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


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.


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?

From The Archives – Thank you for smoking … NOT!

Kids Ferrari Show

I got a great response from my vacation ‘from the archives’ posts, and I have been talking so much about my personal blogs from before this one … so I took a look and found a bunch of old blog posts that I thought would be interesting to share and discuss (if you guys find them interesting, of course). Here is the first! It is about public smoking, and came into my mind again as we hiked the Watkins Glen Gorge a few weeks ago and again walking around New York City and being unable to enjoy ‘fresh air’ spaces like Central Park, Washington Square Park, the Statue of Libery and Ellis Island without constant smokers.

Originally published: Summer 2008 – our first summer living in New York.

We love to go outdoors and do things together as a family. So naturally on Labor Day weekend we took advantage of the excellent weather to do as much as possible. There was a variety of activities, but one common theme – wherever we went, it was impossible to engage in the activity we wanted to without walking through a wall of second-hand smoke.

These were outdoor, family activities, mind you … it isn’t like we were strolling through a bar! I believe in the rights of individuals to engage in self-directed activities, but only so far as they do not impact others. Since second hand smoke is a known and proven health threat to others, that self-regulated activity becomes a public activity and therefore disappears from individual liberty in my opinion.

I mean, if I sat around in the middle of a park breaking open mercury thermometers or playing with the regulator on a tank of fluorine gas, you would agree that I should be stopped immediately. But smoking is a different story. As I said, I have no problem with people engaging in a legal activity – or an illegal one, for that matter – so long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to engage in an activity in public space. Private space is just that – private. Also, circumstances should dictate reasonable expectations. I don’t believe, for example, that it is my right to expect a smoke-free environment in a Cigar bar. But everything we did was outdoors, and much of it was centered around fitness-inducing or ‘fresh air’ based activities like hiking trails.

This is one thing I miss about Massachusetts. Public smoking is pretty well banned everywhere. Sure there are smoking areas, but they have to be set up in a way that isolates them from normal traffic. For example, at my old job I never ran into a wall of smoke in 15 years, yet perhaps 75% of the times I enter the research center here and 100% of the times I enter one of the manufacturing facilities I have to wade through a sea of smoke.

So there were two things this weekend that bugged me: the first was at the Ferrari festival in downtown Corning pictured above. For some reason all of the owners and many of the fans thought there was no better way to celebrate expensive cars than by puffing on cigars. It was just plain nasty, because there was no way to avoid it. When you are in an open-air event and everyone has to wash their clothes because of the stench, it is a problem.

But worse still was on Monday, when we went to the ‘Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania’. This is an absolutely gorgeous area, with overlooks and several miles of hiking trails. But to get to it all you have to go through the info center / gift shop. And in between the two is a covered hall with benches that looked like a fog bank had rolled in. It was nasty, and inexcusably rude on the part of the smokers. I had no problem with those who sat at benches outside that area or hung out by their cars to smoke … well, to an extent I did but more on that later. Those other smokers enjoyed their rights without infringing upon mine. This is an inherently outdoor, health-centric activity, and I cannot believe that there is anyone alive who would equate smoking as consistent with ‘fresh air’ or ‘healthy’ or ‘good exercise’. It is the antithesis.

OK, my other problem with smokers? Virtually all of them are poisoning the environment. It goes beyond the smoke itself to the ashes they brazenly flick to the butts they crush and toss in public places for the birds to eat and choke to death. I’m sure there are some who bring along their own ashtrays to avoid these things, but I haven’t seen ONE. Not one … ever. And before anyone starts with ‘other people litter’, yeah they do – and they are no better. But smokers are the subject here.

I think there is a certain hypocrisy in allowing smoking to be legal yet treating it like a crime. I believe that smokers should be allowed to pursue their legal right to smoke. I believe in smoking sections and smoking areas and so on. But I also believe that my right to *not* smoke should be honored, and that due to the health considerations it should be put above the right to public smoking.

What do YOU think about public smoking in nature settings? Or in general?

The (un) Reality of the Blog World


Image Source

These last few days I have vented some of the frustrations I had with the blog world that led me to take a two week hiatus (sounds like nothing now, but in my head it was significant) a few months back … but as I have done the posts I have realized through my writing and the great comments that it was all about much more. My thoughts on ‘blogs as inefficient’ in particular turned into something that gets at the difficulty of being ‘present’ in the face of technology. And the comments in my ‘Schadenfreude’ post pointed to something else … that sometimes the blog world isn’t exactly the most honest or healthy place.

Telling it Like It Isn’t

A couple of weeks ago Hollie had one of the best picture/comment combos I have seen recently – she was out and saw tiny utensils and asked “why are the mini blogger utensils more expensive then the normal sized ones?”

Some commenters were ‘correcting’ her that they were baby utensils, but she made it clear that she knew EXACTLY what she was saying:

I was referring to them as blogger utensils since a lot of healthy living bloggers like to use smaller utensils.

There were many possible ways of interpreting that … but I was reminded of something Arman pointed out a while back:

I was informed that there are bloggers out there whom, using various camera techniques and angles- are able to make a minisecule portion of food look greater than it is.

In video games this is called the ‘bullshot’. In that context it is a misrepresentation that is intended to pique interest.

In the HLB context it is more often than not a misrepresentation of what someone is ACTUALLY eating … and really, there are only THREE reasons I can think that someone would do that – because that was only made for thepicture, or to hide overeating, or to hide calorie restriction. Neither of the last two is healthy.

Also unhealthy? Discovering that someone has been using supplements to avoid eating actual meals. I’m not talking about an occasional protein shake to fuel workouts (those are insanely filling!), but actually using nutrient pills instead of eating … and flying into a rage when questioned about it. It is very sad, but we’re all adults here and have to make our own choices and deal with the consequences.

Along the same lines, I used to follow a blogger who got injured, then within a few months was suddenly doing post-injury activities again … it capped off an entire cycle of behavior that kept getting revealed after the fact as less-than-forthright (being generous) … and was an immediate unfollow for me. I don’t handle dishonest people well – especially ones who will not allow questioning or dissenting voices.

More Specifically

There are really three areas where I have seen unreality:

Thinspo / Fitspo: most of us have seen ‘pro-Ana’ sites, which actively encourage anorexia and other dirordered eating. And most people agree that these sites are incredibly unhealthy. But if you really pay attention to some fitness and ‘healthy living’ blogs, you will find that many are pushing and advocating tremendous amounts of exercise while still restricting caloric intake, choosing ‘zero point’ foods like carrots and plain mustard after a 10 mile run, or a recovery snack of a half an apple and teaspoon of nut butter or whatever.

Fueling is incredibly important, and young women in particular are very susceptible to body image issues and the whole food industry push of ‘fat is bad’. Sadly there are some widely read blogs where either the person has admitted past disorders or is apparently dealing with one now, yet pushes their approach very strongly. I have managed to get myself banned from commenting on at least one of those … without personal attacks, profanity, or anything but direct questions …

Bad Eating Advice: aside from the ‘relentless pursuit of size zero’, there are those who through reading articles and some self-success and positive feedback have gotten an inflated sense of expertise. Reading about how a certain supplement worked for someone and using it yourself … fine, like I said we are adults here.

But when these bits are posted with post titles like ‘Ultimate Guide’ or ‘Everything You Need to Know’, and backed up directly or indirectly with educational and/or race credentials … well, suddenly it takes on a whole new meaning. Again, I have seen young kids and new runners take stuff on some of these blogs very seriously, like direct medical advice … and once that starts happening I believe the blogger has a more direct standard of personal accountability, and needs to understand the impact of what they are doing.

Bad Fitness Advice: most of the blogs I read are very clear about not offering professional or expert advice, and personally I am specific about recommending you stay away from what I do as a generally ‘good idea’. But I have seen an interesting trend in blog ‘meta-discussions’ (these are forum talks about a cross section of running blogs) … they tend to weigh advice higher if the person giving it is faster.

To an extent that makes sense – I mean, they have demonstrated proficiency at a higher level, right? Yeah, but some of them are IDIOTS … with tons of raw talent. Some of the discussions point that out, but others will look at a PR time and just assume that whatever that person says is “THE TRUTH’. My worry is obvious – someone WILL get hurt.

Our Insular World

Running and healthy living bloggers all share an understanding of much of the terminology (dreadmill, fartlek, burpees, etc), physical conditions (chafing, zombie toes, etc) and the general feelings of a great workout. In regards of enjoying a workout, we are like everyone else who does exercise, but endurance runners and people who try to sustain healthy eating to fuel that type of workout regime take it all to the next level.

As such many people who are not doing this feel it can become obsessive, but the flip side of that is we live in a rather insular world – only people who have gone through running 6+ days a week for a sustained period, fueled heavily and still been ‘hangry’, lost toenails, bought a huge supply of band-aids, and so on will really connect with the things we take for granted.

Because of this we can lose objectivity – it is good to have a reality check in our life … and we don’t ever want to get to the point that ‘getting injured’ is our reality check. When I look around the running / HLB world I have seen new people immersing themselves fully, taking ALL of the advice, surrounding themselves with like-minded people … and getting hurt.

True … From a Certain Point of View

Look – NONE of us reveals everything that goes on in our lives. Look at it this way – some of us have children, more are married and pretty much every blog I followed has discussed dating at some point. So it is pretty safe to bet that at least the overwhelming majority of us have had sex at some point – hetero, homo, whatever … but none of us really needs to discuss it or know about each other’s sex life … and that is pretty much all I will ever say on that subject. 🙂

My point – while we discuss many things on our blogs, and many of us actually reveal a great deal about ourselves (more than I would have ever guessed I would reveal) … there is always much we leave unsaid. Which isn’t a bad thing – certainly I view myself very much as an introvert and private person, and have no plan or desire to reveal everything about myself.

But aside from WHAT we say, there is also HOW we say it … in other words, we each represent a singular viewpoint. If we are talking about a relationship, we are telling (at most) 50% of the story. I love that my wife is open and free providing feedback and a reality check – while at the same time being incredibly supportive of my running and crazy eating!

But what happens when you don’t have an alternate view point is you can lose perspective. I laughed about how one morning I was running really well, felt great and was pushing the pace – which for me means I was in the 8+ minute range – and someone blew by me. Again, it really doesn’t matter, but it is also a reminder that everyone is in a different place, perhaps doing a different type of run or whatever. We have to avoid applying false context, but also remember that we can seldom see the entire picture.

And … so?

Here is the bottom line – there is no great ‘truth dispensor’ … and we need to be very careful about how much faith we put into the advice we read on blogs. But since most of the people reading this are at least a few years past high school, I feel that as adults we need to take some responsibility for the running / HLB community as a whole.

I have commented many times and found myself unwelcome because of questioning the blogger (when your supplement of choice has significant kidney & liver side effects and you don’t mention those … um, not cool) – but I won’t stop. I want every new runner to get a lifetime of joy and benefits from the sport just as I have.

And if there is a bit of advice I WOULD like people to take from me it is this … there is no supplement or diet or 2-minute workout that is going to transform you into Meb / Shalane … sorry, but for the vast and overwhelming majority of us even a lifetime of hard work and eating right will still leave us towards the middle of the pack … but hey, we will be the best possible versions of ourselves. And for me, that is what matters most.

Random Question … Anyone in the Houston Area?

OK, so next week (June 23rd – 25th) I will be in Houston courtesy of the HP Houston Labs, and while I am not sure I will have much of any availability or extra time … couldn’t hurt to check, right?!?

What Do You Think About ‘Warped Reality’ in the HLB Blog World?