5 Basics of Supplementation Guide

If you are in the health and fitness industry, or just look like you’re relatively healthy and fit, you’ve probably been asked “What supplement should I take to fulfill the goal?” at some point. There are just too many confused people, wanting to believe the answer lies just one pill or powder away. And there are just as many bad shepherds feeding that misbelief, too. Let’s fix that!

In one way or another, I’ve walked countless thousands of people through what you’re about to read. This is my “keep it simple and smart” approach to effective supplementation.  

5 Basics of Supplementation Guide

Supplement Basics

The Benefits of Multivitamins: Why and How Much

Why: No supplement can compensate fully for a poor diet or lifestyle, but these supporting actors (or “cofactors”) can help make the processes in your body work optimally. These nutrients are also in increased demand whenever your body’s physiological processes are stressed, such as in response to intense training, dieting, periods of growth, or immune system attacks, just to name a few.

What: An intelligently designed multi should provide active ingredients shown to significantly elevate circulating levels of the biologically active forms of the following vitamins and minerals:

Start reading about multis, and you’ll sometimes hear that you shouldn’t consume this or that vitamin or mineral in combination with others. Calcium decreases the absorption of iron, for example, and zinc can decrease the absorption of chromium and magnesium. However, such statements are just marketing-driven spin to justify why ingredients that take up a lot of space in a capsule or tablet haven’t been included in a particular supplement.

Why? Because nearly every one of the nutrients can decrease the absorption of one nutrient…and increase the absorption of something else. Calcium increases vitamin B12, to return to our earlier example, and zinc increases the absorption of selenium. Also, having low circulating zinc levels can decrease the absorption and utilization of vitamin A and folate, and decrease the amount of vitamin E in the body.

The point is that the human body has a very large number of examples where competition for absorption occurs. It doesn’t mean that absorption doesn’t occur at all, though; just that it can be less efficient. The human body has synergistic feed-forward mechanisms whereby circulating levels of one vitamin or mineral will affect the bioavailability of others. Therefore, take a multi for what it is: a good back-up for your diet. Nothing more.

How: Take half a dose with breakfast and another half-dose with another meal later in the day. Even better, split a full day’s dose across three or four servings. If you take a high-potency multi on an empty stomach, be forewarned that not only will the absorption of many of the nutrients be reduced, there’s also a very good chance you’ll begin to feel nauseated within about 30 minutes of taking the supplement.

The Benefits of Vitamin D: Why and How Much

Why: Most multis just don’t include enough of this critical nutrient, which is now commonly referred to by experts as a versatile steroid hormone instead of a vitamin.

Using between 4,000 IUs to about 8,500 IUs per day has been shown to provide a significant and beneficial effect on measures of exercise performance. Most multis contain 600-1000 IUs, if that.

What: Cholecalciferol is the D3 form of this vitamin. The ergocalciferol, or D2 form, albeit much cheaper, has regularly been shown to be significantly less effective than the D3 form at raising circulating levels of the active form of vitamin D (25-hydroxyvitamin D) in the blood.

How: Take 2,000-4,000 IUs with breakfast and again with another meal later in the day. It’s a fat-soluble vitamin, so taking it on its own isn’t likely to be as effective. And even if you take a vitamin D supplement, still get out in the sunshine.

The Benefits of Protein Powder: Why and How Much

Why: Protein is the only major nutrient that stimulates muscle protein synthesis, the process by which your body repairs and grows muscle. But it also improves insulin sensitivity and blood glucose control, supports healthy blood pressure and inflammatory response, reduces age- or inactivity-induced losses in muscle and strength, and is critical for a robust immune system. Plus, protein increases calorie burning (thermogenesis) and reduces hunger more than either carbohydrates or fat.

And no, it’s not just for when you’re looking to gain weight. When combined with a calorie-restricted diet, supplementing with protein also increases the loss of body fat and weight, and reduces the loss of lean body mass.

In today’s market there are plenty of options for where you can get your protein: dairy, egg, chicken or other animal sources, vegetable (soy, rice, pumpkin, hemp, etc.), fish, algae like spirulina—the list goes on and on. However, I’m of the opinion that the conversation begins with whey.

Why? Because for the human body, whey is literally the protein of life. Whey makes up almost 92 percent of the total protein present within human breast milk at early lactation, and is still about 55-60 percent of the total protein in breast milk when children have been fed for more than two years.

All other proteins are fine as a matter of variety and a source of amino acids, but whey is the most popular for a good reason.

What: If your goal is to get bigger and stronger, any whey protein concentrate will do just fine. If you’re following a carb- or fat-restricted diet, or if you have a genuine lactose allergy, then reach for a whey protein isolate .

A hydrolyzed (“pre-digested”), though more expensive, can also be used if you typically get an upset stomach by consuming dairy proteins, or if you want more insulin response. Plus, some evidence suggests that extensively hydrolyzed forms of whey may promote greater fat burning than other forms of whey. Data is equivocal if moderately hydrolyzed whey can provide the same benefit, and no quality data supports any advantage of using minimally hydrolyzed whey.

How: The majority of the studies support consuming at least 20 grams of whey per serving, at least once, but possibly multiple times per day. To help reduce appetite and lower blood glucose response to a meal, drink a whey shake at least 30 minutes prior to eating a meal. Around exercise, there’s really no wrong or conclusively right time to consume whey: pre-, intra-, or post-workout. Each has its potential benefit, depending upon other factors. The main point is, consuming whey around the time of your workouts can amplify the positive effects of your training.

The Benefits of Fish Oil: Why and How Much

Why: In addition to being a source of caloric energy, fatty acids (FAs) are something every cell in your body uses as the foundation of its fluid membrane. Since cells are constantly being rebuilt and destroyed, you can hopefully understand why having a diet high in essential FAs (EFAs) is necessary to support optimal health and fitness.

FAs are also critical as metabolic precursors for hormones and they help your immune system operate properly. Notably, when consumed in adequate amounts and ratios to other FAs, certain FAs provide a potent anti-inflammatory response which is necessary to recover rapidly from intense workouts or the stress that occurs because of inadequate sleep, a poor diet, or other environmental and lifestyle stressors.

In one well-designed study, when 4 grams per day of a certain FA was consumed in the absence of any other nutrients, there was no direct effect on stimulating muscle protein synthesis or pathways that lead to increased muscle growth in healthy, but physically inactive men and women. However, when blood levels of insulin and amino acids were increased, the EFA supplement increased the anabolic effects by approximately 50 percent over what occurred in response to just the insulin plus amino acids.

The upshot for you: EFAs don’t just offer great benefits on their own, they also make other nutrients work even better.

What: Omega-3s are particularly important forms of EFAs, should be supplemented regularly, and occur in higher concentration in fish than plants. Fish-derived omega-3s also yield a higher concentration of two powerhouse EFAs, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA).

When buying an omega-3 supplement, reach for those that provide the FAs in natural triglyceride, or free fatty acid form. The other most popular options include ethyl ester, concentrates, or “pharmaceutical grade” forms, all of which are required in higher doses to provide comparable rises in blood levels of what occurs in response to lower doses of the naturally occurring form. Even then, the ethyl esters don’t appear as consistently or nearly as effective as when omega-3s are provided as free fatty acids.

How: To support a healthy inflammatory response to exercise and other forms of physiological stress, as well as to support mood and mental health, and promote a healthy heart and healthy-looking skin, consume at least 2.8 grams per day of combined EPA and DHA, in about a 1.75:1.00 ratio of EPA to DHA.

Also, the more processed grains, refined vegetable oils, eggs and other poultry, red meat, pork products, cheese and other forms of dairy that you consume, the more your fat intake will tilt toward omega-6s. This increases the need for omega-3s to achieve a healthy ratio of omega-6 to omega-3. An even 1:1 to not more than a 4:1 ratio is optimal; a typical Western diet is in excess of 18:1 omega-6s to omega-3.

The Benefits of Probiotics: Why and How Much

Why: Unlike bad bacteria strains like Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli that can make you sick or worse if they enter your digestive system in high enough numbers, there’s a growing list of good bugs that should take up residency within your body if you’re to maintain optimal health.

Consuming a wide variety of fresh or lightly cooked organic fruits and vegetables can do wonders for supporting a healthy and diverse population of beneficial bacteria, and that’s where your strategy should start. But unfortunately, the environment you live in, how you respond to stress, your lifestyle and diet, eating processed foods, and a wide host of chemicals (including high-intensity sweeteners—both “natural” and artificial) can beat the life out of these gut good-guys.

What: The lactobacilli and bifidobacteria strains of probiotics are the most common that you’ll find in almost all supplements. Current recommendations are that you cycle between products that contain a variety of different probiotic strains, because once you get enough good bugs in your system and consume a sound diet with ample variety, the good guys will multiply on their own.

Therefore, like a healthy society, you want to increase the diversity and the total number of good guy bugs as opposed to just supporting a single homogenous sub-population. Also, only choose probiotics from companies that will provide a guarantee of the total number of active “colony-forming units” (CFUs) for each of the probiotic strains listed on the product, all the way up to the product’s expiration date. Otherwise, it’s very likely that what was originally in the supplement has decreased dramatically since manufacturing.How: Consume probiotics with meals or snacks high in plant (vegetable and fruit) polyphenols, other phytochemicals, omega-3s, and other “good” fats.


Surajit Jana.

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