If we look at the definition of “supplement”, it appears pretty self-explanatory. A supplement is “added to something in order to enhance or complete it”. However, as we all we know, when it comes to the constantly evolving sciences of both training and nutrition, nothing is ever black and white.
Let’s be clear on something. In a perfect world, I DO NOT BELIEVE that supplementation would be necessary. IF we all had access to nutritionally dense food. IF we all ate perfectly. IF our environment wasn’t polluted with toxins and chemicals. IF we were never exposed to pharmaceutical drugs. IF we were never affected by physical, emotional or lifestyle stressors. The list goes on. But unfortunately this perfect world does not exist. Even the best diets aren’t perfect - let’s be honest, out of the total number of meals you eat daily, how many are completely unprocessed, 100% organic and actually have the right macro-nutrient breakdown for your body’s needs?
On the flip side, this does not mean that I recommend supplements to everyone. Supplements do not fix a poor diet, and they should not be looked at as long term or sustainable meal replacement options. There is a time and a place for them, but until you have understood and addressed the basics of sound nutrition and lifestyle practices, supplements will be a waste of time and money. Worst case scenario, they could even cause health complications. And just like with training and nutrition, supplementation is a very individual process. If you really want to know exactly what you need, then I suggest asking your GP or naturopath for a simple blood test that could help determine any vitamin/mineral deficiencies and/or hormonal imbalances.
The most common supplements I get asked about are protein shakes and/or bars and fat burners.
To be honest, I very rarely recommend protein shakes, especially for women. If I do recommend them, it’s post workout for recovery, and they will be vegan in base (pea protein is the most bio available). I tend to avoid whey protein as it’s commonly included in the top food allergen lists (many people are lactose intolerant), and it tends to cause a big spike in blood sugar which isn’t ideal for fat loss. However, just like training and nutrition - you can supplement for a specific objective - i.e. if your aim is to put on lean muscle mass or size OR you struggle to eat enough throughout the day, then protein shakes are not only a convenient source of calories but the protein is much more easily utilized by the body in liquid form.
When it comes to fat burners, you need to be careful. Thermogenics which are stimulant based are effective short term, but can also be dangerous if the user has health issues, is caffeine sensitive and/or they are not cycled correctly. The safer option is to opt for a more natural alternative like L-Carnitine, which effectively encourages the body to shuttle fat into the cells for use as fuel. There are plenty of pre-workout formulas (I use Ignite by FitMiss) which have all my favorites including L Carnitine for fat loss, caffeine for focus and Beta Alanine for the tingle! As with anything, check with your GP first, especially if you have any underlying health issues or are particularly sensitive to stimulants/caffeine.
If you’re new to the supplement world, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The best advice I could give is to make sure you go for quality over cost (avoid supermarket brands), and introduce them one at a time to see how your body reacts to each one. The brands I most often recommend are Ethical Nutrients, Bioceuticals, Metagenics and Poliquin. You can get the first 3 at most health food stores, but Poliquin products are only available at selected gyms or online.
My Top Go-To Supplements are focused on improving digestive health, reducing inflammation and managing stress.
1. A pharmaceutical grade probiotic. Your gut is your second brain, so it’s health should always come first. However, as with anything, the breakdown of your gut flora is very individual, and there are now stool tests that allow you to determine the best probiotic for you. Other good digestive aids are Aloe Vera Juice (I like to take 1 tsp morning and evening), and Raw Apple Cider Vinegar (1 TBSP in warm water first thing in the morning wakes your GI tract up).
2. A good multi-vitamin to address any nutritional deficiencies and aid in detoxification. If you're female and stressed, make sure these include all your B Vitamins otherwise it could be worth exploring an additional B Complex especially if you're vegetarian. I suggest taking these with food otherwise they can make you nauseous.
3. Fish oils. You need fat to burn fat, and they are natural anti inflammatories. Fish Oils do come with the increased risk of toxicity via Mercury contamination so quality is very important. IF you're looking to target improved brain/cognitive function choose a product high in DHA. If your goal is fat loss and/or anti inflammatory, go for a higher ratio of EPA. I take these after meals and they help stabilize blood sugar, however I tend to burp up regular fish oil so I opt for Algal Oil instead. Curcumin and fish oil work well together to reduce pain and inflammation.
4. Magnesium in the evenings and even post workout for recovery, quality sleep and stress management. Aim for a product that ends in -ate i.e. Magnesium Sulphate as found in Epsom Salts which are great in baths. Be aware that Magnesium is a paradoxical supplement i.e. if you are deficient in it, it will make you wired. If this happens just bring the dosage forwards to earlier in the day. I enjoy a topical form of Magnesium too called Salt Lab which I pop on the thin skin on my throat, behind my knees, in my elbow crease, below my bellybutton and on the soles of my feet before bed. Same as with the oral variety, if you're deficient, you will itch!
5. Vitamin C in the morning and post workout for enhanced immune response, recovery and stress management. If you take it, avoid coffee for at least 60 mins, as it will negate the effect.
6. Vitex. This is a female focused product that I have found hugely helpful for PMS symptoms including mood swings, bloating and water retention.