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The Science and Pseudoscience of Fitness Supplements

man flexing his biceps in the gym

Whether you're trying to bulk up, slim down, or just integrate exercise into your daily routine, when you spend a fair amount of time exercising and considering what you're putting into your body, there's a good chance you'll eventually come across a supplement that seems quite promising. 

Our cultural mindset prioritizes quick wins and efficiency in everything, and health and wellness are no exception. That's why there are supplements to gain weight and lose weight, burn calories and expel excess water, increase blood flow to your muscles and block you from absorbing carbs. It's a multi-billion dollar industry (about $14 billion in 2018), and many of us spend hundreds of dollars each month trying to pump ourselves full of the substances that are going to help us reach our fitness goals. 

A lot of the supplements out there are actually pretty good. There are some duds and placebos to be sure, but a lot of reputable brands like Swolverine, Jacked Factory, Genius, and Old School Labs make supplements that, when taken correctly and combined with a regular workout routine and effective diet, can help you along the way. 

Unfortunately, there are just as many, if not more, brands that are built upon the idea that people are under so much pressure to look "good" that they're willing to drop serious cash for it. In essence, they profit off of taking advantage of desperate people who think they're doing something that's good for their bodies.

Since these supplements are all but unavoidable for those who work out regularly, let's break down the science behind effective workout supplements and the pseudoscience behind the cash grabs so that you can make the most informed decisions about what's going to work for you.

What Makes for an Effective Fitness Supplement?

When we talk about fitness supplements, it's important to keep in mind that that's a pretty broad category. It includes products as simple as a basic whey protein and concoctions as complex as Athletic Greens' 75 ingredients that work symbiotically and need to be refrigerated. So, as we break down what makes for a good "fitness" supplement, keep in mind that some principles will be more applicable to some supplements than others.

Principle 1: It Fills a Gap in Your Diet

One of the key things a good supplement should do is fill the gaps in your diet to help you ensure that you're getting a well-rounded daily intake of nutrients and minerals. That's one reason why multivitamins are so popular. They're a convenient way to make sure you're getting all the trace minerals, nutrients, and vitamins needed for your body to operate at an optimal level. In fact, I'd advise that if you're not sure what supplements you should take, just start with a multivitamin; you'd be surprised how much better you'll feel on a daily basis when you're getting enough calcium, B-vitamins, iron, and magnesium.

More broadly speaking, the other supplements that you take should do the same thing. The purpose of integrating supplements into your diet and workout routine is to give your body specific nutrients that will aid you in reaching your goals and that you're not getting from your food intake alone. For example, if you look at recommendations for protein intake while you're building muscle (0.7–1 grams per pound of lean mass, usually), you're typically going to crunch some numbers and realize that you should be consuming way more protein than you currently are. As a result, many of us turn to protein supplements, which can help you get in 20-60 grams of protein in a single shake. Bada-bing, bada-boom-- you're suddenly a lot closer to hitting your protein intake targets.

You could also think of this principle as your supplements enhancing your diet in addition to simply filling in gaps. For example, if you train hard, you may need more protein, B-vitamins, and iron than you would get out of your standard diet. Your food intake can cover your bases, but you can treat supplements like the SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand) and increase your intake of specific nutrients to optimize your performance or recovery.

Principle 2: Seeing the Effects of a Supplement Shouldn't Require Continuous Expense and Commitment

One thing I've seen popping up more and more often is a tendency for supplement companies to respond to "I'm not seeing any results" with "oh that's because you need to take more."

With supplements, there's a very important distinction between seeing optimal results within a defined time frame and being told that if you just stick to a supplement regimen you'll eventually see results. As anybody who has invested time in fitness knows, it's going to take time to start seeing results in your body. That's just a part of the game. But, when you're taking supplements as a part of your routine, you should at least notice a difference in the way you feel and your performance within a couple of weeks when taken correctly and in conjunction with a good workout routine and balanced diet.

For example, Jacked Factory sells testosterone boosters and estrogen blockers, and advises taking both supplements for an 8-week timeframe. Given the quantities contained within each bottle of these supplements, that translates to buying two bottles of each. If we can lend some trust to the reviews on their website and on the products on Amazon, several users who purchased these supplements documented being diagnosed with low testosterone prior to their 8 weeks of using the supplements and then having additional bloodwork confirm that they had increased or even normal free testosterone levels after taking the supplement for 8 weeks.

To put it simply, the makes outlined an optimal timeframe for taking the supplement and users see results within that time frame. This doesn't always mean the highest ROI for Jacked Factory-- just think of how much more revenue they'd make if their prescribed course of action was to take these boosters for 36 weeks or even a full year. They could sell lower quality, cheaper-to-produce products and advise a longer time frame, making way more money. But they don't. They sell one that should show results pretty quickly and don't lock you into long-term subscriptions just to see results.

When you're taking a supplement, you want to be able to notice the effects within a relatively short timeframe. Again, I'm not saying that you'll suddenly be jacked or have 5% body fat– instead, it's likely something internal that you'll notice. You may feel that you have more energy, you're getting in better workouts, your bowel movements are more regular, your muscles aren't sore for quite as long as normal after your workouts, etc.

Principle 3: The Labels and Promises Make Logical Sense

Some of the best advice I've ever heard about determining whether or not I should buy into someone else's fitness advice is this: say it out loud to yourself and see if it sounds weird to you.

You don't have to be a chemist or pharmacist to make sense of what a supplement is promising to do. In fact, if you're considering taking something that's so wrapped up in scientific-sounding jargon that you can't make sense of what it's actually doing, there's a good chance they're feeding you bullshit rather than nutrition (more on this in a moment).

We live in the age of the smartphone and while I frequently advocate for spending more time unplugged and not relying on technology, I also think it's quite wise to do some Google-searching right there in the aisle when you're looking at taking a new supplement. Often, looking at the daily nutritional values on the label should give you a good idea of what is in the supplement and what it's going to do.

If the labels are ambiguous or it's confusing about why a supplement contains certain ingredients, there's no shame in doing some quick research. If something doesn't seem to make logical sense, avoid it until you can do some research and verify that it's actually going to benefit you.

For example, let's say you're looking for a supplement to assist with weight loss. Looking up and down the aisles, you may find a variety of products, but they'll typically fall into one of two camps: products that help you burn more calories with what you're already doing and products that promise to help you shed weight really quickly.

Both are probably going to be wrapped up in a lot of jargon and may be difficult to decipher at first, but if you dig in deeper and make sense of what they're both promising, what you'll typically find is that one is going to be a form of thermogenic (essentially a bundle of caffeine and herbs that are supposed to increase your base metabolic rate) or a diuretic (a supplement that helps your body expel excess water). When you look at what both are doing– making you sweat more while sitting or making you pee very frequently/ have very watery diarrhea– you can assess whether you think that's going to actually be beneficial for you.

Pseudoscience in Workout Supplements

For every product that's going to help you, you'll probably find three that are all hype. It's important to filter these out since they tend to involve spending a lot of money without getting any results for yourself. In essence, you could just invert the previous three principles to determine what's not going to be a good supplement; if something doesn't meet the above three criteria, avoid it.

To take things a little bit further though, consider these three principles of spotting pseudoscience in supplements.

If it Sounds Too Good to be True, It Is

I don't care what's in a supplement... if it promises that you'll drop weight without exercising or changing your eating habits, it's either plainly lying, using highly manipulated data to make that claim, or it's going to do something incredibly destructive to your body.

If it's Coming from a Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) Scheme, Avoid it 

Pyramid schemes, network marketing, or referral marketing businesses– whichever term you prefer for them– are notoriously shite products and businesses to deal with. First and foremost, according to the FTC, 99% of people who join an MLM lose money rather than make money. Second, the products are way overhyped and are generally sold with a sharp markup to make them seem higher end than they actually are. So when your acquaintances from high school crawl out of the woodworks to sell you on their life-changing journey with It Works or Skinny Tea, I advise that you politely decline. 

If its Premise Doesn't Make Sense to You, Err on the Side of Caution 

This can be one of the sneakier points to keep in mind since most of us aren't chemists and some companies love to use the most scientific jargon possible to describe the benefits of their products. If you can't make sense of what a product is doing, or if you break down their sales pitch and find that it's mostly gibberish, the product isn't going to be nearly as effective as they'd have you to believe. 

My favorite example of this is actually something I came across by watching the Dr. Phil show. I've written about it before: Jilly Juice. Jilly Juice is a "wellness" regimen that requires drinking fermented, highly-salted cabbage water. It contains so much sodium, in fact, that folks have had strokes and gone into cardiac arrest while drinking Jilly Juice. A core aspect of the Jilly Juice protocol is also what the creator calls "waterfalls," AKA explosive, watery diarrhea. Jilly Juice is about as nutritious and beneficial for you as drinking seawater... it's not and it can kill you.

But, if you read its creator's book or listen to her videos about what she believes Jilly Juice is doing, she is quick to offer complex explanations of the integumentary system, candida, and biogenesis/ bio-generative processes. If you're not listening closely, she delivers her protocol with such conviction and jargon-filled language that you may initially think "oh she knows what she's talking about" or "she's got a point there." In fact, many desperate people have been convinced by this and have bought into her dangerous protocol. If you actually break down what she's saying and think about it, it typically either (a) simply doesn't make sense or (b) runs through circular logic that's meant to feed into itself, ignoring an abundance of details and side effects.

If you find yourself getting swept up in an exciting sales pitch, it's a red flag. Step back, think through it, and see if what you're being told actually makes sense to you.

Time to Start Taking Supplements?

To be clear, I'm of the opinion that you don't need to take supplements to have a very fulfilling fitness and wellness routine. You can get into great shape simply by exercising regularly and consuming in a well-balanced diet. Supplements can be a great way to, well, supplement what you're already doing, but they're by no means a requirement.

Plus, always keep in mind that workout supplements are like any other drug– they can have side effects and they can potentially cause complications with other medications. It's best to check with your doctor or pharmacist to make sure you're in the clear to take a supplement on top of any prescriptions you're already on, but also remember to just stay in touch with your body.

When it comes to being healthy, you can't medicate your way to peak fitness. There is no replacement for the hard work and commitment of a workout routine and nutrient-dense diet. Supplements can be a great way to enhance this, but it's far from a replacement.


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