. How Supplements Work. There is no part of fitness with higher expectations and lower regulations. I’ve received so many supplement questions over my life as a trainer, my answers could fill a couple books.
Instead, I’ll spare you some time and condense the info to the important parts: what they are, how they work, how to use it, and my personal recommendations for which brand to use.
Here in Part I we will cover Protein, BCAAs (since they are so closely linked), and Fish Oil. Check out Part II for Creatine, Pre-Workouts, and Multivitamins.
Disclaimer: If you don’t have sound nutrition habits, no supplement will save you. Nothing on this list is a magic pill for ditching the Dad-bod.
Also, keep in mind that the FDA doesn’t regulate ANY supplements. No one checks them for quality or even to make sure they contain the stuff listed on the label. Supplements are the freakin’ wild west of exercise nutrition.
That said, here are the supplements I use and/or recommend. I’m sure the salesman at your local supp shop will disagree, but (except in specific situations) you don’t need anything but this list.
If your goal is fat loss, use any of this info in conjunction with my free Fat Loss Cheat Sheet for a two-pronged attack on body fat.
Here we go!
Protein is made up of amino acids. Protein supplements add aminos to the plasma pool of amino acids in your cells. Protein supps come in seemingly countless varieties, but are basically broken into two camps: whey proteins and plant proteins. There is also casein, which works much slower than regular protein. I’m not getting into casein in this article because it is not what you’d take by itself post-workout, and is usually a part of most protein blends anyway.
Whey protein is derived from dairy, so those who are vegan or have lactose issues should steer clear. Whey protein has the most protein per serving of any protein supplement. This is why most athletes and bodybuilders without dietary restrictions reach for the whey. There are two kinds of whey supplement: whey concentrate and whey isolate. The difference is how the protein is processed.
Whey concentrate is processed with high heat. Protein isn’t the only component that gets processed with this method. You’ll also get some fat and lactose this way. As a result, whey concentrate is only 50-60% protein by weight.
Whey isolate is more expensive because the process is more complicated. Without getting into the boring play-by-play, know that isolate is 90-95% protein by weight and doesn’t come with fat and lactose. Isolate is more pure than concentrate, and it’s reflected in the price tag.
Plant based protein can come from many sources, the most common being soy, rice, and pea protein. These are often processed the same way as whey concentrate and generally contain less protein and more carbs per serving than non-plant sources.
It is important to get enough protein to support physical activity, recover from said activity, build muscle, maintain a healthy body composition, carry out numerous cell functions, and stay generally healthy.
Bottom line, if you’re not getting enough protein (men – 1g per pound lean body mass, women – .75g per pound lean body mass) get a protein supplement. Try to get as much of your protein from natural sources as possible, but when life gets busy a protein powder or bar can be a lifesaver.
Recommendation: For those without diet constrictions, I love DotFit protein. There are several kinds. If you’re trying to lose weight and/or supplement routinely low protein intake, I would lean toward Lean MR (higher carbs) or Whey Smooth (low carb). If you really want to bulk up, use the First String XXL (very high carb). Remember that post workout it’s important to replenish carbs and usually a 2:1 carb to protein ratio is best. Building size takes protein and carbs. So if you’re bulking, that ratio can go as high as 3:1, so don’t be shy with the First String.
My sinuses freak out when I get any kind of dairy in my system so I opt for the veggie proteins these days. Currently, I’m a big fan of Vega Sport. It has the highest protein content per scoop I’ve seen in plant protein and doesn’t taste like swamp water (many plant proteins do).
Branched Chain Amino Acids are amino acids that has a specific structure (an extra side chain with a carbon and 3 hydrogen atoms). Due to this special structure here are only 3 BCAAs: isoleucine, valine, and leucine (which is the most important one).
BCAAs may be the most important piece of the supplement puzzle They are responsible for protein synthesis, energy production, lowering lactate levels, increasing growth hormone circulation, regulating insulin responses, decreasing muscle damage, and improving recovery.
That’s a lot of work for 3 little BCAAs.
To keep BCAA levels high, it’s recommended that you take in 5g of BCAA per day. For athletes and those who partake in intense weight training (which I hope you do) that RDA can inflate to 12g depending on frequency/duration of activity and you bodyweight.
BCAA supplements are used during and after workouts to replenish BCAAs oxidized during activity. As a general rule of thumb, supplementation should be roughly 5g per hour of exercise. Training in a fasted state or skipping meals after training can result in a net protein loss without appropriate BCAA supplementation. BCAAs can also be taken 2-4 hours throughout the day to help maintain blood sugar levels on low calorie days.
Recommendation: I use MyProtein BCAAs. They taste good and you get about a zillion servings per container. Again, DotFit makes a great product called AminoBoost. The main thing to look for is a MUCH higher amount of leucine, since that is the one that does the lion’s share of the work.
Fish oil is a shockingly important supplement. The modern diet has a ridiculously high level of omega-6 fatty acids, and a lack of omega-3s. The ratio of these two fatty acids in incredibly important to your health all the way down to a cellular level. Having too much omega-6s can cause inflammation and insulin resistance (which can lead to obesity). Omega-6 fatty acids are found in vegetable oils, eggs, nuts, seeds, and nut/seed derived oils.
The combination of omega-6 fatty acids and the high content of saturated fat in the modern diet lead to rigid cell membranes (which are a lipid bilayer) making it difficult for neurochemicals to get in and out of cells. The addition on unsaturated fats (which include omega-3s) make those cell walls much more flexible.
Omega-3s improve cardiovascular function, nervous system function, brain development, immune health, mood, and body composition. Omega-3s fatty acids are made of EPA, DHA, and APA (which has to be converted to EPA and DHA for use). To tell whether a fish oil supplement is quality, check the ratio of EPA to DHA. A good fish oil has a 1.5:1 EPA to DHA ratio.
If you eat a plant based diet, supplement your omega-3s with an algae supplement.
All this information can be found during cholesterol testing. Ask your doctor to give you think information after your next physical that includes blood work.
Recommendation: Any fish oil supplement that has a 1.5:1 EPA to DHA ratio. Keep your fish oil refrigerated to avoid oxidation (bad) before the expiration date. I use the generic bottle from Costco. I’ve also like the Super Omega-3 from DotFit and have heard great things about the Omega-3 from Genuine Health.
To Be Continued…..
That should be plenty for one day. With so much info, I hardly had room for my usual Dad jokes and comic book references. With so much misinformation out there, supplement issues can be serious. As a health and fitness writer I have the power to help folks cut through the bullshit to find what they need to support a healthier lifestyle.
And with great power, comes great responsibility.
Boom. Nailed it.
If your goal with these supplements is fat loss, check out my free Fat Loss Cheat Sheet for a head start on your goals.
Check out 6 Supplements and How They Work Part II here.