Supplements- Part I
At some point in your health and fitness journey, the idea of taking a workout supplement has probably crossed your mind. Should you take a supplement? What do supplements do, exactly? Are they safe? Are they regulated? (Spoiler alert: they’re not). If you’re confused, you’re not alone. My clients ask me questions about supplements all the time. Between the sheer amount of products on store shelves, the massive lists of ingredients, and all of the information out there on supplements, it can be daunting to find the product that’s right for you and your goals. Because of this, I’ve decided to dedicate the next three blog posts to this topic in order to shed a little a light on the subject and hopefully clear up some confusion. On deck: key ingredients to look for in supplements.
First, the big question: should you take a supplement? While the answer to this question depends on each person’s personal health and fitness goals, taking a supplement could help if you are looking to boost exercise intensity, hit specific fitness goals, or increase your endurance. Keep in mind that supplements aren’t magic, and taking them won’t automatically give you Usain Bolt’s speed or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s strength. They’re an aid, and only work if you already have good health habits (balanced diet, appropriate amount of sleep, exercise) in place. However, if you do decide to take pre- or post workout supplements (or both), there are six key ingredients you should look for.
Carbs are important as they help fuel muscles by storing glycogen, which converts to glucose, a main source of fuel for cells. You know how you hear about runners “carb loading” the night before a race by eating a ton of pasta? It’s so they’ll have enough glycogen to help propel them through the race (conversely, running out of glycogen results in fatigue, or “hitting the wall”). Getting carbohydrates into your system before and after an intense workout session not only energizes your body before the workout, but it replenishes that energy after the workout. How many carbs should you eat? The general rule of thumb is to consume between 3.2 to 4.5 grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight if your workout consists mostly of heavy, high-intensity routines.
Caffeine is a tricky ingredient, and the decision whether or not to take it as a pre-workout supplement is solely up to the individual. While a moderate amount of caffeine can help energize you for a workout, too much can make you jittery. And if you’re sensitive to caffeine, it might be best to skip it altogether. However, if you do decide to take it, keep in mind that up to 400 milligrams a day is safe and healthy for most adults, according to the Mayo Clinic. To give you some perspective, that is the equivalent of 4 cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola, or 2 energy drinks.
3. Vitamin C
The vitamin we turn to when we feel a cold coming on can also help us in our training. That’s because vitamin C is an antioxidant that helps our bodies deal with metabolic stress – which includes working out. According to the National Institutes of Health, women should aim to take 75 milligrams a day.
4. Vitamins B6 and B12
B vitamins are important because they help the body form red blood cells and extract energy from food. They also reduce inflammation, help regulate our moods, and help regulate our sleep patterns, which makes them an important ingredient to look for in supplements. When it comes to B12, adults should aim for 2.4 micrograms a day; for B6, adults 19-50 years should aim for 1.3 micrograms a day while women 51 and above need 1.5 micrograms a day.
5. Tart Cherry
Tart cherry is the new darling in the health and fitness industry because it has an immediate effect, much like ibuprofen. You can take it to help alleviate pain, and studies have shown that it can help aid in recovery. Because tart cherry as a workout supplement is a relatively new concept, and its effects are still being studied, there is no general recommendation for daily intake. If you’re interested in adding this into your post workout recovery, it’s best to talk it over with a personal trainer who is well-versed in sports nutrition or a sports nutritionist and come up with an amount based on your health and fitness goals.
6. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
BCAAs (comprised of leucine, isoleucine, and valine) help digest food, repair body tissue, and promote growth – important for those who are looking to build muscle. They are commonly found in protein-rich foods such as meat and eggs, and how much a person should consume is directly based on her health and fitness goals.
Because supplements are not regulated by the FDA, it is up to you to choose a supplement that is safe and relevant to your health and fitness goals. A good rule of thumb is to look for products manufactured in FDA-certified Current Good Manufacturing Practices (CGMP) facilities, or those with labels identifying them as USP Verified Dietary Supplements. It’s also important to avoid products with long ingredient lists, as there is uncertainty as to how the different compounds will react to each other, and to avoid supplements with crazy large doses of certain ingredients (like caffeine). And, as always, consult with a sports nutritionist or your doctor before taking any supplement.