Food or Supplements… Or Both?

I just had a consultation with a young man who was, as many young men in the gym are, trying to gain weight and “get big”. When the topic got on to nutrition he happily told me about his daily diet intake and supplementation. It basically consisted of a handful of protein shakes per day (various protein blends for different times of the day), a bunch of Gatorade, and an evening meal consisting of a chicken breast and brown rice. His list of pills and powders (most of them with very fierce names) was about half a page long.

Now, I’m certainly not a supplement hater. In fact, I’m a bit of a nutrition and supplementation geek and as such, I really enjoy debating the effects of various substances. However, I think that many people are missing the forest for the trees when it comes to supplementation.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of supplements:

Pros:
-Convenient to carry around, generally no special care such as cooking or refrigeration is necessary.
-Very easy to mix and match for precise nutrition.
-Meal replacements and protein supplements can be used to keep overall calorie intake down as many people tend to overeat with food in front of them.

Cons:
-Missing a lot of “micronutrients” that are present in food.
-Some non-natural vitamins and minerals aren’t taken up by the body as well.
-Large, isolated amounts of some nutrients aren’t taken up by the body as well as smaller, mixed doses.
-Often meal replacements and other supplements aren’t particularly satisfying.
-Nobody wants to go out to dinner with the dude who sits there with a protein shaker.

As for the pros and cons of real food, they tend to be the opposite.

In my mind supplements are exactly that: Supplements. They are not substitutes when you look at the diet as a whole. I’m a firm believer in packing my athletes with as much real food as possible. Look, we’re omnivores and pretty good ones at that. Our body is pretty well equipped to deal with most anything that rolls across its path and make some use of it. As a matter of fact, our nutritional needs are such that it prefers a varied diet. That’s hard to manage if you’re taking the majority of your nutrition in from the same few powders.

To sum it up, I do support judicious use of supplements for most athletes and fitness seekers, but only the basics. Until your diet is in line, supplements should take the back seat to real food. As far as the young man I spoke to the first thing I told him is to stop taking most of the crap he was loading up on and switch to the basics of good, quality food. From there he could add back in some basic supplements until he had exhausted the benefits of good training and good eating, which will be a very long time.

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