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?