Food vs Supplements
Or do I really need Whey, Creatine, Glutamine, MRPs, Multivitamins and all the rest?
By Les Willis aka Big Les - MuscleTalk Moderator and Nutrition Consultant
This is a big one; of the possible questions in bodybuilding questions this one is huge, but for most people in the bodybuilding world it's a complete no-brainer. Look in any bodybuilding or even health and fitness magazine, on any website and you see ads for supplements – lots of them. There are enough articles to keep us in recycling for a millennium, and enough tubs of supplements sold to store the world's production of nails and screws ten times over. It would seem then the answer is a resounding yes.
And that could be the end of the article, however, in reality it is not that simple; the answer is, there is no definitive answer, but the answers are; yes, no, maybe, and depends on the individual and their circumstances. I will start with the no. There is a big school of thought that you do not need supplements. The more radical members of this school will insist that supplements are bad for you, toxic, contaminated and you are playing Russian roulette if you use them. Sadly many members of this school have RD and MD after their name. Their reasoning is that you can get all you need from a good diet; people with illnesses and disease, however, may need nutritional supplements. Athletes don't need supplements.
If you unpack this a little you find that people who are sick need supplements because demand is outstripping supply available from food (for various reasons). Which of course asks the question – can an athlete create a condition where demand outstrips supply? If they can then of course supplements would be an option.
This brings you on to the yes school of thought. Everyone training needs supplements, lots of them. Our food is rubbish, grown in depleted soils, meat is inefficient or you train so hard to meet your needs you would need to eat 3.5 tons of food per day. That sort of summarises the basic premise behind a lot of the promotion for this school of thought. Add to that, you will grow 100 times faster with product X marketing and you have a big, persuasive industry telling you that supplements are essential, more essential than food even.
In reality the answer is between the two. People in hard training can create a situation where they need supplementation to meet demand, and yes some supplements can help you achieve more than if you weren't using them, with that in mind lets look at; whey, protein powders, creatine, glutamine, meal replacements, and multivitamins and vitamins more closely.
Once a waste product of cheese manufacture, whey is now not only a bestselling supplement, it is used in food manufacture around the world. It is available in various forms with different protein contents and as an isolate or concentrate. In summary, it is a protein supplement. Many argue about how much protein you need, but if you are following the bodybuilding prescription of 1.5g per lb of lean mass then whey can come in very helpful. Personally, I see whey as a food not a supplement, it's relatively cheap, versatile, easy, and the best thing after a workout.
Whey is a protein powder; however, there are others on the market, casein and soya being the main two alternatives. Like whey they are ways of boosting your protein intake, however, the more technically minded can mix their powders to get a release profile that suits their needs.
Whey and protein powders make it easy to meet protein needs; it's easier to drink 20g of protein (or even 50g) than eat it. The mistake is to rely on protein powders; there is more to effective nutrition than macro-nutrients like protein. But as a compliment to a good food intake, protein powders are definitely a good aid. Are they essential no, but with the big condition: after a workout nothing beats whey except whey and a simple sugar (or if you are pedantic a high molecular weight polysaccharide).
Meal Replacements (MRPs)
These do exactly what they say on the packet or tub. They replace a meal, and they are tasty and very good at what they do. A combination of protein powders and carbohydrates fortified with other nutrients, they replicate the calorie and nutritional profile of a meal. They are brilliant when chowing down is just not an option, for the busy, hassled and run ragged among us they are nutritional life savers. Many people have some in the car or in their bag with a shaker at all times just in case. For those who have hectic schedules, or severe restrictions their ability to get a meal then these are an essential, they are food and we need our food. Because they are quick and easy many use them as a way out of making up meals – but as health conscious performance oriented athletes we wouldn't do that would we?!
The performance supplement par excellence much researched and studied so we know this one works. Is it essential? No! That's right, I said 'no'. Why? Simple, creatine is a performance aid and no performance aid is essential. To my mind, performance aids are best used when things are nailed, so if you are eating well, training well, and things are in the groove, that's when you use creatine. In the groove is when you get the maximum benefit from any performance aid, and is when you can see if it works for you. Because, like any performance supplement, creatine doesn't work for some people. When things are ropey, it is tempting to think an aid will pick it up, it wont, you are wasting money. Instead, a performance aid adds polish and kick to an existing routine that is delivering. Use creatine, but use it right (see Creatine FAQs).
The benefit of this supplement is hotly contested; in studies it consistently doesn't deliver results – but then you look at the studies! In the medical setting glutamine is added to tube feeds for critically ill patients. This is because normally a non-essential amino acid in times of high metabolic stress, glutamine, becomes essential because demand outstrips supply (hence glutamine is called conditionally essential). The big question is: can athletes create a condition of metabolic stress that means glutamine becomes essential? The answer: we don't know. Is glutamine an essential supplement? Of course not. However, bought in bulk, glutamine is cheap and anecdotally many benefit from its use. So when is it useful? The time to use glutamine is when you are training very intensely, taxing your ability to recover and your immune system, or when cutting with a severe calorie deficit. Glutamine is thought to boost the immune system, and in times of starvation has its own energy pathway. So if you are feeling very run down, getting niggling infections or colds, or it seems every time you are nailing it you get ill, glutamine may be worth a try. Alternatively, if you are cutting and already have low body fat reserves, such as during a pre-contest diet, then glutamine taken before fasted cardio or training, could help prevent muscle breakdown by providing an alternative energy source.
Vitamins and Multivitamins
These should not be essential – ever! We should get our needs from our food; but truth told we don't know if we do, and as hard trainers we will need more of some micronutrients than the general population at certain times. So, if you are a healthy eater who gets 5-a-day, eats a good variety of properly cooked foods then a multivitamin is a waste. If you are Joe average in the British population, then a multivitamin could help you but I am not putting money on it. If you eat like many athletes and bodybuilders do, a fairly healthy diet, but not a wide variety of foods because you are a creature of habit then a multivitamin is a wise insurance policy, especially if you are a woman (women tend to not get enough of iron, in particular).
Specific vitamin supplements are not needed. Vitamin C can be counterproductive in large doses; fat soluble vitamins like A and E are toxic in large doses, as is iron. If you think you need iron, go to a doctor and check. And, note, large doses of any vitamin do not boost performance – ever!
So to summarise, are supplements essential? It depends on the supplement. Whey is an essential after a weights workout; plain and simple it helps recovery and performance; if you are training with any intensity at all (bicep boys need not apply), then whey is going to help you achieve your goals. After that, it really depends on you and the supplement.
A note on performance aids: if you are going to try a supplement that claims to increase performance, never, and I mean never, start that supplement along with a new diet and new training regime. This is what most people do, new start, a stack of supplements, a new diet and a new training program, and bang they get results – the supplements are brilliant. The reality is, they don't know what worked, chances are putting in a consistent effort with the new diet using a new training program is what made the difference. Instead of doing this, get into a groove, establish your training and diet and add one supplement at a time. See what happens and decide for yourself.
And finally, supplements should never, never, never ever replace food. Just in case you didn't get that, never, never, never replace food with supplements!