Thursday, January 21, 2016

Supplements: Are They Vital For Life or Is It Just Snake Oils

There's been a ton of debate on whether or not supplements are beneficial. Studies on both sides show evidence to suggest so. And opinions from both the scientific and consumer community vary wildly.

This will be my attempt at giving my unbiased, and somewhat informed opinion on the matter. What compelled me to write this entry is a video snippet I saw of a recent Frontline report on the effectiveness (or lack of evidence to support it's effectiveness) of fish oil supplements. Let me put this disclaimer out there, while I am in favor of supplementation not just with fish oil but also other nutrients, I am also a big skeptic. My preference is to look into things before jumping to conclusions though, and sometimes my skepticism is justified. Other times I am pleasantly surprised, but either way my awareness is expanded and I invite others to this approach.

Back to the Frontline piece, while I have to admit that I have not watched the full series on supplements just yet, It seems to me that of what is being reported is that there is a lack of evidence to support supplementation is worth it. Again, there may be more to it but I want to discuss some of the merits and faults of what I heard so far. For starters, I agree with one thing, the supplement industry is pretty much the wild west. With minimal regulations, just about anyone cans start a company and mix some powders together, jar it, slap a label on, and put a product on the market. I worked at a supplement shop for some time, and I came across a plethora of different products which I would of course try. I have to admit a great number of them did absolutely nothing. But then many did. I can't quantify it but can say with certainty the ones that did work, had demonstrable effect. There is of course some that I would maybe were just a placebo effect going on as well. Another alarming fact was how often I saw products being pulled from the shelf for having banned compounds in them, or for making people sick, or most commonly because the company would go out of business since their product was crap.

Another thing I'd like to highlight is that I would sometimes see a supplement being sold by various manufacturers, and some worked, some didn't. Let's look at the example of fish oil. I will not mention any manufacturers directly since I don't want to bash anyone, and I'm certainly not endorsed by any either. I recall for example, the store brand of fish oil would sell pretty well,  but also had a high rate of return. Customers constantly complained of burping up that nasty fish smell, or that after taking it for a few weeks they felt no difference. Yet another brand, that is well established would sell just as well if not better, but almost never got returned. It's consumers often said there absolutely some positive effects, and just felt that the quality of the product was higher than others they had tried. Also far less people complained of burping up sardine breath.

Now let me just say there are many reasons a supplement would work out well for one person and not for another. When taking supplements some of the things I like to take into account are :

  1. Where is the nutrient being derived from? Is it coming from the best possible source?
  2. How is it being derived? The Frontline piece highlighted how easily fish oil oxidizes and loses it's effectiveness. But failed to state there are methods of extracting fish oil that prevent oxidation
  3. Is there real evidence to support me supplementing a nutrient? Some studies aren't designed properly at all. I've seen some, pardon my french, dog shit studies on both sides. But have also found some well designed and promising studies that support certain supplements. Fish oil for example, is even given as a prescription by medical doctors because there actually is some positive evidence for it helping with blood pressure control. Despite what many reports these days claim.
  4. This last one is a big one, what is my expectation? 
Let me explain that last one. I think what the public needs to understand is the word supplement. A supplement is defined as something that completes or enhances something when added to it. The truth is that if you're able to follow a very balanced diet, you may not need supplements to live. So do I believe they are vital for life? Not if you can get all your nutrients from food. I am a firm believer that proper nutrition should always come from real food.Though there is also the another thing to consider here, and that's the fact that most of the foods we get from our supermarkets may not be as nutritious as we expect due to factory farming and similar practices. But that's a entirely different subject I'll touch on in another entry But anyway, one can't expect to get all benefits of fatty acids if you're not getting them in your diet. And trying to get them all from pills would be lunacy. Ok fine, that example is bit extreme. But it does lead me to another point which is how healthy are you? Because another thing to consider is, you can't expect to take supplements to enhance health if you're unhealthy. Anyone who thinks that vitamins, fish oils, amino acids and other supplements one can take are going to make them healthy and fit all by themselves is either misinformed, crazy, or stupid. Going back to the definition, the idea isn't to be healthy by taking supplements, it's to enhance a body that already gets good exercise, and is well nourished. These things aren't cures, they're add ons that make you feel better than good. 

So then the real question is do we want to just live and be just healthy enough? Or do we want to be at our best? I know what I personally am striving for, it isn't just losing body fat or getting a six pack. It's to be able to perform well in all facets of life. I want to be at optimal as often as I can. So for that matter, I do eat well, and I do supplement. And while I rarely get sick even when I am not supplementing, in my experience is that when supplementing my performance in during workouts, my energy levels, my recovery, and focus all are much better. Many will read this and think its just an opinion or likely a placebo. I can't find a way to convince any of those folks. But as I mentioned at the start of this entry, one should really take a deep look at issues before forming an opinion. Because I am a big fan of really getting to facts, I want to close this post out with a video that admittedly might seem hand picked because it reinforces my views. But the real reason I chose this video is because it really does have a very logical and unbiased stance. To summarize, while supplements may not be vital to life, they certainly aren't useless. As with most stories, the truth in this one is more in the middle.



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