Should you use food supplements? How important are food supplements? Can you be healthy and perform at your maximum without them.
I was on my way to Manchester the other day. Considering I live in North Devon, it’s a long drive and that’s a good thing because I get to do a lot of thinking. Not far past Birmingham, I was passed by a car branded up with Herbalife, which immediately got me thinking about supplements and real food.
I have a pretty simple philosophy: Eat real food.
I suppose I need to define real food. For me this means that you go to the supermarket, farmer’s market or other outlet that sells raw ingredients, seek out all kinds of stuff that doesn’t come in a pretty package with ingredients listed on the side that someone with a degree in chemistry would have to look up in an incredibly thick "book of spells”, take them home and combine them into a meal.
On the odd occasion, you may choose to go to a restaurant, go to a place where they prepare and cook food in a similar manner to what you do at home (in my case, hopefully with more skill). Fast food chain restaurants don’t qualify. I’m not sure what they serve, but they definitely do not serve anything much that qualifies as real food.
I also like Dan John’s quote, famous in the strength community: “Eat like an adult."
Adults live on real food. We do not subsist solely on doughnuts, sweets (candy for my American friends), fizzy drinks and a whole bunch of other stuff that contain nothing more than empty sugar calories. This is the kind of thing that children buy when their parents aren’t looking. If this is you, the message is simple: grow up!
So where do supplements fit in?
For me, a supplement only there to fill in nutritional gaps, not to replace meals. Furthermore, those nutritional gaps are not as big as we’re constantly led to believe by the snake oil salesmen.
Supplements are also not the way to improve your performance. Of course, this runs contrary to what all the “ergogenics experts” would like to tell us.
There are some supplements you might consider in order to support your health. These are all cheap, simple and well researched, so I can see no reason not to use them.
I live in Britain. Therefore there isn’t always as much sun as I need and a vitamin D supplement might help. I’d prefer to get my vitamin D by spending my days in the sun, but sometimes we forget what the great big fireball in the sky is, we see it so little.
Omega 3 Fish Oil
Fish oil just seems to make sense. Careful as I am, my omega 3 to 6 balance is probably not what it should be and a daily supplement helps with that. There is also evidence for brain & cardiac protective effects. Add eating oily fish twice a week to the supplements and you’re golden.
Magnesium helps with muscle function, is involved in supporting a healthy nervous system, aids blood glucose control is a co-factor in over 300 enzyme systems and is involved in a host of other functions.
As a large proportion of the population is deficient in magnesium, supplementation in athletes would seem to make sense. Many of us have had issues with cramp in the past and regular magnesium supplementation has certainly helped me with that. I simply use magnesium chloride, there seems no reason to buy the fancy expensive versions.
If you’re vegetarian, you might consider creatine as a supplement, because it is found mostly in meat, eggs and fish. Aside from its purported athletic benefits, creatine appears to confer some health benefits too, including neuro-protective and cardio-protective properties.
As an athlete, zinc might be something you want to consider supplementing as it’s lost in significant amounts in sweat. Zinc has a role to play in the health of your bones and in maintaining a healthy immune system. If you’re deficient, supplementation will often also raise testosterone levels too - and who doesn’t want more testosterone?
These are a very short summary of each of the supplements I consider worth taking. As you’ll see, they’re commonly available and cost-effective. Remember, a supplement is only there to fill gaps, so you do not have to take any food supplements at all.
If you’re looking for performance improvement, you’ll find that in consistent, mindful hard work, not in taking increasingly expensive food supplements.
We’re often looking for the magic bullet, I stopped believing in magic when my parents stopped reading me fairy tales
In a nutshell...
Before you buy supplements, you need to eat real food and do your training consistently.