Whether you are just getting in shape or beginning your journey as an amateur bodybuilder, the idea of utilizing supplements may be a whole new world for you. If you have ever walked into a GNC or Vitamin Shoppe, then you know there’s a multitude of products and brands to sort through.

Before you dive into reading bodybuilding forums and asking your one gym rat friend for advice, it’s important to know how the industry works. For starters, the US supplement industry has been valued at $32.5 billion; the Council for Responsible Nutrition’s research estimates that almost 70 percent of US adults take dietary supplements, and over 50 percent of those people take them regularly.

There is no hiding the fact that Americans are in the market for these products. The real question is, do they work? Unlike prescription drugs, the supplement world is federally unregulated. This industry is technically self-regulated, meaning the FDA only gets involved if a supplement is said to cause problems. To be clearer, the FDA considers drugs unsafe until tested and proven otherwise, while their stance on dietary supplements is the opposite.

So what happens when there is an adverse reaction, or enough of them to cause the FDA to become involved? The FDA is not legally responsible for keeping the supplement industry honest; they simply investigate claims and can only stop the manufacturing process of a supplement after enough evidence has been proven to pose a health risk.

“There have been many emergency room visits due to incorrect supplement use. Many of these supplements were in the workout category,” says Dr. Scott Schreiber of the Delaware Back Pain and Sports Rehabilitation Centers in Newark, Delaware. “There are several issues when it comes to these types of supplements. Many retail stores are selling them for pure profit with no regard for the public’s health. All dietary supplements should be evaluated and monitored by trained health care professionals and not some kid behind the counter. Many people use these store associates for their advice and it has cause potentially dangerous reactions to other supplements and medications. In addition, the potential for abuse is also less when monitored by health care professionals.”  

THE HYPE VS. ACTUAL SCIENCE

Burning Calories or Cash

Every person in the fitness community has at one point subscribed to some sort of diet, from the Paleo diet to the ever-popular shake weight loss programs. People like to be a part of a movement, especially when it comes to getting fit, because with these trends comes the safety net of an online community you can lean on for support. The only issue becomes, how much of what is being circulated in these forums is true, and how much is just fluff?

VOX recently put out an article that contained some rather eye-opening research about what is actually in some of the most popular supplements such as protein powders, weight loss supplements, and even sexual enhancers. The table below outlines the results of that study, showing which of the supplements contain illegal or hidden drugs.

The worst offender of sneaking other substances into their formula was weight loss supplements, with a total of 431 having illegal or hidden drugs not found on the label. Muscle enhancers also turned out to be big offenders of this as well.

“The truth is, few people really need or will see any benefits from taking ANY supplements,” says Victor Adam a certified trainer and owner of Axiom Health and Fitness. “For (quality) supplements to be effective, you should already be eating a diet that is about 95 percent in line with whatever goal you are working toward. Supplements should help you get to the 100 to 110 percent mark.”

Should you buy workout supplements on your own?

“No way!” says Schreiber. “It is a waste of money and can cause a host of other health problems. The manufacturers of these exercise supplements are mass producing these compounds with very little regard for science, using fillers and cheap forms of vitamins and minerals that are very poorly absorbed. Some can even cause gastrointestinal distress. One small study may show a positive correlation and then, BOOM, it is the next supplement trend, only to find out a few years later that it is potentially dangerous to your health.” 

So, should YOU be taking a supplement? Answer these questions to get a better idea, says Adam.

• Are you following specific guidelines to help you reach your goal? Something you’ve researched, or a plan given to you by a dietitian, personal trainer, or medical professional?

• Have you been diagnosed with a nutrient deficiency or has a doctor or dietitian told you that you have low levels of specific vitamins/nutrients?

• Are you an athlete or fitness enthusiast who already has your diet in check and are looking to enhance recovery, performance, or training results? 

“If you can honestly answer yes to any one or more of those questions, then it may be worth your time and money to look into adding quality supplements to help you reach your goals,” he says. “If not, then buying supplements is definitely NOT worth your money. You will improve your health/fitness much more effectively if you simply use the money you would spend on supplements to add more fruits and vegetables to your diet.”

If you are one of the few who would benefit from adding supplements, Adam says, the question then becomes, which one? It’s a tricky question because it really depends on your goals as well as your current diet/nutrition and fitness level. There are a few guidelines you can follow to see what will work best for you, and also to tell you what isn’t worth your money.

1) Don’t bother with multivitamins. Numerous studies have proven that they don’t actually improve overall health and wellness. It’s better to try to add high quality, whole, nutritious food to your diet than to spend your money on multivitamins, he says.  

2) Avoid proprietary blends. These are the blends that supplement companies use to hide how much of what is actually included in the supplement, Adam says. “You are just supposed to trust their expert scientists and formulators,” Adam says. “If they do not list every ingredient and how much of each you are getting in a serving size, don’t waste your time or money.” Many proprietary blends also hide unbalanced or under-dosed ingredients.

3) Avoid anything labeled “concentrated” or “super concentrated.” You can’t actually concentrate macro/micronutrients (protein, BCAA’s, caffeine, vitamins, etc.)— they’re already concentrated down from their whole food versions, says Adam. 

“Supplements used properly can be a great adjunct to a whole food diet, but they are not a quick fix and can lead to emergency room visits when used inappropriately,” Schreiber says. “Make sure you are taking supplements prescribed by a health professional, and make sure the supplement comes from a high-quality company. Also, make sure the supplements are third-party tested to ensure the highest quality ingredients are in the products.”

MARKETING MAGIC

While many elite bodybuilders and athletes in the fitness industry help market these products, it is important to realize they are also sponsored by these products and are sometimes even the face of the brand. Any time you open up a Muscle and Fitness or Flex magazine, you are going to see the major players in the supplement industry in full page ads and sponsored content throughout.

The issue here is that much like the food industry, the DSHEA doesn’t regulate what claims are written on the bottle of a supplement. So much of what we read on the labels of supplements these days is pure marketing-speak, and has little to no scientific research to back up claims.

We all know the power of advertising and how influential it can be on what products consumers love or hate, but as social media expands into the world of business we are starting to see more consumers “like” brands and engage with them daily. Supplement brands and even major retailers like Vitamin Shoppe have contests on Facebook and Instagram to give away products. There are even hashtags for the more popular supplements that people use to tag their gym selfies.

Whether or not taking X,Y,and Z supplements will help you get bigger, run faster or drop the weight, is a moot point. For years, studies have proven that eating a proper diet really does trump any supplement you can buy.