Drum roll please………
Joking. Kind of.
Supplements (or “supps”, as the cool kids call them) are a hot topic these days. Everybody and their mother’s got a favourite brand of protein powder, a greens blend, a pre-workout supplement, intra-workout supplement, post-workout supplement, and probably a cleaning supplement too (totally guilty of taking pre-workout before cleaning my apartment over here).
While there are many supplements that do play a beneficial role in supporting our physical activity and general health, we don’t really NEED them. From a health standpoint certain populations maybe should be incorporating supplements into their daily diet; pregnant and breast-feeding women need to ensure they have optimal health to support their babies, vegans could benefit from supplementing with a B-vitamin complex, older individuals may find it helpful to take in some extra calcium and vitamin D…that kinda thing. But for the average Jane & Joe, if you’re eating a variety of nutrient-dense, unprocessed foods, there’s no need to spend a bunch of money on powdered vegetables or fortified-flax seed-fish oil-maca pills.
But I get it. Many of us are busy and don’t always have time to eat food picked straight from the ground in an array of colours at every meal, ensuring we consume all the essential fatty acids and amino acids and the right balance of fibre and simple carbs. And sports supplements have some really cool claims and flashy labels, so it’s definitely tempting to see what they really have in store.
These supplements can be a beneficial addition to our healthy lives as long as they remain just that…SUPPLEMENTS. If you’re finding that 80% of your calorie intake is in pill or powder form it may be time to re-evaluate your diet. But if your diet is rich in natural foods, you’re able to make informed choices about the supplements you’re consuming, and you’re willing to sacrifice some serious cash in some circumstances, then go ahead and give some a shot! A detailed list of every single supplement and what role it plays is faaaar beyond the scope of this little blog. But I’d like to give you a very brief and general overview of some common ones and things you should look out for.
This is probably the most commonly used supplement out there right now. It can be derived from a variety of sources, with whey being the most common, followed by plant-based sources such as brown rice, hemp, and peas. I personally am a huge fan of protein powder, specifically whey. It’s great for baking with and is digested quickly, something we want after a tough workout! I dunno about you, but after working up a sweat I don’t want to sit and gnaw on a chicken breast and some rice. I prefer things that are simple to consume and digest, like a protein shake! Blend a scoop up with some fruit and almond milk and you’ve got yourself a delicious post-workout treat.
Protein is essential for everyone, not just those who exercise, and there are many people who could benefit from incorporating some form of protein powder into their lives. I want to emphasize the consumption of whole foods as much as possible, but there are cases where people really struggle to consume adequate amounts of protein and if having a scoop each day is the deal breaker then so be it.
A few things to look for when choosing protein powders: look for those that are sweetened naturally, such as those that contain stevia. There are maaaany brands out there that come in very appealing flavours such as peanut butter cup and cookies ‘n cream, but if you look at the ingredients list they’re filled with artificial sweeteners and tons of other crap. Just as with any processed food, try to find the one that contains the least amount of ingredients.
Also, if lactose tends to mess with your digestive system you may find whey isolate a little easier to digest than whey concentrate. While plant-based sources of protein powders may not digest AS quickly as whey protein, they are still great additions to the diet for those looking to limit their intake of animal products. I love Vega Sport Performance Protein, which isn’t quite as gritty as some of the other vegan protein blends I’ve tried, and it has the perfect ratio of BCAAs, which I’ll get into next
Branched-Chain Amino Acids, or BCAAs
I’m not referring to the company that comes to help you when you’re stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire. Branched-chain amino acids are sold as concentrated forms of the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are essential because the body cannot produce them, so we need to get them from the foods we eat. Chicken breasts, lean beef, salmon, eggs, and even peanuts are great whole food sources of BCAAs! For the general fitness crowd, as long as you’re consuming a variety of protein sources BCAA supplementation is not a necessity.
But there are cases where it can definitely come in handy. When it comes to muscular development, it’s better to be in an anabolic state than a catabolic state. In simple terms, anabolism is the process of making big things out of small things, and catabolism is the process of breaking big things down into small things. In meathead terms, if you’re anabolic, you’re building muscle. Consuming adequate amounts of BCAAs helps to keep you in an anabolic state, which is highly important in certain circumstances such as dieting or training for endurance events.
Bodybuilders who spend months on end eating all the carbs and building all the muscles need to hold onto as much of those muscles as possible as they diet to lean out for a show. Supplementing with BCAAs, either in pill or powder form, can help to keep them in an anabolic state and therefore lose less muscle in the process. Similarly, an individual training for a marathon is going to run out of glycogen (ie. carb stores) during their weekly long run and unless they’ve trained their bodies to become efficient at burning fat stores, they’re going to experience at least some muscle breakdown. Again, supplementing with BCAAs can reduce the amount of muscle breakdown that occurs.
Fun fact: I was told that it’s impossible to gain mass and train for a half marathon at the same time. I started mixing BCAAs in my water during my long runs while training for my second half and, in conjunction with my lifting routine, grew my butt by an inch. #TrueStory
If you’re ever looking for a new, legal way to get really fucked up go hit up your local supplement store and dabble in some pre-workout. For real, some of these things are no joke and from what I’ve heard it’s even more intense south of the border. Pre-workout supplements can range from simple plant-based sources of caffeine to scientific cocktails of amino acids that will make your arms itch, your veins pump, and make you feel like you could throw a bus off a bridge. At the very least, they’ll give you a little energy boost and will maybe make you have to pee.
I don’t dabble in pre-workouts a whole lot anymore. It’s not that I believe I’m too virtuous for them, but I’ve been finding that my morning cup of coconut oil coffee and a little meal that’s got a good blend of carbs and fats has been enough to get me through most of my training sessions. Vega’s got a great concoction that’s free of the artificial shit that most pre-workout supplements contain and they provide a nice boost of energy without any jittery crash. Cellucor’s C4 was another I really enjoyed once I got past the whole itchy arms and face thing, but I have two full tubs that have sat untouched since October and to be honest I’m a little scared to take it again now that my tolerance is back down. For the general fitness crowd, aside from learning what it feels like to be a crackhead coming down from a high, there isn’t much in these supplements that you can’t get from some smart nutrition habits and maybe a cup of coffee.
Creatine, while technically is its own category, often falls in with the other pre-workout supplements. Creatine is a naturally-occurring substance within our bodies that helps provide energy to contracting muscle cells. It is sometimes blended into pre-workout supplements, such as C4, or it can be consumed on its own as creatine monohydrate. Those who consume it do so to lift heavier weights and delay fatigue, allowing for greater strength and mass gains and improved endurance. This is something I would never recommend to a general fitness client, however if you know what you’re looking for and have done your research on it then it can be a useful addition to your supplement regime.
In addition to the very brief overview I’ve given above, there’s hundreds of other things from vitamins to superfood powders to thermogenics to diuretics hormone-enhancers. It can be a strange, confusing, and sometimes scary world inside supplement stores, but if you go in with a general idea as to what you’re looking for and your critical thinking cap on you’ll have a better chance at not falling victim to outrageous claims and an empty wallet.
What’s your stance on supplements? Are there any you take on a regular basis?