Supplements: The Essential Basics

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The first step to understanding the basics of supplements is to first establish the essence of what a supplement is. Well, wonderfully enough, we can go off of face-value and run with the literal meaning/interpretation: it is something that completes or makes an addition [to your daily diet]. Therefore, our primary extrapolation is this – if you are considering using supplements, then they must be in *addition* to a healthy diet!

For clarification, I mean that we shouldn’t be substituting anything. Your diet should already be on point, and the aim of supplements is to augment physiological performance.

One thing you need to be careful not to do is: *don’t* buy into the marketing! There are no quick fixes, and no magic pills out there – fact! That being said, there are plenty of great supplements that will yield awesome results [depending on your goals]. I would say that the number one most misunderstood supplement is: the “meal replacement”.

The clue is in the name – replacement – and this is a problem; I’ve had too many clients ask me about these, and the majority do so after already trying them. The issue is that they take the ‘replacement’ part too literally, and so, I would end up hearing about how they were substituting breakfast [or lunch] with a “meal replacement” shake…

So, why is this a problem? Well, firstly, because it more often than not means cutting out more nutritionally dense food options for the sake of “convenience”. But the other problem is that replacing full-on meals with these shakes will usually lead to extreme calorie restriction.

Even a meal replacement should be used in addition to your regular meal schedule, so if you eat three times per day, then a meal replacement should be considered a *fourth* meal; but you should still be getting in adequate amounts of real food!

Let’s be clear though, if you were to go ahead and replace one or more meals with these shakes, you will no doubt lose weight, however, it will almost inevitably come from muscle wastage and water loss, NOT fat loss! In other words, yes you will weighhhh less, but your body will still be carrying just as much bodyfat, if not more…

‘Here’s a dirty little secret of the supplement industry…’

Other marketing issues include claims of fat-burning, increased muscle mass, “explosive strength”, and other often exaggerated proclamations. Over-promising and under-delivering tends to be an industry norm, and what makes things worse is celebrity/pro-athlete endorsements; you’ll see scores of famous faces promoting these products as these companies shamelessly flaunt false hope.

The thing is, the average consumer will totally buy into these marketing strategies and genuinely believe that if they buy the entire line of supplements on offer that somehow they will magically attain the physique of the shredded guy or “perfectly slim” gal who appears on the bottle.

Here’s a dirty little secret of the supplement industry: the overwhelming majority of these sponsored “pros” virtually all achieved their “dream bodies” before ever using the supplements that they’re bolstering. Almost without exception, these proverbial gods/goddesses have reached the top level in their sport or discipline and garnered such high levels of recognition that the supplement companies say, ‘That’s the “look” we’re going for; we need him/her to boost our sales!’.

Even if the model on the packaging isn’t “famous” per se, the fact is they will usually be a professional who makes a living from having a stunning physique. So, where most of us lead normal lives in a myriad of different jobs/professions, the fact is, we “mere mortals” do not get *paid* to get in / stay in that kind of shape!

But okay, look – I’m not looking to “bash” the supplement industry. My aim here – as always – is to broaden your perspective and unveil the bigger picture. Now, we’re going to continue down this little “rabbit hole” just a wee bit more and explore another oft-overlooked aspect of supplement purchasing habits…

On the one hand, this kind of ties in to the previous points regarding marketing; but on the other hand, this is more about becoming savvier consumers. Although it may seem a) daunting, b) like a ball-ache, and c) like a potential waste of time… we should seriously ensure that we do our due diligence and actually research the ingredients in these products ourselves!

I remember way back in the day when I first started to use supplements, I was obsessed with learning more about what the heck each ingredient actually was supposed to do inside the body, looking at the difference between Whey and Casein, what Arginine and Glutamine do, the side effects of Creatine supplementation, etc.


Supplement Content (1)


Now of course, most of us aren’t inclined to crank up the nerd-factor thaaat far and dive into the endless articles, books, and journals to study these things – especially not “for fun”. And keep in mind that – these days – the industry has been shaken up by some disruptors (whose lead I follow so as to hold companies more accountable, and introduce higher standards across the board); back when I was [essentially] experimenting, supplements were laden with ingredients that have since been banned [in most markets around the globe] (for example: aspartame), and there was plenty of false advertising when it came to what was really “in the tub”.

What it really comes down to though, is making sure that we don’t buy something that is going to aggravate our health. Now, I will be writing plenty of posts that analyse individual ingredients and evaluate their impact on our bodies, but for today’s post I just want to ensure that you go away and read up on what you’re putting in your body.

The last note of caution is one that will not only benefit your health, but your bank balance too! You want to be mindful of ‘proprietary blends’ – they are the scourge of the supplement industry, and fortunately, we are starting to see them get phased out. So, what are they? If you look on the back of a fat-burner (for example), you might see something like this:

Fat-Incinerator Matrix* – 3850mg

Green Coffee, L-Carnitine, Garcinia Cambogia, Elderflower Extract, Bitter Orange Peel

(*Proprietary Blend)

What they’ve done here is tell you that their “Fat-Incinerator Matrix” contains 3.85g of [supposedly] active ingredients, and while the actual list may look impressive, we are given zero indication as to exactly how much of each individual ingredient comprises this “matrix” (or blend). So, the supplement company could well be putting in far greater quantities of the lesser effective ingredients, and not enough of the ones that really work. What we want to see is something that shows us each specific measure, like the following:

Fat-Shredding Blend – 2740mg

Green Tea – 500mg

L-Carnitine – 1000mg

CLA – 1000mg

Caffeine – 240mg

The relevant thing to take note of is not necessarily the ingredients themselves, but the fact that – in the second example – we see that the dose of each one is accurately listed.

One thing that really peeved me off at one of the Health Clubs I used to work at when I was starting out in the fitness industry was that they forced me to “sell” the supplements that they stocked. If they’d been GOOD products, then I would have done so with gusto! However, the brand we were partnered with was cr*p… And there was no way I was going to drag my own reputation as a Trainer through the mud by pushing sh*tty products just to protect the club’s “bottom line”.

Now, while I won’t name the specific brand, I will say what the problem with most of their products was: ridiculously under-dosed “active ingredients”. They had all the right stuff in there, but just at doses which were a mere fraction of what has been scientifically proven to be effective (but again, more on that in other posts).

Okay, okay – I know, you want to know if I’m actually going to say anything good about supplements… well, yes. I actually have plenty of positives to throw out there. As long as you’re not sacrificing nutritionally rich food just so as to cut calories, and you’re ensuring that you buy products that are adequately dosed with ingredients that yield results, then you will find that there are tons of benefits to be found by using supplements. So, how about I give you my Top 5 Supplements for Beginners?


The number one place to start is going to be with a protein powder. Now, the source of protein is going to be determined by various factors – I wouldn’t recommend whey or casein if you’re vegan, but then a pea or hemp protein may be just as effective. The reason to include protein shakes into your diet is if you don’t already have enough protein in the food you’re *eating*.

Protein shakes are super convenient, and can be easily consumed on the go. Also, nowadays they taste great! Back in the 90’s and early 2000’s they were lumpy, dry, icky sludge… but kudos to those manufacturers for managing to finally create shakes that you’ll actually want to drink!

At number two, we’re going to put Creatine in there. You’ll find there are several types – monohydrate, nitrate, and hydrochloride, for example. Some you will have to take at greater doses to start [later dropping after a “loading phase”], and others you can just take at the same (lower) dose from start to finish.

Creatine consumption will lead to improved strength, and potentially increase muscle size… however, you want to keep in mind that these effects will [usually] quickly wither away if/when you stop using it. Take home message with this one: you should definitely see results, but they may disappear with discontinued use of the supplement.

‘Omega-3 serves as a superb anti-inflammatory…’

Number three is Glutamine… this is an amino acid that you’ll usually find in greater doses in most products, and its role is essentially to help rebuild muscle tissue after it’s been broken down. So, for the sake of improved muscle recovery, glutamine is a shining star that stands out in what can be an overly dazzling constellation of ingredients.

Omega-3s take the fourth slot. Ideally, you’ll want to get these from natural sources (like salmon, nuts, flaxseed, etc). However, you can always take a supplement to ensure that you’re getting adequate amounts.

Fact is, the typical Western diet is much higher in Omega-6s, so actually, balancing out the two is a good idea. Omega-3 serves as a superb anti-inflammatory, so if you’re suffering from soreness (especially in the joints), then taking an Omega-3 supplement could be the best thing to alleviate this – even more so if you’re training extra hard!

And finally, we have Green Tea at number five. There’s a plethora of benefits when it comes to this drinkable herb, but what may peak your interest the most is its fat-burning properties. This is one ingredient/supplement that I especially want to write a dedicated post on, so stay tuned for more; but for now, be sure to check it out and consider including it in your line up.

With these five supplements you’ll be covering your main bases: building muscle, helping recovery, and enhancing fat-loss. Now, I’m not hammering home the details here because this post is only supposed to cover the basics. But fret not, I will provide you with all the facts you need in future articles.

As always, I hope I’ve opened your eyes to something new, and encouraged you to learn more about the supplements that are out there on the market.


Yours in Training


Chris Atkinson | Master Personal Trainer, SDO

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