Nowadays, a trip to your local health store can be overwhelming. Even if you know what to look for — and you may not — there are so many options. And every capsule and powder claims to give you healthier joints, help you burn fat quicker, give you stronger lifts, or even help you live longer.
However, with a little know-how, you can easily save your money on worthless supps and invest in products that will benefit your life and workouts.
The Council for Responsible Nutrition, a Washington D.C.-based trade association that represents supplement manufacturers, states five popular types of supplements: vitamins/minerals, specialty, herbal, sports nutrition, and weight management. In this handy guide, we’ll run through each and tell you what you should look for in each, as well as provide some examples.
Types of Supplements
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. It’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor before beginning a new fitness, nutritional, and/or supplement routine. None of these supplements are meant to treat or cure any disease. If you feel you may be deficient in a particular nutrient or nutrients, please seek out a medical professional.
There’s an alphabet soup of vitamins and minerals, and you’re guaranteed to find a different supplement for each one. Each one is vital for its own reason as they help facilitate the countless metabolic reactions in our body, and a deficiency in just one can lead to illnesses or poor performance.
Of all the supplements, vitamins and minerals are the most overused. A poll by the American Osteopathic Association found 86 percent of Americans take a vitamin, but only 21 percent have a confirmed deficiency.
So again, if you’re getting enough Vitamin C from your diet, there’s no need to pop an orange tablet daily. In fact, eating too much of certain vitamins and minerals can lead to nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, and even increase your cancer risk. (3)
You want to make sure you’re eating enough of each nutrient without exceeding the tolerable upper limit, that is, the amount of a nutrient you can eat without any adverse effects.
Here are some of the most popular vitamin and mineral supplements and what you should know about them.
Multivitamins are far and away the most popular supplement in the country, with the Council for Responsible Nutrition reporting that 58 percent of supplement users take one. For the uninitiated, a multivitamin is exactly what it sounds like —multiple vitamins in one capsule. Think of it as one-stop shopping for all your micronutrient needs.
There are multivitamins made just for men, women, athletes, children, people 50 and above, and more, so the nutrient makeup of each will vary depending on who it’s being made for. A multivitamin for children might have more Vitamin A, which is vital for growth, and one for people a little older may have more Vitamin B12 to help ward off fatigue.
There’s mixed evidence as to whether these work. An editorial written by Johns Hopkins researchers in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine found multivitamins did not reduce the risk of any diseases or cognitive decline. “If you follow a healthy diet, you can get all of the vitamins and minerals you need from food,” the researchers wrote. (4)
However, one 2012 study found that men who took a multivitamin had decreased their cancer risk by eight percent compared to men who took a placebo. (5)
A nutritionist or general practitioner will be able to tell you if you need a multivitamin. Again, if you are taking one, make sure that it has the proper dosage of each nutrient.
Odds are you were probably told to drink as much orange juice or take a Vitamin C tablet around cold and flu season to keep your immune system in tip-top shape, but it does much more than that. Getting enough Vitamin C will also ensure your cells, skin, blood vessels, and bones are healthy. It also helps speed up wound healing.
Not to sound like a broken record, but if you’re getting enough of this vitamin through your diet, then keep the tablets away. One study found that the absorption of Vitamin C dropped by 50 percent when people took more than 1,000 milligrams. The same study showed adverse effects for people who took more than 3,000 mg, including diarrhea and the formation of kidney stones. (6)
Without Vitamin D, your body can’t properly absorb calcium. So this vitamin is essential for bone, teeth, and muscle health. According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition, it’s the second-most used supplement, only behind multivitamins.
Other than food and supplements, another popular source of this vital nutrient can be found in the sky — the sun.
Multiple studies have found that Vitamin D supplementation can be beneficial, especially for older people at risk of falls. One found that a high dosage reduced injuries from falls by close to 20 percent, but only when taken alongside calcium. Other studies found it increased muscle strength to prevent falls all together. (7)(8)
Specialty supplements are supplements designed to treat a specific cause, unlike a vitamin or mineral, which can address multiple ailments. According to the Council for Responsible Nutrition, these supplements primarily deal with blood pressure and rheumatoid arthritis.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
If you’ve ever heard of “good fats vs. bad fats,” this guy here is one of the good guys. Omega-3 fatty acid is an umbrella term, and there are three different types — EPA, DHA, and ALA. The first two are found in fish, while ALA is found in nuts and seeds.
You may have been told to take one of these supplements, which may also be called fish oils, to help lower blood pressure or reduce your risk of heart disease — Omega-3 fatty acids have been found to increase your “good” cholesterol or high-density lipoprotein (HDL).
The evidence on these supplements is clear: they don’t do anything special than natural sources of omega-3s. So if you’re eating enough seafood, olive oil, and nuts and seeds, there’s no need to pick these up. (9)
We don’t have to tell you the benefits of fiber — but in case you’re unaware, this important nutrient helps maintain bowel health (just don’t take too much of it), lowers cholesterol levels, and helps keep you fuller for longer.
Fiber is not found in many of the processed foods Americans commonly eat — such as potato chips, pastries, and fried foods — and only five percent of Americans eat enough of it, a reason why it’s so popular in supplement form. Studies have said that fiber supplements can improve overall and intestinal health, but the researchers point out that the fiber you’re getting in pill or powder form won’t be as efficient as the fiber found in food. (10)
These supplements can include green teas and ingredients like ashwagandha, St. John’s Wort, turmeric, certain varieties of mushrooms, and even garlic and tart cherry juice. These supplements have been used for thousands of years in places like South America and China and reportedly have medicinal benefits for issues ranging from joint health to stopping blood clots.
Some Western doctors have been hesitant to endorse herbal treatments, pointing to a lack of conclusive evidence of their benefits. One group of researchers, though, called for the two sides to work in conjunction with each other, saying, “They can be quite complementary to each other for synergizing the therapeutic effects.” (11)
This root is a cousin of ginger and is commonly found in powdered form in your grocery store’s spice aisle. In that form, it’s used in Indian and Southeast Asian cooking in dishes like curry.
Lately, though, it’s also been found in supplement form and purported to treat heart disease and even Alzheimer’s. Researchers have said more studies need to be done into its effectiveness in reducing blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. There is no scientific evidence showing it can reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s. (12)
For athletes, though, it might be worth taking for joint pain as there is research backing up turmeric’s effectiveness for people with achy knees and elbows. (13)
This is probably the type of supplement you came here for, and odds are you’re familiar with most of them. While most people reading this article probably take one or all of the supplements listed below over the aforementioned ones, sport nutrition supps only make up less than one-third of all supplements taken by the general public.
It goes without saying, but these supplements are meant to help improve your performance in the gym, get your muscles bigger, and make you stronger and faster.
The magic elixir of gym-goers everywhere, protein powder, has been endorsed by muscle-builders for decades. Protein is, of course, the building block of all muscles, so you must get as much of it as possible. As we discussed before, that can be hard for bigger people looking to build muscle or maintain mass, so taking it in powder form makes it easier to get the proper amount of the macronutrient.
Protein powder comes in whey, casein, pea, soy, and other forms. When shopping for a protein powder, look for the amino acid profile — amino acids help make up protein molecules. Each amino acid plays a different role in muscle development and bodily functions. If a powder has low amino acid concentrations, it’s probably not worth buying.
Also, be aware of any protein powder with added sugars — while it may help the shake taste better, it only adds extra calories that won’t help you build muscle.
The effectiveness of protein powders has been backed up in various studies, with one saying it can help reduce fat and maintain muscle when taken alongside meals that are also high in protein. Another found protein supplements are beneficial to increasing muscle protein synthesis, or the amount of protein your muscles absorb. (14)(15).
But the news isn’t all good on the protein front. Some recent studies have found that many of the top-selling protein powders contain heavy metals that, in large doses, can be toxic to humans. To find out if your favorite protein powder is on the list, visit cleanlabelproject.org. (16)
Creatine is also found in powder form, but it’s also created naturally by the body and can be found in protein-heavy foods such as meat, though in minimal doses. In essence, creatine helps create adenosine triphosphate — the body’s preferred energy source — to help you perform better and improve muscle contractions. It also helps increase lean muscle mass and strength and optimize muscle recovery more quickly after an intense workout session.
Its effectiveness is endorsed by bodybuilders and athletes everywhere and by the International Society of Sports Nutrition. “Creatine monohydrate is the most effective ergogenic nutritional supplement currently available to athletes with the intent of increasing high-intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass during training,” the organization wrote in its official journal. (17)
Excess creatine levels, though, have been found to lower creatine synthesis (aka you won’t be able to absorb it as well) and may increase the risk of kidney disease. (18)
Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Branched-chain amino acids consist of three amino acids (specifically valine, leucine, and isoleucine) with different chemical structures. These three amino acids are essential for muscle growth. Like other amino acids, these are found in many foods and sold as a powder that you can mix with your water at the gym.
People often take BCAAs to decrease muscle fatigue and muscle soreness and provide more energy at the gym. One study found BCAAs don’t provide any substantial boost in muscle growth or protein synthesis and that some subjects even lost muscle when taking BCAA supplements. Another found minimal improvements in muscle growth and that proper diet was more important for people looking to improve their physique. (19)(20)
There are two types of amino acids — essential and non-essential. The former must be obtained through diet because the body can’t make enough of them naturally. The latter is made in adequate levels by the body. Beta-alanine falls under the latter.
You probably know this amino acid as the ingredient in pre-workouts that gives you that “itchy feeling,” known in the medical field as acute paresthesia.
Beta-alanine is often sold on its own, and there are claims that it can increase muscle endurance (aka it helps you work out for longer). Multiple studies have backed up this claim, and the International Society of Sports Nutrition has supported its use by athletes, specifically those engaging in intense training sessions. (21)(22)
Weight management was previously grouped with sports nutrition in the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s annual report but has since become its own category. These are the supplements that people will take to help speed up fat loss by reducing your appetite, increasing your caloric burn, or suppressing the absorption of certain macronutrients.
Some athletes have been known to take caffeine in pill form after their morning cup of java. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, so long as you don’t surpass the limit of 400 mg of caffeine per day (about four cups of coffee).
At all points, though, avoid taking caffeine powder—which is dehydrated caffeine that is super-concentrated. If you miscalculate the dosage and take too much, you can die.
Caffeine has been shown to rev up the body’s metabolism by up to 11 percent, increasing fat burning. There is also some proof that it can help with short-term, intense exercises—one of the reasons weight lifters take energy drinks of pre-workouts before hitting the gym—though the results were better in elite athletes than recreational ones. (23)(24)
Do You Really Need Supplements?
Before even running to the supplement aisle, you should ask yourself whether you truly need them in the first place. And to figure that out, you need to look at the word itself: “supplement,” which means complementing or enhancing something. So, in this case, you’re complimenting or enhancing your nutrition either because you’re deficient in something or you could use an extra boost.
In theory, a well-balanced diet should take care of all of your nutritional needs. That said, according to a 2017 study, 31 percent of Americans had at least one vitamin deficiency, and a 2019 study in the Journal of Nutrition, Health and Aging found that one-in-three adults age 50 and over were not eating enough protein. (1)(2)
Researchers have pointed out this may be due to poor diets that lack fruits and vegetables or specialty diets that cut out certain nutrients — the paleo diet, for example, is low in Vitamin D and calcium. Fixing your eating regimen might be a good first step before shelling out your money at the supplement aisle.
There are other reasons, though, why one might want to supp up. Certain diseases and genetic disorders make it hard for some people to absorb certain nutrients from their food, requiring an intense supplement routine. And those who adhere to veganism for ethical, instead of nutritional, reasons may want to take a B12 supplement because plant-based foods are lacking in that vitamin. (Of course, you should always check with your doctor before taking a supplement to help offset a medical condition or specific diet.)
Another reason popular among gym-goers is that supplements make life easier. Bodybuilders looking to hold onto muscle need to eat a lot of protein, which can get expensive if you try to do it just through chicken breasts and strip steaks. A birthday cake-flavored shake will get you the same amount of protein in less time than it takes to heat a pan.
What to Look for
Of course, price is a factor when buying supplements. However, there is one crucial thing to look out for when supplement shopping: the dosage. You want to make sure what you’re buying is potent and gives you enough bang for your buck. For example, you don’t want to buy a protein powder that only has 10 grams of protein in it — a meat stick has more than that. The same thing goes with vitamins and minerals. Find out how much of a certain supplement you need to be taking, and make sure what you’re buying meets that criteria.
More Supplement Tips
The supplements on this list are just the tip of the muscle and strength-building iceberg. For more information on different supplements and how they work, check out these other articles from BarBend.
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- Krok-Schoen, J.L., Archdeacon Price, A., Luo, M. et al. Low Dietary Protein Intakes and Associated Dietary Patterns and Functional Limitations in an Aging Population: A NHANES Analysis. J Nutr Health Aging 23, 338–347 (2019). doi.org/10.1007/s12603-019-1174-1
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