If you’re on the internet and into health and fitness, you’ve probably come across the latest fitness guru or social media influencer harping on about how this and that supplement will make you miraculously super ripped, give you the brain power of a genius and make you stronger than a Demi-God. This is usually whilst marketing it as something that is healthier and makes you live longer, all for the low low price of your right kidney.
But the reality of many of these claims is anything but miraculous. The vast majority of supplements you see on the market have been “used by humans for centuries to treat X” with little scientific evidence, or they have shown a lot of promise in a culture dish (in vitro) or animal studies (in vivo) but lack efficacy or significant evidence in controlled human studies.
When it comes to illness and disease, there are thousands of options available for seemingly any disease and disorder. However, the time-old advice of always consulting your doctor is certainly still the best advice anyone can give you for a disease state.
For overall health, balanced nutrition that compliments a regular exercise regime engaging your cardiovascular system and including resistance exercise will still give you more bang for your buck than any supplement ever will.
It's due to this lack of efficacy and the effect of an overall healthy lifestyle that I’ve gone from being the dude who tries every supplement under the sun when I was first interested in sport and health to being the nutritionist with a growing reputation for saving clients a ton of money on supplements that are mostly unnecessary or plain dangerous.
But there are some instances that I still recommend supplementation for certain people, and it is HIGHLY dependent on the individual context and scientific rigour behind the product. I will always address someone’s diet first, help them build healthy habits to sustain a good foundation of colourful veg, protein and unsaturated fats and then “plug the holes” depending on what that sustainable level looks like.
For example, if someone cannot include oily fish in their diet, I’ll recommend an omega-3 supplement (Krupa K, Fritz K, Parmar M. [Updated 2023 Jan 17]). Likewise, if their vitamin D is low, or they live in a mountainous or low-zenith environment, I’d often recommend supplementation (Zmijewski, Michal A. 2019).
If a client is vegan and can’t get hold of nutritional yeast or suffering from chronically low B12, I’ll recommend a supplement (Niklewicz, A., Smith, A.D., Smith, A. et al. 2023) and, with any advice, I give it following regular health checks and blood tests.
Similarly, my athletes know I lean towards less is more. I follow a highly targeted approach because, like with overall health, good training and appropriate nutrition will still give you the absolute best long-term results, even if you include supplements that “work”.
Here are a few examples of sports supplements I generally recommend, again case by case and following good dietary, training and recovery practices first:
Creatine Monohydrate: Richard B. Kreider, Douglas S. Kalman, Jose Antonio, Tim N. Ziegenfuss, Robert Wildman, Rick Collins, Darren G. Candow, Susan M.Kleiner, Anthony L. Almada & Hector L. Lopez (2017)
One of, if not, THE most studied supplements on the planet. It’s got a great efficacy and safety track record when it comes to supporting explosive, short-duration activities such as sprinting and weightlifting, having a potential knock-on effect in supporting muscle growth and recovery both from training and injury. There’s growing evidence it can help in endurance sports and even emerging data suggesting it's good for overall brain and cognitive health,(Candow, D.G., Forbes, S.C., Ostojic, S.M. et al 2023).
I usually have no problem recommending this for athletes, especially if they are going through particularly intense training or aiming to add muscle mass, and I’m leaning more towards recommending it to my everyday clients from a general health standpoint.
But even then it depends on the context. I’m not likely to recommend it during a competition weight cut or physique contest prep as it can have a minor effect on water balance (it helps hydrate muscle tissue) it would take several dry runs to gauge responses before I would consider including it. For me, it's another variable that can be eliminated to reduce inconsistencies in conditioning.
Whey protein has been shown to enhance recovery from exercise when included in the diet around the training period and may support immune function (Ha, Dong Jin, Jonggun Kim, Saehun Kim, Gwang-Woong Go, and Kwang-Youn Whang. 2021.) It’s still not an immediate guarantee that I’ll recommend it, though. If I do, it’s typically from both a convenience and recovery standpoint. If someone’s total protein intake is high enough, includes dairy (see the immune paper) and is easy to sustain without it with good recovery, I’m not likely to suggest it. But, if someone struggles to hit their protein or is struggling to recover adequately from training, then it’s an option on the table, also it's difficult to discount the convenience of having an easily digestible and palatable protein source on hand if you are in a hurry or training multiple hours or sessions a day!
This is one that I may or may not recommend, depending on the duration and intensity of the sport. Beta-alanine is reported to help the muscle tissue deal with rising acidity associated with lactic acid production, which potentially harms performance. It’s typically most beneficial for folks working intensity at intervals between 1 and 4 mins, but if there is also evidence it can help at shorter durations and, similar to creatine, potentially aid in cognition Ostfeld, Ishay, and Jay R. Hoffman. 2023.
That's it. Those three. Other supplements may or may not work, or can still contribute to enhancing performance by a tiny fraction, and some may be on the table, certainly if you are elite and looking for the 0.1% advantage, but by and large most other sports supplements are simply not necessary or (cost) effective for the vast majority of people, including athletes.
So there you have it folks, my reasoning for generally not recommending supplements to clients, and some scenarios when I would. The supplement world is a multi-billion dollar industry and an absolute minefield for customers. It’s worth researching a supplement before considering taking it, looking at valid sources such as NCBI and checking your products against drug-tested databases such as Informed-Sport.
Seek advice from trained and informed nutritionists, dieticians, and doctors before taking anything (no, athletes, bodybuilders or fitness influencers don’t count unless they are qualified, and even then, consider what/if they are selling!).
I hope you’ve found this article informative and useful, if you are looking for supplement advice, I offer consultations as a qualified performance nutritionist and UKAD Clean Coach. Follow me on Social media, too, where I often cover supplements and nutrition topics in my posts and stories!