Better classified as nutritional supplements, these substances are anything geared at improving one’s health or performance, working in conjunction with diet. Now, this is the most important fact one can hear with regard to dietary supplements - they are just that, supplements, and should not be used to replace key aspects of one’s diet. Supplements have existed before recorded history and have garnered as much skepticism as belief; however, in recent decades, this industry has become much more commercialized. Here we will define supplements, evaluate the pros and cons, and finally clarify the potential uses and demographics for each use.
As stated above, nutritional supplements aim to improve one’s quality of life. In light of this, any number of things could fall into this category, from vitamins, minerals, herbs, and even oils. Throughout history, specific substances have been used to treat disease and harmonize the body before the rise of modern medicine; however, these practices elicited varying amounts of fear and doubt culture to culture, viewed most skeptically by the west as shamanism. Now we know that these were simply primitive attempts at discovering practical and often less-invasive ways of medical treatment. Strange as they were, these early practices laid the groundwork for what we know of nutritional supplements today.
Focusing more on supplements one would find in a GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, let’s clear the waters in this ocean of labels and ingredients. For the sake of simplicity, these stores can be divided into two categories: supplements that aid in sport specific performance, and those simply aimed at general health and well being. The former has recently experienced a large boost in popularity; however, this doesn’t mean consumers are any more informed on the subject. The second category has seen a more consistent interest and takes far less radical approaches than its counterparts on the neighboring aisles.
Sport specific supplements are flashier and more exciting, often delivering immediate, recognizable effects. Common names in the sport supplement family are: creatine, protein powders, multi-vitamins, caffeine, and amino acid blends. The list could go on for pages. Notably, the key consumers of substances in this category are young people, naturally those involved in competitive sports. Recently, supplements have maintained a higher quality of marketing, catering to a large number of university students, men and women looking to transform their bodies, and even high school students.
On the other side of the store, general health and wellness supplements are less enticing, but hold just as many benefits, in undoubtedly a less radical form. Well known categories of these substances are: vitamins, minerals, digestive aids, greens supplements, brain support, and many more. These are the substances one’s body needs; however, due to the modern processes our food undergoes, it does not always receive them in adequate amounts. General health supplements can help battle toxins, mineral imbalances, and lack of energy or libido. Consequently, the key consumers of these are individuals who are actively conscious of their body’s state, and wish to have an improved quality of life. These supplements are far more popular with the older population, than their sport focused counterparts; but as with anything, there can be exceptions.
Aside from stating the obvious, such as improved quality of life and better performance, these supplements function at the microscopic level. For example, creatine. This may be the most popular sports performance supplement besides basic protein powders. Creatine is a substance naturally produced in the body in very small amounts, and can be additionally acquired by consuming red meat. This substance is used in one’s energy production systems, more specifically, the phosphagen system. Of the three energy systems of the body (phosphagen, glycolysis, and aerobic), the first is the quickest and most powerful. Creatine is the primary source of power for this initial force production; therefore, the more creatine one’s body has, the longer it can continue using the phosphagen system. Simply put, creatine can make an athlete stronger; however, only by a margin of a few percent. Creatine in its different forms, is one of the only dietary sports supplements to be clinically tested and proven effective.
Another example is caffeine. Most consider caffeine simply a component of coffee or soda, but it is just as commonly used as a supplement. Directly causing a boost in energy, caffeine has received good and bad press over the years. As with most anything in life, moderation is key, and will make the use of caffeine more effective and generally safer. This enhancer of the senses can be found in most every pre-workout formula taken by athletes and weight lifters, roughly 90 percent of all fat burning supplements, and of course, coffee. The fitness industry can be an ever changing labyrinth of information; however, sticking to the basics or conducting one’s own research is the safest bet. Caffeine is most certainly a staple, and when used in specific doses, very effective. It can be employed as a metabolism booster, focus enhancer, energy supplier, and even a mood lifter. However, a word to the wise - be careful of straying into the “more is always better” mindset, this can often have the opposite effect, especially with caffeine.
Shifting to the side of general health, vitamins and minerals play their part as well. Delivering a less tangible effect than caffeine, but ensuring that one’s body has the necessary elements required for basic function. Those engaged in regular, strenuous activity can certainly benefit from a vitamin/mineral supplement; also those who are restricted from consuming certain foods may need to compensate for the missing nutrients with supplements. Examples of this are vegans. Vegans have a very restrictive diet, and need to pay careful attention to what nutrients could be missing from the lack of meat, and dairy. Animal products are excellent sources of iron, vitamins B12 and B6, calcium, creatine (as mentioned before), and of course, protein. In light of this, one should discover which supplements would benefit their life the most. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to health and wellness.
Here is the part of this varied industry that gives consumers the most pause when considering nutritional supplements. Currently, these products are not regulated by the FDA. As long as the product includes “Dietary Supplement” on its label, it can avoid FDA investigation. This can be viewed as a positive or a negative, depending on the consumer. Positively, this enables more available options to purchase, and simply requires a level of initiative on the part of the consumer to conduct their own research, based on the ingredients in the product. Negatively, products could contain harmful ingredients, or state untruthful claims about the effects of said products.
Moreover, this industry is akin to the food industry, where not everything is fit for healthy consumption. An excessive intake of caffeine can easily be compared to one binging on sugar or trans fats, both harmful, and both up to the decision of the consumer. In modern society, individuals have far more to choose from than previous centuries, leading one to think on, “with great power comes great responsibility”. The power to choose opens two distinct paths: The road to betterment through research and discernment, or the path to self destruction by lack of information and initiative. Whichever opinion one may hold, they should keep in mind to be aware of what they’re consuming and what effects it may have, good or bad.
When there are positives, there are certainly negatives. Despite the myriad of benefits one can gain from educated supplementation, definite side effects exist (mainly when products are abused or not researched). Touching again on the topic of creatine; undoubtedly it has strength and performance benefits, but it can deliver one specific side effect. Creatine’s studied side effect is very easily avoidable, but is a great example of how one can misuse dietary supplements. The consumption of creatine causes an influx of water into one’s skeletal muscles, a higher amount than normal. Now, this is not a negative effect, skeletal muscles are roughly 80% water; therefore, shuttling more water to them will not cause any harm. The danger occurs when one neglects to increase their average water intake when supplementing with creatine. The body is using more water than average; consequently, it requires more H2O for other various functions. When one fails to increase water intake in conjunction with creatine consumption, cramping and dehydration can occur. The same is true for caffeine, and various other substances.
Another detail worthy of mention is the differing forms of supplements. Pills, liquids, powders - what’s the difference? In actuality, this depends on which supplement one chooses to take; however there is a key difference between these delivery methods. Liquids and powders will digest the quickest, namely because of the lack of a pill casing surrounding the ingredients. A quick tip on powders: holding any such substance under your tongue will cause the most immediate absorption, if that is what one is after. In any case, the packaging one chooses can be mostly based on convenience. Pills are the easiest to transport and store, while powders and liquids will need special packaging. Also, be mindful of the expiration dates, some stores will neglect to check these important numbers, and those products don’t last forever.
So far a lot of information has been covered, forming a strong educational base for anyone looking to further inform themselves about nutritional supplements. The health and fitness world can be a confusing place, and as previously stated, it tends to change frequently. Due to that fact, one should conduct their own research, and seek advice from those invested in the field.
In quick summation, dietary supplements have been defined as anything aimed at improving performance or quality of life, not taking the place of essential aspects of one’s diet. Key phrase: not replacing real food. One needs to be sure their daily nutrition is squared away with whole, natural foods accompanied by plenty of water, then add supplements to fill the gaps or improve performance.
Next, finding which category of supplements fits the consumer’s life the best and being aware of the proper use and potential effects, positive and negative. Just because the individual isn’t a child anymore digging through their parent’s medicine cabinet doesn’t mean everything is safe now. There can still be risks, however minimal, from substances such as creatine, caffeine, and the myriad other compounds; but with the correct information, all consumers should be safe. Seeing as they are not regulated by the FDA, dietary supplements can receive bad press; however, a discerning adult should know the pros and cons and wisely gain the desired effect. Hopefully this was a helpful overview to guide potential supplement consumers to reach their future goals.