04 Aug Fitness Supplements: Are They Really Necessary?
The fitness supplement industry is big business these days. In fact, in 2020 it was worth $10.7 billion. As you browse the supplement aisles at your local health store, you might be wondering whether they’re really worth the (considerable) sums you could potentially spend on them. The answer depends on your personal training regimen and fitness goals. To help you on your journey, we’re taking a look at some top fitness supplements, including their potential benefits and what you need to consider when evaluating your options.
Do I Need to Take Fitness Supplements?
In an ideal world, you would get all the nutrients you need from an organic, whole food diet that includes the right balance of macronutrients — protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats — plus plenty of essential micronutrients. Sadly, the reality is that most people’s diets are very far from ideal. Even when you’re careful about what you put in your body, you might struggle to get enough of what you need from your dietary intake — especially if you’re exercising regularly and intensely.
The truth is that food these days, even whole food, often doesn’t provide the same high-quality nutrients it once did, even for basic wellness, never mind optimizing performance. As a result, you may need to turn to dietary supplements to fill in the gap. Or if you’re expending more energy, you might choose to rely on fitness supplements or other sports nutrition products to enhance your performance.
Once your nutrient intake from both whole foods and nutritional supplements meets your basic needs, you can then look at fitness supplements to:
- Improve the efficiency of your workouts
- Build and repair lean muscle
- Boost your energy and stamina
- Speed up post-workout recovery
- Enhance your athletic performance
5 Fitness Supplements Backed by Science
In the world of nutritional supplements, there is a mind-boggling array of options. The following core products are good places to start if you’re focused on general fitness, bodybuilding, or other athletic performance goals.
Whether you’re an athlete, bodybuilder, or just getting started at the gym, protein is the perfect complement to all forms of training — strength training, cardio, and HIIT can all benefit from effective protein intake. High-quality protein is critical for building muscle tissue and repairing it after high-intensity workouts. Also, if body composition matters to you, protein is very useful for fat loss.
Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs)
The “active ingredients” in protein are amino acids, especially the essential amino acids (EAAs), which our bodies can’t make. Of the EAAs, the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — leucine, isoleucine, and valine — are particularly critical for muscle building and recovery, as well as giving you a boost of energy.
If you’re working out hard, you probably need around 2.2 grams of protein per kg of body weight each day, and it can be tough to get that much even from the healthiest diets. That’s where a supplement can come in handy.
Whey protein comes from milk and is a byproduct of the cheese-making process. It contains all the essential amino acids, digests very fast, and is highly bioavailable, which means that it’s quickly absorbed and then readily available for your body to use.
Whey protein powder usually comes in the form of a concentrate or isolate. Both types of protein powder are very effective at building and repairing muscle.
Whey concentrate usually has a lower protein content so although it tends to be less expensive, you may need more to get the same results. It’s also slightly higher in fat, carbohydrates and sugar, and can contain a lot more lactose — so if you experience any side effects like bloating, gas or diarrhea, consider swapping to whey isolate or a plant-based protein powder.
Whey isolate is more processed and has the highest protein content. It’s best for weight loss as it’s lower in calories, carbs and fat. As a bonus, whey protein isolate contains almost no lactose, which is great news for those with lactose sensitivity.
To optimize muscle protein synthesis (i.e., muscle building), whey protein is best used immediately pre-workout or post-workout.
Casein is another highly bioavailable protein that digests more slowly, providing a slow-release effect. Casein is best taken before bed so you can keep building muscle mass while you sleep.
Plant-based protein powders are good options for those who prefer to avoid animal products or are lactose intolerant. Look for one like ioPea Protein, which also contains all nine of the essential fatty acids that facilitate muscle protein synthesis, as well as muscle recovery.
If you want to go straight to the finish line and bypass protein powder completely, you could also consider a high-potency BCAA supplement like ioBCAA.
While your body does make creatine from the amino acids glycine, methionine, and arginine, a creatine supplement can give you an extra boost, especially if weightlifting is a regular part of your training routine.
Creatine often comes in the form of creatine monohydrate and it helps with rapid (and dramatic) muscle growth and repair by allowing muscle cells to absorb more water. It also boosts energy and stamina, allowing you to push harder during your workout.
If you’re training intensely, you probably need 5-10 grams of creatine daily either immediately before or after a workout. It’s possible to take too much creatine though, so consult a professional sports nutritionist before you add it to your supplement routine.
3. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Omega-3 fatty acids often come in the form of fish oil, which contains docosahexaenoic acid (better known as DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). Omega-3s help to build and repair muscle, and prevent it from breaking down in the first place.
Omega-3 is also an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and supports joint health — very important if you’re training intensely — as well as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, helping to manage cholesterol and blood glucose, protecting your brain, supporting neuromotor function, and encouraging fat loss.
Note: It’s worth spending the extra money on a high-quality fish oil supplement to make sure you’re getting as little mercury as possible along with your omegas.
The recommended dietary allowance (RDA) of omega-3, including DHA and EPA combined, is 1.1 grams for women and 1.6 grams for men. But if you’re training intensely, 3-5 grams is considered safe.
Take it any time of day but make sure it’s with food, especially healthy fats, to increase absorption and reduce any possible side effects. Taking too much can lead to blood thinning and bleeding, so it’s better to err on the side of caution and not take more than the recommended dosage.
Electrolytes, including sodium, calcium, magnesium, and potassium, help to regulate fluids in your body, preventing muscle cramps. When you sweat a lot during a training session, you become dehydrated and lose electrolytes. Electrolyte powder dissolved in your water or ready-made sports drinks can help you replenish your stores. Just watch out for any undesirable additives like sugar or artificial colors and flavors.
5. A Good Multivitamin
- Vitamin B complex to help with protein and fat metabolism, especially B6 which is involved in processing amino acids
- Antioxidant-rich vitamins C and E, which help clean up free radicals, reducing inflammation and muscle fatigue
- Vitamin D to help strengthen bones and muscles, and reduce the chances of injury
- Zinc to boost energy and support the metabolism of protein, carbs, and fats
Check the product to make sure you’re getting at least close to 100% of the daily value (DV) you need, then follow the dosage directions on the packaging. Nutritional supplements that are highly bioavailable, free of fillers and artificial additives, and backed by scientific evidence are always best.
What to Watch Out for When Buying Fitness Supplements
It’s important to arm yourself with research before you spend any of your hard-earned cash on nutritional supplements. The supplement industry is still largely unregulated, which means that manufacturers can get away with a lot. Consider asking these questions:
- Is the supplement scientifically supported to enhance performance? Look for evidence to support any claims made by the manufacturers.
- How much of each of the active ingredients does the supplement contain? Be sure to read the ingredients list on the product packaging.
- How do the ingredients compare to your requirements, based on your personal needs and fitness regimen?
- How bioavailable are those ingredients? Look for high-quality, easily absorbed products like those offered by Ingredient Optimized.
- What unnecessary fillers or additives are listed (or not listed)? Start with the ingredients list, but if something doesn’t feel right, continue your research online to learn more about the brand’s production methods.
- Do you prefer to work out in the evening? If so, avoid products that contain caffeine or you may be awake all night.
- Do you have any medical conditions? If so, get medical advice before starting any supplementation routine.
The better the quality of the fitness supplement — i.e., the more of the essential ingredients it contains and the purer it is — the more you will pay. In most instances, you get what you pay for.
Take Your Health to the Next Level With the Right Fitness Supplements
While you should always aim to get as much of your daily nutrient intake as possible from whole foods first, fitness supplements can enhance your overall wellness goals. If you’re an athlete or bodybuilder, you likely need to include nutritional supplements in your health routine — although even beginners in the gym can benefit from supplementation of essential nutrients like protein. Once you assess your needs and goals, you can add the right supplements to take you to the next level.