By Taylor Arnold
As we age, our bodies often set new limits for us that didn't exist in years past. Are supplements a good way to push past those limits, exercise at our maximum level and receive all the nutrients we need? Read on as we explore some common supplement options and provide tools for evaluating these products on your own.
Go for the Goal
If you're considering taking a supplement, you likely have a goal in mind already. Maybe you want to push through fatigue during an after-work gym session, so you're looking for a supplement with caffeine. Or perhaps your muscles need extra help recovering after a workout, so you want to try a protein supplement. Like many, you may just want to round out your daily diet with a multivitamin. "Some people may use supplements to fill in dietary gaps, meet their fitness goals, support eye health, gain weight or for a number of other reasons," says Marie Spano, sports dietitian and sports nutritionist for the Atlanta Hawks.
Those scenarios are common, and the supplement industry has plenty of options to meet your needs. According to Dr. Michael Bakheet, who specializes in sports medicine with Kaiser Permanent of Georgia, "Those wanting sports performance enhancements may benefit from caffeine, whey protein and creatine," which can provide added energy and increased muscle mass. Dr. Bakheet says they have been well studied and are safe. Spano agrees, pointing out, "Creatine monohydrate is so effective that clinical trials are examining how this supplement may help those with diseases that affect the muscles."
In addition to fitness supplements, many dietary supplements such as omega-3s, vitamin D and calcium have been shown to offer health benefits. Knowing that some effective options are on the market, it's time to hit the store.
Seal the Deal
When shopping for food, you likely keep a sharp eye out for labels such as "USDA Organic," "Non-GMO Project Verified" or "Fair Trade Certified." When purchasing a supplement, you should be just as discerning, if not more so, because regulation is less strict than you may expect.
The 1994 Dietary Supplementation Health and Education Act allowed nutritional supplements to reach the marketplace without FDA approval or providing proof that the substances are safe or actually do what they claim to do. "It just requires that the substances contained in the product are on the label," explains Dr. David Marshall, director of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta's Sports Medicine Program. "There is no requirement for studies proving short or long-term safety with product use. This lack of regulation and high risk of impurities can put the consumer at significant risk when purchasing and using these products." Some supplements do go through independent certification processes, such as those by the National Science Foundation (NSF) or the U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention (USP), and these will be marked with a seal.
As with any product, your best bet is to examine the ingredients for yourself. "Buy products with detailed ingredient lists so you know what part of a plant a particular product is using, the dose and where it is manufactured," says Dr. Tasneem Bhatia, medical director at Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine. Shahida Rashid, clinical nutrition manager at Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital, also encourages would-be buyers to look for supplements with no additives, colors or fillers.
And keep in mind that the ingredient label isn't perfect, either. "Just because a supplement says it has 500 mg of one ingredient, it may not contain that amount," Spano explains. Studies by Harvard researchers and the U.S. Office of Inspector General show that some supplements live up to their label claims, while others do not. Rashid adds, "Remember to do your research, visit the manufacturer's website and research ingredients in the product. If it sounds too good to be true, it likely is."
Supplement Side Effects
Whether you've decided to try a diet supplement or a post-workout protein shake, be sure to consider any possible side effects. For example, according to Rashid, prolonged, excessive intake of protein can be associated with decreased kidney function and osteoporosis. "Remember, too much of a good thing is not a good thing," she says. "Mega doses of vitamins and minerals can have adverse effects and even death. Always consult your doctor or a registered dietitian when taking supplements."
Even if the supplement itself does not cause problems, it could potentially interfere with any existing health concerns or other medications you're taking. For example, "Many high antioxidant supplements are not recommended during chemo or radiation," Dr. Bhatia says. Vitamin E is another one to watch out for, Spano says, because "it is a blood thinner, and your cardiologist may not want you taking high doses of this supplement." She adds that men should be especially careful with vitamin E supplements because high doses may increase prostate cancer risk. Whatever supplements you're interested in, it's a good idea to consult your physician before taking anything.
Food for Fitness
When it comes down to everyday health and fitness, you're likely better off eating a nutrient-dense diet and getting a variety of physical activity rather than relying on supplements. "I generally don't recommend 'energy boosters' or supplements for fitness," says Dr. Maziar Rezvani, director of Avicenna Integrative Medicine and Avicenna Allergy and Asthma. "These products are releasing what is already inside of you. There are more natural ways to release these mediators than taking something externally."
Try these dietary options to achieve the results you want:
Energy: Black tea or coffee can give you a boost through your workout or during the workday without the danger of accidentally supplementing with too much caffeine or spending money on a B12 injection your body may not need.
Strength: "Lean meats can help with iron and amino acid deficiencies," Dr. Bhatia says, providing protein and helping muscles rebuild after a tough workout. If it's strong bones you're looking for, opt for calcium-dense greens like spinach, kale and collard greens.
Pain relief: "Turmeric has great anti-inflammatory and pain relief properties," Dr. Bakheet says, as do citrus fruits.
Recovery: Water. "Many people forget this one simple ingredient to their diet," Dr. Bakheet says. "Simply put, staying well hydrated will help every cell in your body function at maximum efficiency."
Michael Bakheet, MD, Kaiser Permanente of Georgia – www.kp.org
Tasneem Bhatia, MD, Atlanta Center for Holistic and Integrative Medicine – www.atlantaholisticmedicine.com
David Marshall, MD, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta – www.choa.org
Shahida Rashid, RD, LD, Emory Saint Joseph's Hospital – www.emoryhealthcare.org
Maziar Rezvani, MD, FAAAI, Avicenna Integrative Medicine – www.avicennamd.com
Marie Spano, MS, RD, CSCS, CSSD – www.mariespano.com