Should You Bother Taking Fitness Supplements?

Photographed by Megan Madden.
It’s almost impossible to scroll through Instagram without seeing at least one picture of a fitness guru decked out in Gymshark garms, holding a Women’s Best shaker and raving about a new range of supplements.
Protein, creatine, BCAA (branched-chain amino acids) and pre-workout supplements are among the most commonly endorsed on Instagram, all promising to help build and repair muscle, improve endurance and essentially get you a body like an influencer, complete with sculpted bum and abs on abs on abs. But even as these products break out of the bodybuilding niche once reserved for Arnie Schwarzenegger fanboys and enter the mainstream fitness community, the information surrounding them remains a minefield of ambiguity.
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Many people mistakenly look to fitness supplements as a way to lose weight quickly or get the body of their dreams and, considering how most workout supplements are marketed, it’s not hard to see why they’d buy into their claims. Just last month, the British Dietetic Association condemned some protein powder adverts, branding them “wrong and immoral” and suggesting that thousands of people could be using such powders as food replacements.
“The fitness industry is flooded with products and so it can be easy to see why individuals feel they need to purchase and take products,” says Renee McGregor, clinical dietitian, sports nutritionist and author of Training Food.
“It’s easy to see why if someone who has been perceived as successful puts this down to taking a particular supplement or following a particular type of nutrition plan, then others will follow,” she adds.
“No supplements are going to magically transform your body without you coupling it with a strong fitness and nutrition plan,” say GB swimmers Lee Forster and Charlie Turner, founders of Neat Nutrition. “Over-hyped, over-promised, over-marketed and unrealistic claims on many nutritional supplements will most likely lead to disappointment.
There’s a seemingly infinite choice of workout supplements that promise to boost your strength and give you #gains, but can they really help you get ripped – or are you just getting ripped off?
Do you NEED supplements?
The short answer is… maybe. The biggest misconception is that they’re essential, says personal trainer James Smith. “People are reading past the names of these. They're to supplement a good diet, not replace a shit one.”
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Smith points out that most supplements are sold to people who haven't a clue what they're doing with them so before buying into a fad, make sure you do your research (he recommends Examine.com, which provides evidence-based research on supplements).
“With the average female gym user, I think that a lot comes to aesthetics,” says McGregor. “If a product promises a leaner, stronger body [...] it’s very easy to get caught up in the marketing, but the best question to ask yourself before buying a product is ‘Does it make sense?’ 'Do I really need to take a pre-workout supplement if I’m only going to be in the gym for 30-40 minutes, 3 times a week?'”
There’s no one-size-fits-all
“We’re all different,” say Forster and Turner. “This means that supplements will work differently with each of our bodies. If you have a deficiency in a vitamin or mineral, that’s where a supplement can help.” But unless a medical professional has diagnosed you with a nutrient deficiency, taking more of something will do squat.
Allergies, food sensitivities and lifestyle choices all need to be taken into account. For example, whey and casein – the most common forms of protein powder – are derived from milk, so they’re not a good choice if you’re lactose-intolerant or vegan.
Forster and Turner point out that it also depends on the workout regime you’re following. “Some people may be undertaking a heavy-lifting programme with the objective of bulking up, while others could be following a specific nutritional and training plan to shred fat.”
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No, protein won’t make you bulky. But…
Protein is essential to health and your body can't properly repair or generate muscle without the essential amino acids found in it, yet most women are convinced that consuming protein will make them 'bulky'.
Simply put, that’s utter nonsense. “Protein, especially in women, is hugely underestimated as a component to gaining a better composition,” says Smith. “They believe that it'll make them bulky but in fact it'll do wonders for their physique.” By the same token, simply eating shedloads of protein isn't enough to build and maintain strength and muscle mass (believe it or not, you need to exercise to do that).
It would seem logical that the more protein you pack away, the more your muscles will grow, but your body doesn’t work that way: it can only utilise a certain amount of protein in one sitting, and that amount completely depends on the individual. Moreover, there’s a chance you’re already getting enough protein from the food you eat. According to the British Nutrition Foundation, the recommended daily amount of protein for women aged 19-50 is 45g (excluding pregnant and breastfeeding women) but the estimated average intake for adult women is 64g.
The Department of Health advises against consuming more than twice the recommended daily intake of protein, while claims that protein supplements improve muscle mass and strength are largely unsubstantiated. So take that protein shake with a pinch of salt.
You're not unfit because you're not supplementing enough, says Smith, “but if you need that bit more protein on top of a good diet, sure, grab a whey shake.”
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The good, the bad, the useless
The internet is rife with studies, research and anecdotal proof of the effectiveness of some workout supplements, so it can be confusing understanding which ones are right – or wrong – for you. Your current health, lifestyle, nutrition and workout regime should all be taken into account when deciding which supplements (if any) you should take.
When working with high-performance athletes, McGregor follows this protocol:
“What is the need for this particular nutrient? Can you get it through your diet? If not, what is the evidence for taking this particular supplement? What are the potential risks of taking this supplement? What is the cost of this supplement? Is it worth it?”
“For the majority of recreational athletes, there really is very little need for additional supplements,” says McGregor. So, worst-case scenario is that you’re wasting your hard-earned cash.
BCAAs
Branched-chain amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) are essential components of protein that your body doesn’t produce on its own, so you need to get them from your diet. In layman's terms, they’re fuel for your muscles. Claims that they help promote muscle growth are mostly unfounded, but they can reduce DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) in novice athletes.
Verdict: The jury’s still out on how effective BCAAs are but if you’re starting an intense workout regime, they might help with recovery.
Creatine
Probably the most vilified and misunderstood workout supplement out there, most people still think creatine is a steroid (it’s not), while others say any muscle growth is simply water weight. Our bodies produce creatine naturally and it’s found in most protein-rich foods, but those amounts still aren’t enough to provide performance-enhancing effects, which is why it’s taken as a supplement.
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Verdict: Compared to fads like ‘skinny tea’ and waist trainers, creatine is as safe as it gets and evidence shows it can be beneficial if taken correctly.
Pre-workout
If you have pre-existing cardiac problems, look away now. Although blends differ from brand to brand, most pre-workouts are a mix of creatine and caffeine. The purpose is to give you more focus and energy to make the most of your workout, and typical pre-workout supplements can contain anywhere from 100 to 300mg of caffeine (that’s three times the amount in a normal cup of coffee).
Verdict: Save your money and have a cappuccino.
The bottom line
If taken as indicated, workout supplements are perfectly safe, albeit none of them essential for the average gym-goer. There’s a tendency to think of them as a magic powder that will give you the physique of your dreams, but the truth is that nothing can replace good nutrition, hard work and patience (soz).
“None of these [supplements] are a one-stop solution,” say Forster and Turner – but that’s not to say that you should write them off altogether. “Taken in the right way, they are a fantastic addition to any good nutritional and fitness plan, but they should not ever replace them.”
You should always be aware of what goes into your body, so do your research before you start scoopin’ – and no, consulting your favourite #fitspo celeb on Instagram doesn’t count. If in doubt, always consult a dietitian or qualified nutritionist.
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