Magic powders and pills – do you need supplements?
Supplements. Quickly becoming one of the largest sub-industries within the health and fitness world, as well as one of the most hotly debated. Many quote the view that the raft of powders, pills and potions on the market are only effective for elite athletes and do little for the average exerciser, while others tout the 'nutrition trumps training' angle and argue high quality 'supps' can boost results.
Let's look at a few points to be aware if you are to make an informed decision about what to use yourself and what to advise clients.
An addition to your normal nutrition
Supplements, by definition, should be an addition to your normal nutrition. Whey protein is probably the most popular example, particularly amongst those training for body composition improvements or sports. Whilst a useful way of topping up your protein intake to necessary requirements if you struggle to meet them, successful marketing campaigns have led to many exercisers unnecessarily using whey instead of fresh sources of protein such as meat, eggs and nuts. This can be an expensive option which confers little extra benefit.
The "high protein" band wagon
Manufacturers have jumped on the 'high protein' band wagon in a big way and there's an abundance of snacks and 'protein foods' that have proliferated recently. Protein bread, protein ice cream and even protein water. Are these 'supplements' or simply alternative sources of macronutrients, often packaged and processed?
Consult a professional
Ergogenic (performance enhancing) aids such as creatine and 'pre-workouts' would more legitimately fall into the genuine supplement category, as would traditional vitamins and minerals, but only consultation with a qualified professional can tell you if you would really benefit from taking them. The term supplement is however often used when referring to products that are actually complete meal-replacements (and even marketed as such!). That's not to say these products are not of use in themselves - some manufacturers simply source freely available 'normal' foods such as nuts, seeds, carbohydrate and fibre sources, blend them together and sell them in a convenient packet. Quality issues aside, this can be quite legitimate, particularly if sourcing nutrition in a simple, time-saving way is something you value (note: a colleague once amusingly remarked that that if the foods mentioned above were combined in whole form rather than a powder for use in a shake, it would essentially just be muesli!)
Look at the ingredients!
There is then a difference between conveniently packaged natural foods, and those which contain a long list of fillers, sweeteners and other chemicals which render them far from healthy. A quick look at the ingredients list is quite revealing - if you can't pronounce half the words perhaps you should be questioning the product.
Supplement suppliers often now brand themselves as 'sports nutrition' companies and offer such large product ranges which include everything discussed so far that it's no surprise people have lost the distinction between something which can be a regular part of a healthy diet and things that are really only appropriate and beneficial for a select few in the population. With the increasing awareness of and demand for healthy nutrition, many companies have even added whole foods and products to their offering so it's not uncommon to now see chicken breasts on sale alongside branch chain amino acids, which further blurs the lines.
Address what's necessary for you
So what's the take home message? Before even considering supplements, you should address the basics for you and your clients based on an assessment of goals, such as total calorie intake and macronutrient requirements. A nutritional plan should be designed using whole, natural food sources as far as possible, and only if requirements can't be met using these should alternatives in the form of supplements be introduced.
If you’re interested in learning about sports nutrition, and want to become qualified! Have a look at our Nutrition for Sport and Exercise course here>>.