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    An Idiot's Guide to Supplements

    For the record, the idiot in question here is me.

    Over the course of the years since 2001 when I first started studying exercise physiology and nutrition, I've tried more pills and powders than I can remember.  Some of them are worth the time to mention.  Others aren't worth the plastic they were packaged in.  For the uninitiated, a supplement is basically anything that can be consumed that isn't real food, including vitamins, mineral pills, meal replacement bars and powders, and any other pill that alleges to help the consumer lose fat or gain muscle.

    When you walk into a nutritional supplement store (no names mentioned because, simply, they're not paying me to advertise for them), the array of choices for nutritional supplements is nothing short of mind-boggling.  Unless you've done some serious research before ever walking through the door, there is almost no way you can ever begin to work out what will actually help your progress and what is just a bunch of hype.  The first time I walked into one of these stores, I had already done a bit of reading and knew which products I was there to buy, but I was still drawn in by the colorful ads and amazing claims made on the backs of packages.  Eventually I gave in to the hype and tried a few other magic pills, but nothing I've found actually takes the place of hard work and commitment.

    Now, for the details.  I take a fairly simple assortment of nutritional supplements:

    • A daily multivitamin
    • A daily fish oil pill with Omega-3 fatty acids
    • A protein shake after weight training to which I add creatine monohydrate
    • An occasional meal replacement bar (1 or 2 per week)

    In the past, I've tried a bunch of different other pills hoping to find a magic bullet that would strip fat from my body more efficiently.  While some of these supplements (detailed below) might have shown some effectiveness, there is an element of danger involved in their consumption.  The rest were just pure crap; I would have done just as well had I flushed the money I spent on them down the crapper.  Here they are:

    • Guggulsterones - this supplement was alleged to increase metabolism and cause the body to burn fat due to increased body temperature.  When I took this product, I felt absolutely nothing.  Unfortunately, the problem was simply the fact that the guggulsterone products available in the US are inferior to those available overseas.  I understand the the higher-quality guggul does have the thermogenic effect of raising body temperature, but it has to be ordered from India, making it cost-prohibitive.
    • ECA stack - ECA stands for Ephedra, Caffeine, Aspirin.  Taken in combination, this supplement can raise metabolic rate and burn more calories when at rest.  The problem with this combination is the ephedra.  Now, in and of itself ephedra is fine.  When taken according to label directions, it is safe for most people.  Things can turn bad under a couple of circumstances: 1) too much of the supplement is taken (the "more-is-better" approach) or 2) you happen to be one of those people who don't qualify as "most people".  People with cardiac problems, high blood pressure, or hypertension are at risk when taking a supplement that makes the heart pump faster for long periods of time.  The end result for me was a net weight loss of 2-3 pounds over the course of 6 weeks.  Not worth the risk to me, even though I tried multiple variations of this stack by multiple manufacturers.
    • Pseudephedrine - a modified version of the ECA stack that came into use when ephedra was outlawed.  I could take this supplement without the jittery effects of ECA - and without the complementary fat loss.  I saw little to no increased benefit from taking pseudephedrine.
    • Yohimbine - another thermogenic supplement that raises metabolism and burns more calories when not training.  Again, there wasn't enough evidence of a benefit to justify paying for continued use of the supplement.  It also didn't positively affect my libido as claimed (not that my libido is suffering anyway).  My evaluation: not worth the cash spent.
    • Cortisol blockers - claim to minimize the effects of cortisol (the 'stress hormone') on the body.  Cortisol is released by the body when a stressful situation is encountered and is responsible for the 'fight or flight' response.  By minimizing the effects of cortisol, backers of this supplement claim that the body will stop trying to hold on to fat, particularly abdominal fat.  I used this supplement regularly for several months with no obvious benefit.  I lost weight at the same rate and still had excessive abdominal fat.  If one wants to reduce the amount of stress hormone in their lives, perhaps a good yoga class or sexual experience would be much more effective.
    • Chromium picolinate - the only effect I experience with CP is heartburn.  This stuff made reflux seem like a mild case of the burps by comparison.  While it was said that CP could help burn fat and gain muscle, I believed the benefits were completely outweighed by the unpleasant side effects.  CP was eventually found to be potentially dangerous in high doses, making this the last supplement I would ever want to willingly take again.


    There are probably more products that I've taken that have slipped my mind.  If I remember any others, I'll add them to this list later.  You might notice that the majority of product attempt to raise the metabolic rate to burn calories.  The caveat here is that there is potential for cardiac distress and sleeplessness.  I've found far better (and tastier) ways to raise metabolic rate, but you have to have a tolerance for spicy food.  Adding cayenne pepper to anything will raise your metabolism as effectively (or moreso) than taking a pill.  Personally, I've added it to bowls of lean chili, tuna, sprinkled it on my chicken and steak, and added it to my eggs.  Spicy food, you might notice, makes you sweat when you eat.  You sweat because your metabolism is geared up.

    Overall, the benefit of a weight loss supplement is marginal.  I've seen recent commercials for a new weight loss product that is "clinically proven" to help lose fat.  In the fine print, however, is the statement that an average of 2-3 additional pounds were lost over the course of the 6-week clinical trials.  Well, how about that!  A whole 2-3 pounds!  At $30/month for the stuff, we're talking about paying as little as $15 per pound lost.  Sounds like a bargain to me! (OK, I'll remove my tongue from my cheek now).  Want to lose an additional 2-3 pounds over 6 weeks for free?  Stay on the treadmill or elliptical for 10 minutes longer than normal each day.

    Stay basic.  When you go to the health food store at the mall, grab some good whey protein powder, a few decent-tasting protein bars, and a multi-vitamin.  Leave all the other crap there.  Your wallet - and your body - will thank you.