1. Health

How to Choose Weight Training Supplements

How to Say No to Unreliable Supplements

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Updated January 21, 2009

Dietary Supplements

Dietary Supplements

Photo © Flickr user SuperFantastic

Most fitness enthusiasts, weight trainers and sports men and women have tried supplements like vitamins, minerals and herbal and so-called performance enhancing chemical products at some time.

However, you need to be cautious of what you take for a variety of reasons. Here's an example of what can go wrong.

Adulterated Weight Loss Supplements

The FDA issued a list of "natural weight loss products" known to contain pharmaceuticals unlisted on the label, which are possibly dangerous, certainly illegal for this purpose in these products, and almost certainly added intentionally. There are many other examples of this sort of supplement quality deception.

To attempt to avoid supplement quality issues such as this, below is a list of questions you should try to answer before selecting and using supplement products.

Does it work? That is, does it actually give you the benefit that the sales and promotional literature, or some so-called expert says it does. One way to know this is to actually look up the clinical trials published in reputable journals. This is not always easy to do if you don't have expertise in this area -- and usually, more than one reputable study with the same positive outcome is required for assurance of some reliability of effect.

With pharmaceuticals registered by the FDA and similar organizations, at least you have some guarantee that they have been considered for effectivness and safety.

Another way to assess the effectiveness of a supplement product is to look for authoritative, non-commercial product reviews and information on web site that don't actually sell the product -- or any supplements. One example would be the US National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements. I also use the Australian Institute of Sport Supplement Program. Both of these organizations have highly skilled specialists continually evaluating supplements for usefulness and safety.

Is it safe? Again, for many supplements and alternative health products, you may have no idea what's in the formulation (because labeling is often not required), or whether it's been tested for safety and under what doses and conditions. You cannot automatically assume herbal or natural products are safe. Some plant-based extracts in herbal products have been shown to be powerful liver toxins and some ayurvedic remedies from India have been shown to be contaminated with toxic heavy metals.

Does it contain a dose that is effective? This is an old trick used by some unscrupulous supplement companies -- and I've even seen reputable ones try this one. Here's how it works. A product has a reputation for some degree of effectiveness in clinical trials and it develops a reputation as, more or less, an effective and safe supplement. It's then formulated in a product at much lower concentrations than that shown to be effective in trials. The product contains the ingredient, but it will have little or no effect because there is not enough in the product formulation to work. Companies do this to keep costs down. Look for this in vitamin and mineral products as well. And, even if the label says it has X amount, do you trust this to be accurate in this product for this manufacturer?

Is the manufacturer a reputable supplier? This is important and depends on the regulations and reputations of suppliers in any particular country. Make some effort to find suppliers that take their reputations seriously and have documented and prominent quality assurance policies and audits. Be suspicious of cheap purchases from little-known manufacturers over the internet.

Do you need it? This is a tricky one because supplement manufacturers play on the idea that the stresses of modern life and physical activity make you deficient in essential vitamins and minerals. This may be so for some people. Yet the truth is that for most of us, even active professional sports people, taking in minerals like zinc and magnesium far beyond the recommended daily amounts (RDA) has never been shown to be beneficial for health or "ergogenic" for performance. Iron and zinc can actually be toxic in excess. Even so, taking a multivitamin has become popular to ensure that you don't fall into deficiency. Taking small quantities of extra vitamins and minerals in multivitamins may be worthwhile insurance, whereas taking mega doses is likely to be wasteful and perhaps even dangerous in some cases.

There are valid circumstances in which vitamin and mineral supplements have been proven to be beneficial, or at least on the basis of the known science are likely to be useful. Folate and possibly iodine in pregnancy, calcium and vitamin D for bone health, vitamin B12 for vegetarians and some people over 50, and perhaps fish oil supplements for cardiovascular protection are prominent examples.

For sports, weight training, bodybuilding and sports training, creatine, caffeine, bicarbonate and glycerol have been shown to have some performance benefit, but not in all sports in all studies in all circumstances.

Iron and calcium are sometimes prescribed under medical supervision to correct deficiencies. Creatine is used widely to improve muscle bulk and strength in weight training and power sports that implement weight training in their schedules. The antioxidant vitamins C and E may also be useful for athletes in heavy training in certain circumstances.

For most other supplement products and applications, it's "buyer beware."

Sources:

Maughan RJ, King DS, Lea T. Dietary supplements. J Sports Sci. 2004 Jan;22(1):95-113.

Kreider RB. Dietary supplements and the promotion of muscle growth with resistance exercise. Sports Med. 1999 Feb;27(2):97-110.

AIS Sports Nutrition - AIS Sports Supplement Program. www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/supplements.

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