Take Care Thursday – Supplements Suck and are Ruining Your Workout!

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Just a quick note, when you read this we will be on the road at the crack of dawn cheading out for another round of college tours! The posts for the next couple of days are all set, but I will be mostly offline.

OK, do I have your attention? I’m sure the moment I suggested something negative about supplements some people got their defenses up and were ready to attack. Lighten Up Francis! Here are two important things:

1. I don’t think supplements are crap.
2. And I don’t think they are ruining your workout.

BUT … I DO think that supplements are a natural extension of our ‘fix it with a pill’ culture, and also our ‘diet cult’ mindset. As such, we should always be suspicious of ‘do everything’ supplements – like the ones that claim to prevent injury, fix injury, or speed recovery without any real mechanistic evidence.

I wrote an early blog post about how all of the latest research really comes back to a simple conclusion: the best course of action is getting everything you need through eating well.

It is funny, I have been drafting this for a (long) while, but the great post at Shh…Fit Happens and the follow-up really pushed me to finish it. So … here goes!

Here are three thoughts:

1. Sometimes you NEED supplements

One of the main reasons I don’t think all supplements are crap is a lifetime of bloodwork with my wife. Lisa has always been borderline anemic regardless of diet, had issues with calcium and Vitamin D absorption, and also a number of vitamin and mineral deficiencies that are apparently not unexpected given her ‘hormonal place in life’.

Also, these past few months we have been working on her diet because of allergies and intolerance issues. She has apple allergies and severe tree fruit intolerances. She also has allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, including coconuts. And dairy intolerance, soy difficulties, gluten intolerance, and also difficulty with things like avacado. And several more. This makes getting proper nutrition a challenge – fortunately eggs, meats, greens and most veggies, and potatoes work pretty well for her.

As a result of all this, she needs her vitamins and supplements every day – and can see a direct impact when she doesn’t take them. For her – and many others – her need for supplements is as real as my need for Synthroid to help supplement my non-functioning thyroid.

2. You Should ALWAYS Be Wary of Supplements

There are a few main reasons I think you should never just ‘take a supplement’ without a reason:
Regulation – there is none. Period. ‘Natural’ and other terms thrown around are ‘weasel words’, because there is no enforcement.
Lack of studies – not only are there generally inadequate studies for supplements, those that are published are all too often PR blasts from companies making the products. Look at all of the blog reviews in our own community for things like Energy Bits and Vega and so on. None of us are qualified as an expert opinion on these things, yet a Google search will show loads of hits on blog posts about them, meaning people looking for information about these supplements will very often get a link to a blog post based on a sponsored review … rather than an objective study.
Hidden dangers – due to the lack of regulation and lacking studies, it is nearly impossible to quantitatively KNOW what potential ingredients and side-effects are in some supplements.

I love this quote:

“Supplements are good for when you’re deficient. In fact, very few people actually need to take supplements. Diet provides a much better balance of micronutrients,”

3. Supplements and Exercise

One of the biggest things I read about on running and ‘healthy living’ blogs is how people take supplements for a variety of reasons: recovery, healing, fueling, and so on. Again, there ARE valid reasons for some people taking some supplements … in general most people do not need them, and are at best getting a placebo effect.

There was an interesting article at the New York Times that looks at thepotentially harmful effects of vitamins on your workout.

“More mitochondria, especially in muscle cells, means more energy and, by and large, better health and fitness. The creation of new mitochondria is, in fact, generally held to be one of the most important effects of exercise.

But the volunteers who had consumed the antioxidants had significantly lower levels of the markers related to mitochondrial creation.”

On the other hand, the supplements did not improve performance in comparison with a placebo, so why bother with them, Dr. Paulsen asked. “Personally, I would avoid high dosages” of antioxidants while training, he said. The science on the topic may not be complete, but the intimation of the recent studies is that by downing the supplements, “you risk losing some of the benefits of exercise.”

Again, this is FAR from conclusive, but is a reminder that the ‘well, it can’t hurt’ mentality might not be true! This reminder is also noted in a Health.com article.

4. Other thoughts

There are loads of articles around about supplements in general and their impact on exercise. There are a couple of articles, one at Men’s Health and the other at Examiner that look at the possiblility of moving to an all-supplement diet … which they use a lot of words to basically say ‘um … no’, noting:

Nutrients in foods do not work alone in isolation, instead they work together as a powerhouse team in what’s called synergy.

And some other things …

Potential Side-Effects of the Popular Supplement Glutamine, and another one here

“Although there is no evidence that glutamine causes kidney damage, people with kidney disease should not take glutamine.”

“And if you are prone to seizures then you should ask your doctor before taking glutamine. It appears that a lot of anti-seizure medicines work by blocking glutamate (what our body metabolizes glutamine into) stimulation in the brain.”

Dr Oz (I know) on Getting Vitamins from Supplements rather than food

Situation: You hate the taste of most veggies and can barely choke down broccoli.

You Think: I’ll just get those nutrients from supplements – it’s the same thing.

The Truth: To get all of the healthy, disease-fighting benefits from vegetables, it’s always best to eat the real deal rather than a pop a pill. A recent study from Oregon State University found that an important phytochemical in broccoli and other similar veggies is poorly absorbed and much less beneficial when taken in supplement form. When it comes to these crunchy vegetables – as the song goes – ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.

Simple statement about supplements vs food

Why use a supplement when you can get all of these amino acids from the real deal—whole, unprocessed foods?

And finally … from WebMD

“Most people don’t realize there’s no real advantage to taking more than the recommended amounts of vitamins and minerals, and they don’t recognize there may be disadvantages,” Dwyer says.

Conclusions

For me the most important message I want people to ask themselves is WHY? Why am I taking this supplement? Why is my diet unable to deliver these compounds? Why does my body not absorb these minerals through my food?

We each have a unique chemical processing plant called our body, and like any incredibly complex system there are unique features that are hard to model and understand – I cite my wife and I as examples of two very differently functioning systems that are subect to nearly the same inputs on a daily basis yet respond very differently. Therefore it is simple for me as a non-medical person to say ‘just because it works for Meb doesn’t mean it will work for you.’

BUT … if it works for you, THAT is what matters.

So What Do YOU Think About Supplements?

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33 thoughts on “Take Care Thursday – Supplements Suck and are Ruining Your Workout!

  1. My Doctor advised me to take a multi-vitamin and an additional supplement. He advised it, so I’m doing it. I also believe that getting all of your nutrients from real food is the best way to go. Some of us just have deficiencies for some reason or other.

    • Absolutely – all you have to do is work in a manufacturing facility with two ‘identical’ process lines to realize that there is no such thing. So you do what makes sense for YOUR body!

  2. You are full of good stuff these days haha. Busting diet myths last week and supplements this week….love it! I hold the belief that unless a doctor prescribes it for you/tells you you need it, it’s not something you need. If you want to take a whole bunch of supplements, that’s your choice obviously, and I wish you the best, but I’m also going to wonder what in the world it’s doing for you, too, haha.

    • Thanks Caitlin! I DO try to stir things up 🙂 And I agree – take what you want, but ALWAYS question WHY you are doing it, and WHAT you are getting from it.

  3. Totally agree that getting as many of your needs met by real food is the “ideal” way to go whenever possible. I was diagnosed back in 2010 as significantly deficient in Vit D. The Doc and I put together a plan to combat this. During summer every other day or on cloudy/rainy days I take a Vit D supplement and during fall/winter/early spring I take the Vit D supplement daily. It has worked pretty well for my issues.

    • Thanks Harold – totally agree with you. Vitamin D is a pretty common absorption deficiency, and it can really mess with your system. So it is good you got it addressed!

  4. What a timely post, especially after my review yesterday. In general, I am not a supplement fan. The only time I have taken vitamins was the year before we tried to get pregnant with Ashton and of course throughout my pregnancy and then year after he was born bc I nursed him (I took a multivitamin with high folic acid and a DHA pill.) I am very anemic and my Dr has tried to get me to take a supplement everyday, but I just cannot tolerate iron pills and in general I am a big proponent of eating your nutrients. Also, since its been proven that we pee out most of the vitamins before absorption, I just don’t want to waste the money when I can get most of what I need through food.

    With my most recent experience, I was curious to see if a supplement would increase my running performance. Since I get up so early in the am, the thought of eating food just doesn’t work for me so I thought a supplement in a drink form would help. You know how that turned out, so for me personally, moving forward, I will continue to get my nutrition via healthy foods.

    • Thanks Sara (and happy vacation!), and iron is a tough one on both ends! I have a friend whose wife has hemochromatosis (too MUCH) iron) and that is a pain as well! And so long as you can get it through food, that is always the way – and I have heard a bunch of people who have issues with iron supplements messing with their systems!

  5. I don’t feel like I personally need supplements and I eat well, lots of good food with tons of veggies and fish. But I’m actually biased against supplements because my parents are total supplement junkies and I watched them each take ridiculous amounts of overpriced supplements on a daily basis along with not eating well…so yes, I’m biased! We had a full kitchen counter devoted to supplements and it really became an obsessive thing in my opinion. Just start with real food, be very particular with supplements, and don’t buy into hype 🙂

    • “Just start with real food, be very particular with supplements, and don’t buy into hype”

      Hey – no fair, you just wrote my entire post in 15 words! haha Great comment!

  6. Great information! I take an omega 3 supplement because I do not get them in my diet enough. Otherwise I try to eat lots of fruits and veggies and a variety of natural foods. I also take a calcium supplement since I have not been eating much (if any) dairy lately and I just don’t know if I am getting enough calcium. Its one of those things that my dr has always recommended but I am trying to figure out if I can get enough calcium from food. But I am terrified of stress fractures and I feel like having enough calcium is one way to keep the bones strong. But I love your point…try to get what you need from food and have a reason for supplementing!

    • Lisa – you are one person I don’t worry about, I have been loving the thoughtful way you have been looking at food lately and totally agree with you that you know what you need, and if you are concerned about key elements to supplement them. If you can figure out a way to eat your calcium (and vitamin D since they are linked) that is the best, but it doesn’t always work. Thanks for the comment!

  7. I try really hard to focus on diet, but I don’t consume a lot of foods that contain calcium, so I take a multi-vitamin daily. I’m also obsessed with making my hair grow longer after my pixie cut, so I’m taking biotin daily. Other than that, I don’t really need anything else.

    There’s definitely a lot of good information here, and it’s always important to think about what we put into our bodies. My mom was taking some diet pill back in the early 2000s and she ended up being rushed to the hospital with heart palpitations–scary scary stuff! As a result, I’ve always been extremely leery of “supplements.”

    • Yeah, my mother was essentially put on amphetamines by her doctor … sure the weight fell off, but along with it came all of the expected side-effects of begin strung out on speed! haha

      And agree that if you look at your diet and think – I am missing X – and take that, it is a healthy approach!

  8. I think the only supplement I probably need is flaxseed oil, since I have allergies to fish and nuts, but I take a bunch of others — iron-free multi-vitamin (even as a vegetarian, my iron is sky-high), calcium, C, B12 (just b/c I’ve heard it’s good for vegetarians), turmeric, and chromium picolinate (sp?). And I do vega protein powder in my breakfast smoothie, and a vega recovery powder after my long runs. Yeah, supplement queen here… I could probably ditch them all and nothing would change, but I feel like as long as I’m ticking along healthy and feeling good, might as well just stick with it.

    • haha – supplement queen indeed 🙂 Yeah, I have also heard B12 is one you have to watch as a vegetarian. And as I said, my main thing is for people to be ‘thinking consumers’ …

  9. I take the supplements my dr prescribed – but she also gave me a stop time – as in, after x amount of months, your body will have what it needs and you should stop taking them at point. I also take a multi-vitamin because, well, its a gummy vitamin and its really good 🙂 but otherwise i agree with everything you just said.

    • Thanks Charlotte 🙂 I think with many things it is easy to just keep on going without considering why we are taking them. My potassium was low when I was losing weight in 2012, my doctor suggested a banana before or after my run, and I’ve never had an issue since.

  10. I take vitamins because I have a tendency to not actually absorb things, and I have seen that certain supplements are indeed highly beneficial. My 2 cents, however, is simply that supplements are as effective as anything else, if used with proper information and recommendation, and taken correctly. The issue comes when people just take them indiscriminately, like they are throwing paint at a wall. For example, take iron with vitamin C and alongside calcium to promote absorption, but only take it if you actually need it. Knowledge is power, people!

    • The absorption thing is really key, Suz! People think that they are just naturally absorbing stuff, but too often their system doesn’t work optimally and they aren’t. That happens with my wife – particularly in winter months! And agree that knowledge is power 🙂

  11. Interesting post. I actually think everyone could benefit from taking a supplement. I take a one a day because I know my nutrition is not perfect. I don’t rely on a one a day but it’s nice to know that I am taking one.

    • Thanks for the dissenting opinion, Hollie 🙂 As you might guess I don’t necessarily agree, but nor do I disagree. My scientific background forces me to seek technical justification for things, and if your system has certain requirements and anything above that is wasted, then there is no need for supplements (i.e. they are literally ‘waste’). But many people either don’t absorb fully or have a lacking diet, so they will benefit – it is all about learning how your body works!

  12. This is a great post. We have been chatting about pills and supplements a lot lately because a youngish family member recently was diagnosed with high cholesterol and is taking meds for it. Kind of makes me sad because they are just to young for this and I truly believe their other aches and pains are due to this. That being said, I take a daily vitamin for personal reasons. My husband and I were exhausted during marathon training last year and took a daily vitamin to help us with that and found that it really helped. My husband no longer takes his and is quite fine. We are a society that is very quick to pop a pill to help us. As a kid I overdosed on ibuprofen to help with sports injuries and ended up damaging my kidneys. It took years of work and tests to come out on the healthy side. Nothing will make you want to never do that again like having to do 24 hour urine collections once a month. Talk about a party pooper!

    • haha – that sounds AWFUL! And Ibuprofen is definitely one that we seem to quickly jump to, and more and more research says it isn’t a good idea for a lot of athletic injuries as it hinders healing. Don’t know really … but the quickness of ‘pill popping’ without really knowing WHY troubles me.

  13. Thanks for a great post! I am just beginning to train but I am of the mentality that vitamins etc are good to ensure you get as many vitamins as possible, but I limit it to one tablet a day and try to eat at least 5 portions of fruit and veg and to avoid processed food. In fact, I am a bit skeptical about processed things in general, so when my running buddy decided to go down the gels/electrolytes/sports drinks route I was fairly sure I wouldnt be following him. I hope that with persistent and careful training I will be able to run ny upcoming half marathons with some water and a healthy diet. But as the daily milage is picking up in my programme im really starting to look at my diet to make sure I get everything I need to build a good base for later on. If anyone has any tips on what I should be eating, or diet plans, to help me improve my running that would be great! Thanks for a great post 🙂

    • Thanks for the great comment! As athletes we think a lot about training, miles, paces, plans, and so on … and then we will just pop whatever pill/shake/whatever the elites are using this month, as though it will magically make 4 minute miles pop out of our legs! I love how you are thinking about your diet and training and so on. And really that is key – my run today was a bit under fueled and I could feel it as I was getting well into the teens of my long run, but I also hate feeling over-full. Tough balance! Thanks again

    • Thanks Sarah – really loved your posts … sometimes it is funny how long it takes for an idea to come back through, and I wanted to be sure I was very clear on where the idea came from. (a blogging pet peeve of mine is not attributing inspiration!)

  14. I’m not a fan of taking lots of supplements, although I do take a multi vitamin and extra magnesium. I also have prescriptions for potassium chloride and tricor for genetic high cholesterol. I take the last two because despite a decent diet, my bloodwork shows issues in those two areas.

    Quick fixes seldom work for the long term. There’s some great medicine out there, but our overuse, such as what we’ve find with antibiotics, has led to bigger problems.

    • Antibiotics, as well as all of those ‘antibacterial’ products, are great examples of a good idea gone wrong. Antibiotics are used as a pacifier, leading to resistant strains obsoleting drugs. Same for antibacterials – too much use means the bateria mutate and resist.

      Big time agree on the ‘Quick fixes seldom work for the long term.’ … and we are a culture seeking the quick fix.

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