As stereotypical as the title may sound, I get asked this quite often. It’s funny to me how successfully the supplement industry has associated itself with training and being essential to reaching your goals. At one point I believed this and was always a sucker for the latest “fat loss pill” or “anabolic hormone increasing protein” that came out. While supplements may be able to ASSIST you with your nutritional requirements, they should never make up the bulk of your diet.
In this article what I refer to as “Supplements” are the products targeting the everyday fitness consumer in the gym. There is a vast market providing supplements and medication for illnesses and nutrient deficiencies, I am not referring to these types of products.
Firstly, lets introduce the most popular supplement out there, Whey protein. Whey protein is effectively powdered milk. But not the same milk you buy from the shop, it’s the bi-product from dairy manufacturing processes that farmers can’t sell to milk companies. They take this poor-quality milk bi-product that is so awful you can’t buy it in a store, and they boil it to get rid of the liquid, which potentially kills all of the healthy bacteria that may actually be beneficial for you. Once they powder this poor-quality milk bi-product, they refine and add all of the lovely chemicals that preserve it and make it taste like off chocolate. This is all done in the cheapest producing country possible, which probably doesn’t have the same manufacturing regulations as the UK. They create an advert using either a famous or incredibly good looking and ripped person drinking this whey protein, get a fake testimony from this person, and successfully sell it to the everyday gym goer. This is just one of the hundreds of dodgy products that are out for sale.
I am a firm believer of consuming real food over supplements. It’s a lot healthier to eat something naturally grown in the earth and cooked yourself than a protein bar made from all sorts of chemicals and junk you can’t even pronounce. Often in a consultation with a potential client they ask me about what supplements they should be taking before they ask me what food they should be eating. My mind is blown when they think that taking a certain supplement will magic themselves to either gain or lose weight. I remember once when somebody came into the gym for the first time and told me that they’ve “already bought my whey protein, casein protein, BCAAs, fat burners, metabolism boosters, pre-workouts, intra-workout drinks…etc etc”, and this was before they even joined the gym! Bravo supplements company, you’ve just wasted £300 of this gullible man’s money before he’s even considered exercising. Even the week I started writing this article someone asked me “But what should I eat instead of my meal replacement bar?!”, madness.
I can’t point fingers and laugh at naive people as I was once one of them. I remember my uni days and receiving the latest marketing email from a supplements company. I was so eager to read about the new research and products they had released. Lapping up everything they had to say like it was gospel. Spending hours researching these new ingredients and formulas, convincing all my friends of this new supplement I had just heard about, disregarding any budget I had for student living and spending £50 on a tub of powder that was GUARANTEED to get me where I wanted to be. I later found that this was a waste of money, money that I could have spent in the union on £1 pints!
I think the largest misleading source of the supplement industries power these days is social media. If you take any person under the age of 30, the chances are they have either Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. On these websites you can find and follow influencers from any industry who are sharing information online. If you rack up a following of let’s say 10,000 people online, everything you post will be seen by at least 10,000 people. This makes you very valuable to any company looking to promote their product.
Let’s say you are one of those people who owns a fitness themed page, you are in great shape, enjoy posting workout photos of yourself and gather a relatively large following online. You get contacted by a random supplements company saying that you will get a free t shirt, free tub of protein and a discount code if you post some photos of yourself using their products, why wouldn’t you do it? You can call yourself a “Sponsored Athlete”, make money every time your discount code is used, it’s a win win. Unfortunately, this happens on an extremely large scale. This has resulted in almost every fitness page now promoting a certain brand or product claiming that this product made them achieve their physique or results, when this is not the case. And you get young people thinking that this product is the one thing that can help them look like their favourite person on Instagram.
The Placebo effect plays another big part when starting to take a new dietary supplement. When you invest time and money into purchasing a new product that you believe will help you achieve your goals, the more likely you are to stick to a regime. The results you get are often linked solely to this new product you purchased, whereas in reality it is due to the fact that you actually stuck to a training plan for more than a week. Placebo studies have been completed where subjects were told they were taking anabolic steroids whereas in fact they were taking empty pill capsules. Low and behold, their results skyrocketed even though they had been taking empty capsules.
When I hear people say “I got the new XYZ protein and I got great results from it” it’s funny to me how they think that this protein shake is the sole cause of their results. Protein shakes take up about 3% of your weekly calorific intake (based on four 150 calorie shakes a week in a 2500 calorie consuming person). There is no way that this 3% of your calories is the ONLY reason you have been getting results, not the other 97% of food you’ve been eating, or the new training, or the more sleep etc.
All being said I think protein supplements can be useful for certain people. They are a great way of getting cheap, on the go nutrition into your body. They are useful for; after a workout if you can’t eat a proper meal for an hour or two, office workers who cannot leave their desk in the day, if you want a quick healthy snack, for long drives, and in a few other circumstances. I just think wherever possible it is best to eat a full meal with real nutrition in it rather than manufactured, chemical filled powder. I’m not a big fan of all of the micronutrient supplements like aminos, BCAAs, glutamine etc. While on paper they may do something useful within your body, I have never seen great results from any of these. I do take dairy free protein shakes with creatine after most of my workouts. This is mainly because creatine is the only supplement that has consistently worked for me, plus I usually can’t eat for about an hour after my workout and I get pretty hangry. Other than that I steer clear of pretty much all other supplements and would suggest you do the same, concentrate on your training and eating real food.
If you think that you need a protein shake or certain product in order to get to your goals, you are wrong. Supplements can help, but they should only SUPPLEMENT your diet, not form the basis of it.
I hope you enjoyed my views on protein supplements, please let me know your thoughts!