I recently had the pleasure of doing a talk to Cornell Fitness on supplements. To prepare, I spent the past couple weeks diving into the research in order to learn about this overwhelming aspect of the fitness and health industry. First, I feel that is important to differentiate a supplement from an ergogenic aid. A supplement is something that you are taking in order to replace or enhance something that is missing in your diet. An ergogenic aid is something that you are taking in order to improve performance for a sport or other objective. Occasionally, there is some cross over where you take something that meet the criteria for both, such as taking a protein shake in order to get more protein in your diet and to help with muscle recovery or hypertrophy.
My usual approach to research is to look at literature reviews, meta analyses and position statements of reputable associations. I use this as a starting point to determine what has been studied and what the results, conclusions and recommendations are. For additional information I typically use PubMed and search for hits of a specific query. For this talk, I also looked at what the government has posted regarding supplements, both through the FDA and the National Institute of Health. While my research is not exhaustive, I feel that I was able to discover some similar findings regarding the use of various supplements. I also used Examine.com, an independent research site dedicated to nutrition and supplements.
Like a lot of research, once you start looking into it, the water becomes murky. There is a lot of information and opinions available with conflicting results or exceptions. This, in turn, makes it difficult to make specific recommendations. The other difficulty is that every body is different and may tolerate the same supplement differently, or have a different effect. If you choose to take something, look at what the research says to make an informed decision and then see how well you respond to it. It is also important to keep your doctor updated on any supplements you take. Many supplements are generally safe to take, so If it helps, great, if not, don’t continue to pay for it. This is where www.examine.com comes in; they have compiled the research and made it available. This is a great starting point to see what body systems a particular supplement affects.
Before we get into supplements, it is important to determine what your goals are, what you are deficient in, why you want to take a supplement, what you are hoping to accomplish with it and then committing to eating a clean, varied diet, getting enough sleep and having an intense exercise plan that is meant to help you achieve your goals. Without taking care of the basics, the supplement is not going to be as much help.
I am not going to make any specific recommendations regarding supplements, that is a personal choice. What I want to do is provide access to quality information to help you make an informed decision based on your goals and the current evidence. In addition to examine, two other great resources are the Australian Institute of Sport that classifies supplements on an A-D scale based on efficacy and the International Society of Sport Nutrition which has a series of position stands that help understand the link between supplements, ergogenic aids, diet and performance. These three resources are a great place to start your research. At the end is pasted a summary of supplements rated on efficacy for specific exercise goals.
Choosing a supplement for general health is even more challenging and once again, examine is a good starting point. From there you can see what may or not work depending on your particular situation. There are a lot of caveats for general supplementation, so it really merits a longer discussion to dissect and understand your individual needs. As a general rule supplementing to correct a deficiency is helpful and certain populations may benefit from certain supplements. I would be happy to share what I found out, so if you have a question please contact me directly.
Good luck and stay healthy!
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*This site is for educational purposes only, it is not meant to diagnose, treat or replace medical advice. Before starting an exercise program always make sure that you are healthy and able to do so safely.*