In my last post I shared my personal list of supplements. With the exception of BCAAs, they are more about health and less about my body composition. They are basic and generally considered safe (although you should talk to your doctor before taking any supplement). I learned long ago that real fitness doesn’t come in pill form.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t try that path. After I realized that my weight was out of control in my early 20s, I too dabbled in the various fat loss supplements that were then sold over the counter. I am a bit of a “fraidy-cat” so I steered clear of MetaboLife (after seeing some of my friends speeding around) which was very popular at the time. Instead I chose something less potent that featured a blond woman proudly baring her abs on the bottle. I called them “my vitamins” and popped them before dinners out with friends and in the morning before work. Not surprisingly, since I wasn’t working out and continued to eat crap, nothing changed. Money I didn’t really have went down the drain. Be smarter than me and know the real results come from real work. If you read the label on that weight loss/fat burner/metabolism booster label carefully you will see the following message:
“When taken with exercise and a sensible diet.”
The reality is even if a weight loss supplement “boosts your burn” or “mobilizes fat stores” you won’t actually lose weight without putting your body to work. If you don’t need the energy to do work, it will just get stored again. If you don’t do the work it takes to get in shape, you won’t have a shape to be truly pleased with.
When trying to make sense of supplement labels and their claims it is important to note that supplement sales are a little like the Wild West. When I asked my friend and supplement expert, Michelle Carlson, for the #1 thing people should look out for when choosing supplements she started with this:
“Do your research. I know it seems counter-intuitive, but you must keep in mind that there are no regulations over most supplements and these companies rely on great marketing.”
Like the blond on that bottle I mentioned? Supplements are regulated by the FDA as food not drugs. They don’t have to prove their claims to hit the shelves. The FDA only steps in if there are significant complaints, illness or fatalities. This has been especially apparent in weight loss supplements, which often contain a variety of stimulants that can prove very dangerous to some. Ephedra was a popular ingredient in over the counter weight loss products until the death of a pro baseball player in 2003. Thankfully ephedra was pulled from shelves that same year. If a supplement is promising to curb your appetite and burn more fat without diet and exercise – BEWARE. It probably contains at least one of these stimulants (despite promising you no jitters):
- Hoodia gordonii
- Paullinia cupana
The effect can be anything from uncomfortable (like being unable to sleep) to the down right dangerous (like chest pains and respiratory or cardiac distress).
You may also find these stimulants in pre-workout supplements. This class of supplements often contains ingredients like caffeine for energy plus some form of nitric oxide (NO). Nitric oxide is a vasodilator, meaning it causes the blood vessels to relax so blood can flow more easily. While this may be a benefit for those with high blood pressure (and certain competitive athletes) the feeling can be scary to those with low blood pressure, heart issues or who simply aren’t prepared for its effects.
Since I am my own favorite test subject, I tried one of those pre-workout supplements a few months back. My blood pressure runs on the low side but I did not feel dizzy. I did feel very jittery and tingly. There was an uncomfortable tightness in my body as I saw my blood vessels “pop out” under my skin. My side effects were uncomfortable though certainly not life threatening. For others they can cause a quick change in blood pressure leading to dizziness, light-headedness, nausea and vomiting as well as the side effects mentioned previously from the stimulants. For most of us the risk (and price) far outweighs any rewards most of these products might bring.
Michelle also had another good reminder:
There is no need for 300% of any vitamin. Also remember that Vitamin C is the ONLY vitamin that does not have an upper limit. You can overdose on vitamins A,D,K and E as well as the mineral iron.
Meaning you can overdo ANYTHING, even something that is supposed to be good for you. Before choosing a vitamin or mineral supplement read the label to check for doses well in excess of recommended daily allowances. Never take “mega doses” of the fat soluble vitamins or iron unless prescribed by a doctor.
Just like food, supplement selection is about educating yourself. You need to learn what makes sense for your goals and your life. Don’t be influenced by what your friend (or co-worker or Dr. Oz) is taking or selling. You MUST read the labels. You must do the research. Take control of your health by doing the work. Never count on a pill or potion to do it for you.