May 4, 2023
Health and Fitness

Starting Your Supplementation Journey: A Beginner's Guide

Major Team

Understanding Supplements 

There are a plethora of supplement options available on the market. To make sense of it all, it can be helpful to divide supplements into five main categories: protein supplements, amino acids, health and fitness supplements, libido and testosterone boosters, and vitamins and minerals.

Protein supplements are popular among those looking to build muscle or recover from workouts. They consist of concentrated animal or plant-based protein sources such as dairy, eggs, rice, or peas. Some examples of protein supplements include whey protein, casein protein, egg protein, pea protein, hemp protein, brown rice protein, and mixed plant proteins. Each has unique benefits, so it's vital to research well to find the one that's right for you.

Amino acids are also commonly used as supplements. You can find them abundantly in protein-rich foods like soybeans, meat, and fish. Some amino acids, such as branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), glutamine, arginine, and beta-alanine, act as physical performance enhancers. They can help boost energy levels, reduce fatigue, and improve muscle recovery.

Health and fitness supplements are good for improving any nutrient deficiency and aid in weight loss or muscle gain. Some examples include creatine, fish oils, ginger, and garlic. Creatine, for example, is a popular choice for those looking to build muscle, as it helps increase muscle strength and endurance. On the other hand, fish oils are rich in omega-3 fatty acids and can support inflammation reduction and heart health improvement.

Libido and testosterone boosters are another popular category of supplements. Some examples include Tribulus and maca. These supplements can help boost libido and improve sexual performance.

Finally, there are vitamins and minerals. These are essential for maintaining good health and can be found in various foods. However, supplements can be helpful if your diet does not provide you with enough vitamins and minerals.

Supplements vs. Diet

Consuming a diverse range of foods is the best way to ensure you get the proper amount of vitamins and minerals in your diet. This is because each food item has its unique nutrient profile, with some being rich in specific vitamins. 

Aside from vitamins and minerals, it is paramount to consume other nutrients such as protein, healthy fats, and fiber, which help maintain overall health and proper bodily function. Plant-based foods, especially, are abundant in antioxidants and phytochemicals, which offer benefits such as reducing inflammation and lowering the risk of chronic illnesses.

On the other hand, supplements do not provide the same nutritional advantages as whole foods. Their purpose is to supplement, not replace, a nutritious diet. Therefore they usually contain concentrated amounts of specific nutrients. Supplements can benefit individuals with nutrient deficiencies or at a higher risk of not getting enough nutrients, like pregnant individuals, if taken as advised by a healthcare professional.

For those in good health, it is better to obtain their daily nutrients from food sources, as the vitamins and minerals in these foods are typically easier for the body to absorb.

Who needs supplements?

Generally, vitamin and mineral supplements are not necessary for healthy adults who get enough of these nutrients from their diet. However, certain people may benefit from supplement use, such as: 

  • Pregnant individuals and exclusively or partially breastfed infants; 
  • Individuals with diagnosed nutritional deficiencies or malabsorption; 
  • Those who have undergone bariatric surgery; and 
  • Some vegans and vegetarians. 

Vitamin D is one nutrient that is difficult to get enough of from diet alone and may require supplementation in specific cases, like those who live far north or south of the equator, frequently use sunscreen, stay indoors, have darker skin, or are older adults. 

If you are concerned about getting enough vitamins and minerals from your diet, consult a healthcare provider for personalized supplement recommendations and dosing. Prenatal vitamins are recommended during pregnancy and sometimes while breastfeeding, but herbal supplements should be avoided unless prescribed by a doctor.

Fitness Supplements

Workout supplements are a popular category of dietary supplements taken before or after exercising. They are available in several forms, from pills and powders to ready-to-drink shakes. Despite their popularity, the debate about whether these supplements are effective and safe continues.

In the United States, like other dietary supplements, workout supplements are not reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for safety or effectiveness before being sold to consumers. So, it is indispensable for users to research the effects and ingredients of these supplements and seek medical advice before adding them to their fitness routine.

Pre-Workout Supplements

Pre-workout supplements aim to boost energy levels and enhance endurance during physical activity. They are usually taken 15 to 30 minutes before exercising but can be ingested during the workout as well. 

There are numerous popular pre-workout supplement ingredients with roots in sports nutrition, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine. These ingredients have also been deemed safe and have solid proof of effectiveness by the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Some examples of pre-workout supplements are:

  • Beta-Alanine. Beta-alanine is an amino acid generated in the liver and found in fish, chicken, and meat. This supplement boosts exercise performance, especially for high-intensity exercise lasting 1-4 minutes, such as HIIT or brief sprints. It has also been shown to help with neuromuscular tiredness, especially in older adults.
  • Caffeine. Caffeine is a stimulant found in pre-workout supplements since it has been proven to enhance athletic performance in short-term high-intensity exercise and endurance-based sports.
  • Creatine. Creatine is a naturally occurring substance in skeletal muscle that the body synthesizes from amino acids and can derive from red meat and seafood. This workout supplement is famous for improving athletic performance, particularly weight training.

Post-Workout Supplements

A wide range of post-workout supplements is offered to consumers to increase muscle mass by improving muscle repair, recovery, and growth. The following are some of the most frequent compounds found in post-workout supplements.

  • Carbohydrates. Replenishing glycogen stores with adequate carbohydrate intake after a workout is necessary for muscle recovery. And starting a new training session with sufficient muscle glycogen stores has been shown to boost exercise performance.
  • Protein. Protein supplementation recommendations differ depending on the type of activity performed: resistance training (like weight lifting) or endurance training (like long-distance bicycling). The International Society of Sports Nutrition advises an overall daily protein intake of 1.4-2.0 g/kg of body weight/day for people engaging in intense exercise to grow and maintain muscle mass. It can be ingested as protein meals or protein powder.
  • Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs). Three of the nine essential amino acids, leucine, isoleucine, and valine, have a chemical structure involving a side-chain with a "branch" and are known as branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs). BCAAs are crucial components of muscle protein synthesis, and studies have demonstrated that leucine, in particular, stimulates protein synthesis while suppressing protein breakdown.
  • Chocolate Milk. Although you would not think of chocolate milk as a "supplement," several professional athletes promote it as an appropriate post-workout beverage thanks to its combination of carbohydrates, protein, water, and electrolytes (sodium and calcium).
  • Electrolytes. Many supplements contain electrolytes, which are substances that conduct electricity when mixed with water, and include sodium, potassium, and calcium. Electrolytes are necessary for hydration as well as the regulation of nerve and muscle function.

Proceed with Caution

Since dietary supplements are not pre-approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), their safety, quality, and efficacy cannot be assured, which means that the product you purchase may not contain what it claims to and may even vary in ingredients from batch to batch.

Supplement manufacturers must follow Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) established by the FDA, but enforcement of these standards is not always consistent. So to confirm the quality of a supplement, it is recommended to look for one certified by a third-party organization. It is also a good idea to research the specific ingredients and their potential benefits and risks and to consult a healthcare professional before taking any new supplement.

Be aware of the potential side effects and interactions with other medications and follow the recommended dosages. Some supplements can be toxic when taken in large amounts or for long periods.

Concerning dietary supplements, it is always best to be informed and cautious. While they may offer health benefits, it is sound to comprehend their limitations and approach them with a critical eye. By doing so, you can make informed decisions about the supplements you choose to take.

Buying Your Supplements

When shopping for supplements, keep these recommendations in mind:

  1. Research the product effectiveness by checking for scientific studies from trustworthy sources such as the NIH PubMed database or the National Institute of Health - Office of Dietary Supplements. Additionally, you can inquire the manufacturer about any published research supporting their claims.
  2. Verify the ingredients and their quality by assuring the brand is labeled with a seal from NSF International, US Pharmacopeia, Underwriters Laboratory, or Consumer Lab.
  3. Be wary of products claiming to cure diseases or those marketed as "all-natural" or offering a "money-back guarantee."
  4. Avoid supplements made outside the United States, as they may not be regulated and may contain hazardous ingredients.

Storing Your Supplements

Supplements don't last forever and require some maintenance to continue working. After you purchase them:

  • Store them in a cool, dry, and dark place. Avoid restrooms and other damp areas.
  • Keep them out of reach of children by storing them on a high shelf or in a locked cabinet.
  • Some vitamins and supplements degrade when left on the shelf for an extended period. Check your stock regularly and discard any items that have passed their expiration date.