Updated: Jan 17, 2021
With the New Year coming up people are always looking for an edge to help them reach their goals. While nutrition supplementation MAY contribute up to 5%, on the very high end, to total fitness success and health, people are always asking about what to take... so here we go.
Here are a few items that I use and the few that I would recommend to clients because they actually have merit based on years of scientific research. It is important to note, however, that you need NONE of these to get amazing results and that individual needs may vary based on overall diet and possible clinical deficiencies. For example, vegans may need to supplement with B12.
I will not be covering individual or clinical dietary needs but a few health-promoting and performance-enhancing supplements.
Be sure to read the full article for a complete list of references and for important supplement buying tips.
Performance Enhancing Supplements
Whey Protein (7)
Meeting daily protein intake goals for some can be difficult with food alone. Most good evidence recommends total daily protein intake to be between 0.8g/lb of body weight to 1.0g/lb of bodyweight for strength-trained individuals (aka anyone reading this). While this can be done with whole foods, a scoop of whey is a quick, convenient, and cheap way to help move the needle in the right direction. Whey protein is my choice over any other type due to it being complete, easily digestible, high on the protein quality list, and relatively cheap. If for whatever reason whey does not agree with you (lactose intolerance) you can use an alternative protein source. A blend is a good idea to ensure completeness (containing all essential amino acids).
Other protein sources like casein (also a dairy derivative) are slower digesting and are a favorite to have before bed for many in the strength space.
Creatine Monohydrate (6)
Creatine monohydrate is one of the most researched sports performance supplements on the market. It consistently demonstrates effectiveness at building muscle and strength while being safe in healthy populations making it an essential choice for someone looking to optimize their performance. Recent evidence has shown some effect on a variety of neurodegenerative conditions (TBI, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's...) making this a source of a lot of exciting, new research. Normally, we can get some creatine from red meat and fish but most sources recommend 5g/day for benefits.
Don't worry about all the fancy stuff, just look for good ol' fashioned creatine monohydrate. It is very cost-effective considering the benefits you get from the supplement.
Caffeine (4, 5)
Caffeine is probably the other most researched sports performance supplement on the market. It consistently shows benefit not only for improved performance during a workout but also reduced ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) which allow you to push harder thus yielding more gains. Caffeine has also shown to be healthy for the brain, heart, and liver. Depending on where you get your caffeine from (coffee versus caffeine tablets) there can also be a host of other benefits. Coffee is a powerful source of antioxidants and provides a slew of additional health-promoting benefits.
Health Promoting Supplements
Vitamin D (3, 8)
We don't exactly know the full extent of Vitamin D's role in the body but we do know that it is one of the most common nutrient deficiencies in the US. Low levels of Vitamin D are associated with many disease states. We also know that solid Vitamin D levels have correlated well with better sleep, lean body mass (muscle), a stronger immune system, and higher bone mineral density (stronger bones) probably due to its role in calcium absorption and regulation.
Vitamin D can be pretty cheap and should be considered if you cannot get quality sun exposure every single day like in the winter or if you don't spend much time outdoors.
Lots of people like to hate on a basic multivitamin but the potential benefits really outweigh the costs here. While yes, some excess water-soluble vitamins may be excreted in the urine, a simple, daily multi-vitamin is a good "insurance policy" to make sure you are getting all of your daily vitamins and minerals. For how cheap they are, this is an easy one to ensure you are covering all bases. Research has shown a correlation between health and multivitamin use so it may be worth the $0.08/serving. This combined with your 5 daily servings of fruits and vegetables and you're golden.
Fish Oil (9)
When fish oil first hit the scene it was the best thing since sliced bread. Unfortunately for fish oil, this meant a ton of more research went into the use of fish oil for everything from cardiovascular health to brain health to joint inflammation. While the net effect of all research still points towards beneficial, many studies have found no benefit. An additional problem is that when batch tested many supplements do not contain what they say they do in terms of quality of the fatty acids. In order to buy a high quality fish oil it that is 3rd party verified, it may be very costly.
This falls in the maybe category where if you can afford it and want to take some fish oil, go for it! But look into the source and try to "find a good one." There is SO much data on fish oil instead of citing one or two studies the reference is the Examine.com page with links to all studies.
Magnesium (1, 10)
Magnesium is one of the other biggest nutrient deficiencies in the US making this a worthwhile investment. That being said, not everyone is deficient and your daily multivitamin will have some magnesium in it. Magnesium is not too pricey on its own and the benefits of supplementation include a calming effect, reducing blood pressure (smooth muscle relaxer), helps you be regular on the toilet (smooth muscle relaxer), improves insulin sensitivity, and can be protective against depression. Keep in mind, these benefits do not come from super-physiological doses but from fixing a deficiency through diet and supplementation.
Turmeric (Curcumin) (11)
Turmeric is a spice commonly found in Indian cooking and it is touted as a super-spice because of its effects on inflammation. Curcumin is one of the potent compounds found in turmeric that causes many of these effects. Much research has been done on the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant effects of this space and compound. While the effects are not huge and amazing, there is some decent evidence to say there is benefit in reducing symptoms of osteoarthritis, depression, and anxiety, and some lower-level evidence for a reduction in serum glucose, LDL, and triglycerides and a reduction in blood pressure.
Many/all of these benefits also come from exercising and maintaining a healthy body weight (which you could think of as free) and have a myriad of other health benefits. In addition, the magnitude of the effect of exercise and a healthy body weight is much larger than that of turmeric (curcumin) supplementation alone. So, if you workout and eat well and are not overweight and you really want to spend a few extra bucks every month to maybe be a little healthier, go for it.
Before I recommend ANY supplement to someone I focus on getting them to eat 5 servings of fruit/vegetables a day, whole grains, and plenty of lean proteins. If after all that this person wants to take a greens supplement because they want some more, go for it. For some, this can replace a multivitamin as many of these powdered greens drink provide a cocktail of vitamins and minerals. You definitely do not need this and it is WAY better to just eat your damn vegetables (fiber, satiety, food volume) so this falls under the super-maybe list.
General Supplement Info
An important note about the multi-billion dollar supplement industry is that it is not regulated by the FDA. Any company can make any claim about a supplement and just slap an asterisk saying that these claims have not been evaluated by the FDA and they are in the clear. We rely on 3rd party testing and companies taking it upon themselves to do right by their customers. Make sure every supplement you buy has some type of 3rd party testing or quality assurance stamp. Look for one or a few of these on your supplements.
Finally, I spend a lot of time reading research articles and I will be the first to tell you it is NOT easy to find out A) what the hell you are even reading and B) if it is in fact a GOOD study. Many times I have read what I thought was an awesome paper and someone better at appraising evidence tells me it sucks (bias, confounding variables, selection bias, statistical significance versus clinical significance). This is why I use Examine.com very often! They have great resources and break down the literature for you in easy ways to understand.
Consume a generally health-promoting diet (calorie balance, lean protein, lots of fruit/veg, high fiber, healthy fats), workout consistently, and sleep well BEFORE feeling the need to spend money on any supplements.
Make an informed choice, read about it, determine why you're taking it, and ensure it is 3rd party assessed in some way.
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1. Al Alawi, A. M., Majoni, S. W., & Falhammar, H. (2018). Magnesium and Human Health: Perspectives and Research Directions. International journal of endocrinology, 2018, 9041694. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/9041694
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5. Kolb, H., Kempf, K., & Martin, S. (2020). Health Effects of Coffee: Mechanism Unraveled?. Nutrients, 12(6), 1842. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12061842
6. Kreider, R.B., Kalman, D.S., Antonio, J. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition position stand: safety and efficacy of creatine supplementation in exercise, sport, and medicine. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 18 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0173-z
7. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
8. Zmijewski M. A. (2019). Vitamin D and Human Health. International journal of molecular sciences, 20(1), 145. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms20010145