There are dozens of brands and hundreds of supplements. Manufacturers label them as dietary supplements, health supplements, nutritional supplements and speciality supplements depending on the primary ingredient and the purpose. Dietary, health and nutritional supplements are synonymous and it is difficult to split them into distinct categories. Specialty supplements are a broad category as there can be completely disassociated purposes. Many people believe or are lead to believe that they need supplements, usually vitamins, minerals, proteins, testosterone and many other essential nutrients. Do you really need such supplements or you can live a perfectly healthy and normal life without them? Read on to find out the naked truth about supplements.
What are Supplements?
Supplements should be neatly classified on the basis of the primary ingredient and hence its purpose. Accordingly, we have vitamin supplements that may offer vitamin D, vitamin B or B complex, vitamin C or multivitamins, there can be mineral supplements such as those offering calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, zinc or multiple minerals and there are supplements that offer a few vitamins and minerals in the same concoction.
Specialty supplements usually offer micronutrients, what may not be sufficiently available in our day-to-day diet. This is also true for dietary supplements as they try to compensate the lack of vitamins and minerals in our diets but those are mostly macronutrients. Specialty supplements may offer omega fatty acids. This category includes fish oils. Specialty supplements may offer probiotics, fiber, chrondroitin or glucosamine, certain types of amino acids or proteins and testosterone among other essential nutrients that the human body cannot produce by itself.
There is a distinct category of supplements that offer botanical and herbal extracts. Green tea, garlic, ginseng, cranberry and Echinacea are common and bestselling herbals & botanicals. A fourth category of supplements is dedicated to weight management and sports nutrition. These are basically for fitness enthusiasts, bodybuilders, those who wish to lose weight or fat and those who intend to manage a healthy bodyweight, a certain physique or figure and a level of strength, agility and endurance. Sports nutrition or weight management supplements usually deal in proteins, hydration, specific micronutrients that enhance strength or endurance, extracts of plant and animal products that aid recovery or healing and there are unique formulas too offering more than one benefit.
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The Relevance of Supplements
Supplements are marketed as a necessity for anyone who is not consuming enough essential nutrients. Nutritional balance is the key to a healthy and long life. Broadly, there are two types of nutrients, essential and nonessential. Essential nutrients have to be sourced from nature. Nonessential nutrients are those that the human body can produce. There are many nutrients that our body does not really need or can do without and hence they are not classified as essential or nonessential. It should be noted that all nutrients do not have a role to play in our survival, health or lifespan. Some nutrients may make our bodies stronger but they are not actually essential or nonessential. Humans do not need superhuman strength to survive.
Supplements became unprecedentedly popular for two reasons. Sports nutrition supplements became popular among bodybuilders, athletes, sportspersons and fitness enthusiasts. The human body has limitations to what it can accomplish and supplements became the way to enhance that ability. The other type of supplements that became immensely popular is multivitamins. Innumerable children and also adults were diagnosed with vitamin and mineral deficiencies. This prompted parents to reach out for dietary or nutritional supplements for their kids. Adults reached out for their own wellbeing. From these two perspectives, one may infer that supplements are not just relevant but significant and such a conclusion might not be dismissed straightaway. The truth emerges only when one delves into the scientific facts.
The Scientific Truth about Supplements
There have been countless studies all around the world and most have found supplements to be nonessential. This is not to say that the nutrients in supplements can be produced by the body. The supplements are basically irrelevant.
The premise of supplements and the marketing tactic used by companies is that the nutrients are necessary for optimum health. The same is based on a simple assumption or claim that we do not get enough nutrients in our foods and drinks. This is simply not true. (Scroll down for references) Whether we consider the usual diet in various parts of America or the foods consumed in Britain, the dietary habits of Canadians or the food habits of Australians, there is no scientific evidence suggesting that the essential macronutrients and micronutrients are missing from the farms, kitchens, tables or plates.
Most people in all developed nations on the planet have access to all essential nutrients in the form of foods needed to live a healthy and long life. There is no dearth of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, minerals, fibers and micronutrients, such as specific amino acids, fatty acids and others. Some people choosing a fast food diet or eating unhealthy foods and drinks is a different matter. People have free will and the right to choose whatever they want to eat and drink. Wrong choices do not imply the right choices are devoid of nutrients that supplements can provide.
There is another scientific reality that many people do not usually consider while assessing the relevance of supplements. The form in which most nutrients are available in supplements is not the best when you factor in bioavailability. Numerous clinical studies and researches carried out around the world including Harvard Medical School have found that nutrients found in foods have the highest bioavailability. Bioavailability is the degree to which the nutrients can be absorbed by the human body and hence be benefitted due to the macronutrients or micronutrients. It is now being proven that eating fruits raw and not juicing them or making smoothies is better as the whole fruits have greater bioavailability. Similarly, if a particular nutrient is obtained from a source and then processed to attain a form that finds its place in a supplement, then it is quite possible the nutrient is not available at all for the body to absorb and that too only when someone has a deficiency of that nutrient.
One can argue in favor and against supplements. A rational stand is a holistic assessment and comparison. It is not that all supplements are bad. It is not true that no one in the world needs supplements. There are times and purposes that demand supplements.
The Undeniable Benefits of Some Supplements
There are children who indeed have deficiency of one or more vitamins. There are adults and elderly too who have vitamins and minerals deficiencies. It is possible that the regular diet is not providing them some of the necessary vitamins and minerals. This may lead to some health problems. Doctors often prescribe dietary, nutritional or health supplements in such cases. The prescribed supplements are indeed effective.
There are indeed limitations of the human body. A person does not have boundless energy. A person does not have ever growing strength. The body will get exhausted at some point in time. The only way to stretch the limits of physicality is a combination of pushing oneself beyond the ordinary and providing the essential nutrition to support such an activity. If a normal person is aiming for body fat percentage of less than ten percent, it is practically impossible to achieve that if she or he does not shun all foods rich in carbohydrates, fats and sugars. The person still needs all the nutrients but whole foods will not be helpful since they do contain glucose, sucrose or fructose, saturated and unsaturated fats, mono saturated or poly saturated fats and other nutrients that will make the objective difficult to accomplish.
A person who wishes to bulk up needs more proteins but it is quite impractical to eat more than a pound of meat twice a day. A pound of meat does not provide as much proteins. One needs to consume more foods to get a fraction of the total weight in the desired nutrient. This is why one turns to supplements. One spoonful of a healthy protein supplement offers amino acids of the same or nearly as much weight, without the carbohydrates and fats. These are instances when specific purposes are catered to by supplements.
Ageing makes some supplements relevant. The human body is not capable of metabolizing all essential nutrients in the same manner as one grows old. Dietary changes are imperative, there are challenges such as availability of certain types of foods and grocery budgets are also an unavoidable factor, medical conditions make some nutrients more important than others and there can be genetic, ethnic and lifestyle related issues that will make some supplements necessary. Even doctors acknowledge this and prescribe some supplements in such situations. However, this does not mean anyone and everyone can benefit from all kinds of supplements.
Here is an excellent take on Vitamin supplements.
Worthless Supplements that are akin to Scams
You may have heard or read about supplements being a racket or scam worth thirty billion dollars. While there are useful nutritional, dietary and enhancement supplements, most are actually worthless and have no demonstrable use whatsoever.
Many popular and bestselling supplements are actually overrated. CLA or conjugated linoleic acid is marketed as a supplement that aids fat loss. It has been found to be ineffective. Worse, research has shown that conjugated linoleic acid has adverse effects on glucose metabolism, it causes inflammation and insulin sensitivity.
Nitric oxide is another useless supplement. It is marketed as the go-to supplement for bodybuilders to get the PUMP. Some reviewers on bodybuilding.com even claim that Nitric oxide supplements improved their vascularity – think big popping veins on arms. But this is not so. A low body fat percentage and lifting heavy weights consistently is enough to get the desired vascularity. Even then it is limited by genetic factors. Nitric oxide has got nothing to do with it. The ingredient in such supplements is actually arginine. You can find enough of it in spinach, crabs, sesame seeds and shrimps.
Glutamine is marketed as a muscle enhancer. There is no scientific evidence to prove that. Green coffee bean extract is marketed as a natural fat burner. Clinical studies have proven the apparent magic potion does not work. There are many such supplements like zinc magnesium aspartate, raspberry ketones, elk antler spray, tribulus terrestris, ribose, garcinia cambogia, chromium and branched chain amino acid that are a sheer waste of money. Companies are obviously targeting the consumes with low self-esteem by concocting these exotic items. Reading the label on any of these supplements, one can’t help but wonder how people fall for it. The claims are clearly exaggerated and the name comical and clearly named with an intent to catch the consumers eye. Most of the ingredients in the pills are masked behind “Proprietary blend.” What goes into the blend? Nobody knows.
If you intent to take one of the supplements, it might be worth your while to email the company asking to know at least a few of the ingredients in the “Proprietary blend.”
There are a few supplements that work in only a few cases, under stringently controlled circumstances. Creatine does help if you are into high intensity workouts or physical training. The supplement is useless if you are into aerobics. Besides, you can get enough creatine in meats so a supplement is unnecessary. Vegetarians may find creatine supplement as a worthwhile alternative since they do not consume meats. Creatine also has several side effects, from muscle cramps to gastrointestinal problems and kidney disease.
Casein whey supplements and omega fatty acids, omega-3 in particular, have some benefits but only when you choose the best brands. High quality whey and omega fatty acids are quite expensive. Antioxidants are a rather grey area. While the body does need antioxidants, there is no way to tell how much of them are in the supplements available today and if those are beneficial at all. Antioxidants are marketed using the fear of people but normal diets can provide enough to reduce the oxidative stress in the body.
Chondroitin and glucosamine are naturally occurring substances in the human body. You do not need supplements. Multi-mineral supplements are actually useless without the necessary vitamins to metabolize them and vice versa. Likewise, supplements that claim to increase testosterone, insulin and human growth hormone also need vitamins and minerals for the enzymes and coenzymes to work in tandem. Without the enzyme activators and the coenzymes, the ingredients are simply passed through the system and the body will not use them at all.
Other supplements that you do not need are vitamin A, niacin which is a type of B vitamin, vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, red yeast rice and calcium, unless you have a deficiency. Even if you have a deficiency of one or more vitamins and minerals, you ought to choose a supplement that ensures bioavailability. It is futile to consume something only to have the body fail to absorb it and put it to good use.
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