DHA, have been shown to slow vision loss. (5)
- Good for joints – As we age, our joints get progressively worse. Fish oil has been shown numerous times to improve such issues. (6)
- Good for the brain – It’s not going to turn you into a genius. But if you’re low on Omega-3, your brain may not be running to its full potential. (7)
- Help reduce blood pressure – Various studies show, people with higher blood pressure can benefit from supplementing with fish oil (8)
- Benefit mental health – Some evidence has suggested there is a link between those who have more depressive symptoms and having lower levels of omega 3 in their system (9)
Epidemiological studies indicate an association between depression and low dietary intake of omega-3 fatty acids, and biochemical studies have shown reduced levels of omega-3 fatty acids in red blood cell membranes in both depressive and schizophrenic patients.Pete & Stokes, 2005
Creatine is found in red meat and fish. 1 pound of cooked meat or fish, only elicits 1-2 grams of creatine, which is far more than most people will consume in a day. Hence why supplementing with creatine might be a valid suggestion, as 3-5g is optimal, if you want to optimise your training.
Out of all the supplements creatine is one of, if not the most researched.
Creatine is the bodies first energy system. When you first lift a weight or start a sprint. That is powered by your creatine stores.
Your muscles have these little storage rooms called, phosphocreatine stores. These little stores make what is called ATP, which is what your body uses to produce energy. The phosphocreatine stores only have so much creatine available, which is derived from food. When you supplment with creatine, you increase your phosphocreatine stores, therefore increase the amount of ATP your muscles can produce. Giving you a greater initial burst of power.
This initial burst of power, can be the difference between winning a sprint. Or increasing your lifts in the gym, helping you build more muscle.
Creatine has other cool benefits too. Especially for vegetarians and vegans. Creatine affects memory and brain function. As vegetarians and vegans tend to have lower creatine stores. A study was done on vegetarians and meat-eaters, where memory was measured after consuming creatine. The vegetarian group’s memory significantly improved after consuming creatine. Another study also showed creatine monohydrate improved vegetarian’s working memory (9).
To take it’s pretty simple. Just take 3-5g per day. (10) It doesn’t matter when you take it. You will initially gain weight, however, it’s water retention not fat. So, if fat loss is your goal, you have no need to be concerned.
There are different types of creatine on the market. Don’t waste your money on any fancy blends. Just by simple “creatine monohydrate”, do that and you can’t go wrong.
Multivitamins are interesting. Some will claim they are a total waste of money, whereas others will pop them, like there’s no tomorrow.
I’d like to advocate for a middle ground. A lot of people try and use them to make up for a nutrient poor diet. Thinking these will compensate for things. This isn’t the case. Food’s rich in vitamins, also have fibre and other elements which are vital for optimal gut health. So unfortunately eating only cheesecake and popping a few multivitamins won’t do.
However, if your goal is fat loss. You are going to be underrating to meet your calorie goal. Therefore, you do run the risk of being deficient in various nutrients. As most diets will include a form of restriction, whether it’s carbs or fats, there is a chance you’ll be missing vital nutrients in said area. So, taking a multivitamin to cover your bases on that ground, is not going to do you any harm.
If you are not dieting or looking to build muscle and you have all your nutritional foundations in place. These won’t do much for you, other than making your urine expensive.
But if you’re dieting, they are something, you might want to consider.
One of my favourite supplements. A lot of people misunderstand the use of it though.
On one end of the spectrum, you’ll get the young boys in the gym, who chug it straight after their last rep. Thinking the shake is going to magically grow their muscles. When they’d be better off focusing on calorie intake and daily total proteins. Without these 2 fundamentals nailed first, taking a protein shake is kinda pointless.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have those, who look down on anyone that uses protein powder. Like with most things, there is a middle ground, though not sexy, is usually right.
The recommended amount of protein for the average person is 0.8g per kg of bodyweight, per day. That is around 50g a day. This number however is the minimum to prevent diseases and deficiencies.
However, If you want to build muscle, optimise your sports performance or prevent muscle loss on a diet, you’ll need double the recommended amount of protein per day. That is 1.6g per kg of bodyweight. Or 1.6g per kg of target bodyweight if you’re obese and have a lot of fat you want to lose weight. That is quite a lot of protein. For some people, they’ll struggle to get that from food alone.
Let’s take an 80kg man. According to the standard nutrition guidelines of 0.8g per kg, his protein recommendations would be 64g of protein per day. However, to optimise muscle growth, prevent age-related muscle loss and boost sports performance, he’d want to have 128g per day. Getting 64g of protein a day would be easy. Getting 128g per day, with food alone can be done. But for some people will be very hard. Therefore, a protein shake with 30g of protein, or 2 shakes with 60g of protein, makes hitting your protein goal a lot easier.
Protein powder isn’t actually a supplement. It’s a food or an ingredient. Its evaporated water made from the byproduct of cheese.
Not only is protein powder convenient, but it also’s cheap, contains all the essential amino acids and is the most bioavailable source of protein going. This means, your body finds it very easy to break down and very little goes to waste.
This is why I recommend most people aim for a higher protein intake than the minimum guidelines. Having more muscle has benefits, which go way beyond aesthetics:
- Prevents sarcopenia
- Slows down aging
- Increases insulin sensitivity (less likely to get diabetes)
- Decreases risk of heart disease and cancer
So if you can get enough protein from food, crack on. But if you need a little help, this is a great supplement.
Protein powders I recommend:
- Whey protein (NOT DIET WHEY – it’s not better, its a waste of money, calories are the same)
- Whey Isolate (For those lactose intolerant, still check with your doctor first)
- Vegan powder (Pea and rice blend)
A great supplement for performance. Instead of spending money on pre-workouts save it and use caffeine instead. Most pre-workouts are glorified caffeine powder, with some other things thrown in, to give you a little tingle. If that tingle is important, then use pre-workout. But if you only want the actual effects, caffeine is what you are after.
Aim for 300-400mg per day for optimum performance. I’d recommend if you’re not sure, start on the lower end. If using as a pre-workout, consume 30-60 minutes prior to working out. This gives it enough peak effect in your system, giving you the best possible workout. (11)
You can consume caffeine in pill form. Or if you’re like me, why would you waste your caffeine on pills, when you could have it in coffee form. The best form.
Or if neither of those options work, have a sugar free energy drink. 2 white monsters would do the job.
If you’re sensible you would save the caffeine for your workout days. That way when it’s consumed, it will have a strong effect on you. If you’re like me and live on coffee, you might either want to go on the higher end or taper back on your daily caffeine consumption. That way when you do use it, it will have a stronger effect.
Also known as branched-chain amino acids. These are the essential amino acids within protein for building muscle. I have spoken about them in more depth.
If you’re getting enough protein through your food and/or using a good protein powder to supplement your intake. Then BCAA’s don’t have much relevance. Yes, you have the essential muscle-building proteins, but without all the other amino acids it’s pretty useless.
It’s like having the wheels and engine of a car. You still need all the other parts, for the car to work. An engine on it’s own isn’t useful.
There are a couple caveats where BCAA’s might be helpful for building muscle.
- If you have your nutrition set up 100%. You’re training to 100% efficiency, you take your creatine and caffeine and dose it perfectly. Taking some BCAA’s to make sure you definitely have enough essential amino acids, might make a 1% difference. (But probably won’t)
- It might benefit vegans. Except for soy, all plant-based proteins are incomplete. This means they don’t have all the essential amino acids for building and sustaining muscle. Therefore adding a BCAA supplement to meals might make the protein you consume more likely to be complete.
|Essential Amino Acids||Nonessential Amino Acids|
|Lysine (BCAA)||Aspartic acid|
Non-essential amino acids are made in the body. But essential can only be acquired from food. If you’re vegan, eating a good variety of plants will most likely do the job. Otherwise, a vegan powder will contain all you need. The amino acids labeled BCAA are the ones, in BCCA powder. Whilst yes, they are the Amino acids, that trigger muscle growth. the rest are also needed to support them.
Individual vitamins and minerals
There are various individual vitamin and mineral supplements on the market, such as Vitamin C, Iron, Vitamin B or Zinc.
When it comes to these sort of vitamins, these will come to the discretion of your GP or Dietitian. These are are suited to those, with clinical issues, well outside my scope.
Why do I say this? A lot of people will consume a boatload of Vitamin C tablets, to “boost” their immune system. However, most people consume far more than enough Vitamin C in their diets already. So, having more than necessary, will not do you any extra favours. In fact, an excess can lead to flatulence, diarrhoea and stomach pains. (12)
As for other vitamins and minerals such as Vitamin B or Iron, some people may need to supplement, if they follow a dietary pattern that is low, in said vitamin or mineral. For instance, a vegan diet can be very low in Vitamin B and Iron. If you are concerned, speak to your healthcare provider, who can do blood tests and give you a personalised analysis and recommendations.
So overall, if you think you might possibly be deficient, speak to a clinical professional. But for the rest of you, hoping to build muscle, lose fat, increase performance or boost your immune system, save your money.
The best thing you can do for yourself is to eat enough fruit and veggies each day. Here in the UK, it’s recommended we eat at least 5, 80g portions of different fruit and veg a day. Only 1 in 3 of us do that. Fresh, frozen, or canned. It doesn’t matter, it’s all good. If you can do this first, you’ll be far better off, than worrying about which vitamins to take.
This is purely my opinion. But I believe most of us are misinformed and see food as medicine. So believe taking vitamins will make our health better etc. Whereas, in fact, food isn’t medicine, our body needs a certain amount of vitamins and minerals to prevent issues happening. But once that’s covered, taking extra is not helpful.
Like when you finish your shift at work, you don’t get paid extra to stay work longer. But if you don’t work the required hours, that leads to consequences.
So my final thoughts are, unless you’re instructed to take certain vitamins, save your money.
There are a lot of fat burner supplements on the market, so il lump them as just fat burners.
So the only way to burn fat is through a caloric deficit. Eating fewer calories than you burn. Therefore the sole purpose of these fat burners is to increase the number of calories you burn and help you consume few calories. I’ve been asked if they actually burn off body fat and the answer to that is no.
The main ingredient found in fat burners is caffeine. Why caffeine? Well, caffeine has appetite-suppressing effects, meaning you’re less hungry. And as a stimulant, caffeine might make you move a little more, thus burning more calories. (13)
Fat burners also have other ingredients, which don’t have much research to back them.
If I was you, I’d just stick with caffeine, save yourself the money.
Just like fat burners, the main ingredient is caffeine. What makes pre workout different is the tingling feeling you get too.
This is caused by a substance called ‘Beta Alanine’. Though ‘Beta Alanine’ may be useful during endurance sessions. There isn’t much to say it’s useful as a pre-workout. (14)
Therefore, I’d stick with caffeine, if you want a boost before your workout. If you like a tingle, then pre-workouts may be of use. In fact, that placebo of the tingle may be what gets you to perform better. If that tingle helps get you in the mood to train, there is no reason to stop.
Are supplements a waste of money? No, not always. As you can see some are very useful and some I’d recommend most people to take.
However, there are a lot of supplements that a pushed out, which for 99.99% of us, have next to no benefit. Most of us would benefit from Vitamin D, fish oil and maybe protein. Creatine yes is very useful, but not life or death. As for multivitamins, most of us don’t need to worry. Individual vitamins are something to be discussed with a health care professional. As for the rest, I wouldn’t waste my time or money.
Josh is a Registered Associate Nutritionist, with the Association for Nutrition (AFN). He completed his degree in Nutrition at the University of Roehampton in 2021. He passed with a First Class with Honours.
Josh is also a tutor for up-and-coming Personal Trainers, where he teaches a Level 4 Advanced Nutrition course. This is for Personal Trainers looking to upskill their nutrition knowledge. This is done at Norfolk Health & Fitness.