You may know someone who takes creatine before a workout or someone who takes conjugated linoleic acid for weight loss. They may even claim that these supplements are miraculous, allowing them to achieve their fitness goals or making them feel subjectively incredible.
But is there any evidence that health and fitness supplements actually do anything?
What the Body Needs
Let’s start by addressing what the body needs. Every human being needs a combination of both macronutrients and micronutrients to sustain a healthy life. We need enough calories to meet our daily requirements (without so many calories that we gain excessive fat), and a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats (which we get from most of the foods we eat).
We also need enough micronutrients, like vitamins and minerals, to carry out all our necessary bodily functions. Most scientists agree that a varied diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is more than sufficient for this, with no need for additional supplementation.
Of course, some people also have specialized nutritional and supplement needs – but their doctor will recommend the proper medications and supplements if this is the case.
Achieving Health and Fitness
If you’re trying to lose weight, the only real path to success is creating a caloric deficit. In other words, you have to consume less energy than you expend. You can do that by reducing your food intake, increasing your daily exercise, or both. That’s it. No supplementation can provide a shortcut for this.
Similarly, to build muscle, you need to progressively overload your muscles with increasing duration or intensity of exercise – and get plenty of calories (and protein). There are no shortcuts here, either.
Certain supplements may be able to help you perform better at the gym, or may somewhat stifle your appetite – but it’s still on you to achieve your fitness goals.
The Problems With Health and Fitness Supplements
It’s impossible to say that all health and fitness supplements aren’t worth taking, because there are so many different varieties.
However, these are some of the common problems that plague health and fitness supplements:
. Dubious claims. Some supplements claim to help you lose weight in a short period of time, or build muscle more quickly. Most of these claims are dubious, at best, and dissolve under scrutiny; if a pill could truly help a person lose 10 pounds of fat in a week, don’t you think more people would be talking about it?
. Limited research. Supplement manufacturers and distributors take advantage of ambiguity by aggressively marketing new products. But most hyped-up supplements have limited research to back them. The science isn’t clear or isn’t good enough to justify these supplements for widespread use.
. Minimal regulation. The FDA keeps a watchful eye on medications and claimed medical benefits, but the health and fitness supplement industry is much more loosely regulated. It’s easy for manufacturers to get away with bold, unfounded claims – and sometimes easy to lie about supplement ingredients.
. Complicated interactions. Just because a supplement is safe for most people doesn’t mean it’s safe for you. Sometimes, taking a supplement can cause complex interactions with your other medications or with your daily food intake, resulting in a health complication.
Types of Supplements Available
There are many different kinds of supplements available, and some are more deserving of criticism than others.
. Weight loss aids. For the most part, weight loss supplements simply don’t work. There’s no safe, convenient shortcut for weight loss – at least for the time being. Boosting your metabolism or stifling your appetite won’t be enough to see reliable, measurable results.
. Energy/workout supplements. Some energy supplements do make you feel energetic and motivated to work out harder – even if it’s just a placebo effect. As long as you’re personally feeling the effects, they may be worth using.
. Nutritional supplements. You may also want to take supplements to make up for nutritional deficits or get more “healthy” vitamins and minerals. While there is some merit to using a multivitamin to make up for any deficiencies, you should know that extra vitamins and minerals are somewhere between useless and harmful – and most “extra” content gets excreted out. Also, if you’re eating a balanced diet, supplementation isn’t truly necessary.
. Other supplements. There are also supplements that are purported to be useful for specific health ailments; for example, red yeast rice extract may show promising signs of being able to reduce cholesterol. Efficacy varies on a case by case basis.
For the most part, health and fitness supplements aren’t going to help you much on your fitness journey. Talk to your doctor about the supplements you’re considering taking and always do your research with a skeptical mind before taking anything. When in doubt, skip the supplement and instead prioritize your basic eating and exercise patterns.