Tough Truths of Supplementation
by Sol Orwell
Sometimes things are only amazing because they are new
Usually, the first time a supplement is going to be used in a human trial the conditions of the trial are manipulated a bit to get a positive result. Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it is outlined in the methodology section, but usually the first studies on fat burners are done in obese and unhealthy people who are more sensitive to fat loss and studies on health agents (be it anti-inflammatories, lipid or glucose lowering drugs, etc.) are done on people with uncontrolled diseases and poor diets.
The above is good in the sense that it proves the efficacy of the supplement, then further trials are supposed to manipulate the context a little bit (lower the dose, use it in people who are less sensitive to the effects, etc.) and with the repeated positives it becomes a ‘good supplement’.
Unfortunately, many times the first study on a fat burner (again, usually an obese person with fatty liver) is taken out of context and said to apply to everyone. As much as I love the molecule fucoxanthin personally, it is a great example of such a situation – the one study done noted remarkable fat loss in obese women with fatty livers. While it seems like it should work in lean people too, it won’t be nearly as potent as the original study showed.
Repeated trials tend to reduce how promising a supplement is, usually reducing ‘150% increase’ down to a ‘50% increase in certain people or 4kg fat loss down to 0.8kg. I won’t say that if something seems too good to be true that it isn’t, (there are supplements that are comparable to pharmaceuticals), but if something seems too good to be true, it likely is.
‘Latest and Greatest’ is literally impossible
The phrase ‘latest and greatest’ or some similar statement is usually used to hype the newest products on the market. This statement is logically impossible in regards to supplements actually, since:
The latest supplement is new, and not enough time has passed to have a large body of evidence
The greatest supplement is proven, and has been around for enough years to have replicated and well controlled trials to prove its greatness
The two cannot co-exist, with the only possible workaround is something that has gone under the radar for a few decades (to achieve ‘greatness’) and while technically not new it is pretty novel to many people. An example of this is berberine, a pretty potent anti-diabetic that many people have heard about for the first time in the last year yet it has been pretty consistently researched for 20 years or so.
Even things that work sometimes won’t for you
Creatine is an amazing molecule on almost all parameters, unless you happen to be one of the unfortunate that do not respond to creatine. Unfortunately, this does not exist only with creatine – L-Carnitine has some evidence for non-response as well (in regards to its potential to increase nitric oxide) and the only reason why we know of nonresponse to creatine and carnitine is because they are so well studied. It is wholly plausible that you could be a nonresponder to other proven supplements, but we just did not know about it.
Non response can be summed up as “it doesn’t seem to work in these people and we don’t really know why”, and it is probably the only legitimate reason for denying scientific evidence on the basis of the anecdotal ‘it didn’t work for me.’
Now to be clear, nonresponse does not mean that the supplement is bad or useless at all (and if it doesn’t work for you, that is not grounds to say the supplement is bad). It simply means that if you know you are a nonresponder, no need for future supplementation. Why use money on something that doesn’t work?
Your label and capsule contents might not be the same
This is by no means the fault of the supplements themselves, but a poorly regulated industry (or at least, regulated at the wrong stage of ‘compensatory regulation’ rather than screening things before they hit the market) paired with such a large monetary gain if you are the leading producer of supplements leads to a lot of instances where companies screw with their products. There are two main ways of screwing with your product:
Claim you have 500mg of astragaloside IV in a pill (note: a somewhat expensive ingredient that tastes like sweetened sawdust) but you want to cut costs and end up selling pills with 100mg sucrose and 400mg sawdust.
Claim you have geranium flowers in a pill and then throw in a synthetically produced amphetamine compound since people are very willing to buy euphoric drugs if you don’t tell them that they are buying euphoric drugs.
There are not many ways to assure what your supplement contains (which is also a reason most nutritionists and supplement researchers will advise you to get things from food if possible; food tends to be more reliable), and looking towards federally certified companies such as United States Pharmacopoeia (USP) or Good Manufacturing Practise (GMP) certifications.
Beyond that, it might be prudent to have a 1-strike clause for companies that have spiked their products. While selling a product with 500mg of an ingredient and detecting it has 400mg may be a small mistake that can be forgiven, completely omitting the product is nearly unforgivable and spiking it with compounds not disclosed on the label is fully unforgivable since there is no way to accidentally an amphetamine in your product.
Supplements – overrated and underrated at the same time
A lot of people expect magic from supplements, forgetting what the word itself means. Regardless of the charlatans and their scheming to make money off of overhyped products, there are a few supplements worth considering taking.
So what supplements do work? Here’s a list of top 5 research-backed supplements:
Creatine: A very old and well researched supplement, even after its initial studies showing astounding promise, subsequent research still showed impressive improvements to power output and muscle hypertrophy. Pretty much completely safe as well (worries about kidney damage are way overblown).
Protein: Although some would consider protein supplements more food than supplement, they are very well researched and routinely show benefits to pretty much everybody. Source doesn’t matter as much as the presence of protein, and they can be tasty to boot (with casein quite useful for baking/dessert purposes).
Vitamin D: Initially well researched because its a vitamin, and has since gone through a growth spurt of two decades of research since we discovered that people with melanoma (caused by excessive sun exposure) were oddly healthy due to high vitamin D levels. Reliably beneficial, good safety profile, and cheap to boot.
Nitrates: The actions of nitrate in the body have been well studied because we always knew it was in the food supply (and its good to see if those things work). Then we discovered that it reliably improved pretty much all physical performance except for maximal power output. Repeated studies show reliable benefits related to nitric oxide, and beets seem to be adequate for its ingestion.
Berberine: An example of something that seems new, but has just flown under the radar. It appears to be potently anti-diabetic and a good intestinal health agent, and while it isn’t as well studied as some other plant based compounds (eg curcumin), it appears quite potent and effective.
Spirulina: An interesting option since it was investigated as a food source for the third world (very cheap to mass produce), and thus has extensive safety testing. While spirulina is in preliminary stages for ‘how’ healthy it is, we know for certain that it is a safe and healthy protein source with great potential for suppressing inflammation and oxidation.
If you’re interested in learning more on which supplements work (and for what – for example, berberine is potentially anti-diabetic due to its blood sugar lowering properties), check out our Supplement-Goals Reference Guide. It is highly recommended across the entire spectrum of health and fitness.
Kurtis Frank and Dr. Spencer Nadolsky are editors at Examine.com, where they aggregate scientific information on supplements and nutrition. The site is independent and neutral, allowing for unbiased analysis on what works (and what doesn’t). The Supplement-Goals Reference Guide is regarded as the gold-standard for supplement information.