It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in a supplement store—with all those pills, powders, and portions, how can you separate help from hype? As an exercise physiologist and sports nutritionist, I can tell you that in addition to exercising and eating right, a few key supplements can boost how you look and feel. Here’s where to start.
- Protein Powders
Protein powders are one of the biggest segments of the supplement market. And there’s no shortage of options available. Animal-derived proteins such as whey, casein, and egg, as well as goat, beef, and fish, are extremely popular. But there’s also a healthy selection of vegetable-based proteins, such as rice, hemp, soy, and pea. You can even try hydrolysates, which are predigested whey and casein peptides.
Which powder to choose often comes down to personal preference and individual needs, but my favorite is whey protein isolate (WPI). It’s made from the water-soluble portion of milk that’s been processed and filtered to remove lactose, cholesterol, and fat and is preferred by many consumers who are lactose intolerant and/or have problems digesting protein powders. WPI is typically very high in protein content (usually 90% or more) in comparison with other forms, which can range from only 10–50% protein. It’s also high in L-cysteine and all nine essential amino acids (histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, phenylalanine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine). L-cysteine helps regulate blood sugar, decreases blood vessel inflammation, and reduces exercise-induced oxidative stress.
Other important ingredients to look for in your protein powders are branched-chain amino acids, aka BCAAs, which include leucine, isoleucine, and valine. BCAAs can help reduce muscle soreness and speed recovery from intense training. Leucine is the most important amino acid to athletes, as it can increase muscle protein synthesis all by itself. Make sure your protein powder has a minimum of 2.5 grams of leucine in it.
Keep In Mind: Whey protein is absorbed and digested very quickly, causing sharp increases in blood levels of amino acids. Use it in the morning or post-workout. The rapid delivery of amino acids to muscle can quickly reverse the catabolic effects of resistance exercise, helping immediately boost muscle recovery after training. When you mix whey protein with heart-healthy fats, high-fiber foods, or casein (another milk-based protein), you’ll slow down digestion, helping you feel fuller, longer. For a muscle-building, between-meal snack, try whey protein blended with a tablespoon of natural peanut butter and a handful of mixed berries.
A great multivitamin/mineral complexshould be the cornerstone of your nutritional plan. As a scientist, I always recommend foods first, but frankly no one is perfect, and the primary purpose of a multi is to fill the nutritional gaps in you diet of foods that you should be eating but aren’t.
A solid multi provides the most critical vitamins and minerals your body needs in optimal forms. The most important components include: vitamin A (my preference is for the beta-carotene and mixed carotenoids), the B vitamins, vitamin D (always look for the naturally occurring D3 form rather than the less potent D2 version), vitamin E (the tocopherol and tocotrienol forms are particularly important), vitamin C (look for the ascorbate form), vitamin K (those with cardiovascular and/or bone health concerns should consider taking the K2 form), calcium (the citrate form is my personal favorite), zinc, selenium, chromium, iodine, manganese, and molybdenum. Note: A good multi isn’t cheap—you get what you pay for.
Exercise research has shown that women who train intensely lose many critical vitamins and minerals, including B vitamins, vitamin C, chromium, selenium, zinc, iron, and magnesium. This primarily occurs through vitamin and mineral loss in sweat and urine, as well as increased uptake for energy production during exercise and recovery.
Keep In Mind: Choose a multi that provides less than 50 percent of the recommended daily amount in one capsule or tablet, then take one capsule or tablet with each of your two largest meals. Unless you have a specific health condition that mandates mega-doses of specific vitamins/minerals, don’t overdo it! Recent research has shown that high doses of some antioxidant vitamins can actually interfere with training adaptations.
- Fat Burners
There’s no shortage of products that pledge to help you burn more fat at a faster rate. But despite the hype, only a handful of ingredients have solid scientific evidence demonstrating a boost in metabolic rate, enhanced lipolysis (fat breakdown), and actual increases in fat oxidation (burning). On the list:
7-keto DHEA: This is a derivative of DHEA, but unlike the naturally occurring hormone it does not convert into testosterone or estrogen. Research has shown 7-keto supplementation may increase metabolic rate during dieting. Dosage: 100–200mg/day.
Capsaicinoids: The molecules that give chili peppers their heat are also proven fat burners and metabolic boosters, according to numerous research studies. Dosage: 3–6mg/day.
Green tea extract: Green tea is a natural fat burner, and an extract called EGCG may be particularly potent. It works best if you’re not also consuming caffeine on a regular basis. Dosage: 270mg/day standardized with EGCG.
Yerba mate: This has long been used to help suppress appetite and burn fat. It usually contains caffeine. Dosage: 1,000mg/day.
Advantra Z: This branded ingredient, derived from immature bitter oranges, may have some applications as a safe thermogenic aid. Dosage: 100mg/day of p-synephrine (the active component in Advantra Z).
TeaCrine: Another branded ingredient and is a more recent newcomer to energy-boosting and weight-loss supplementation. Preliminary studies in humans have been positive, and unlike other stimulants, it doesn’t lose its strength or effectiveness during eight weeks of continuous use. Dosage: 100–200mg/day.
Keep In Mind: When it comes to fat-loss supplements, results vary widely among individuals, so don’t be discouraged if one of these ingredients leaves you hanging. Typically, combining several ingredients with different mechanisms of action (i.e., in a finished, research-proven formula) works best.
Tip: Divide your supplements with different meals for better absorption.
- Turmeric Extract
Also known as curcumin, this yellow spice is a member of the ginger family and has been used as a spice and in traditional medicine for centuries. It has both anti-inflammatory and pain-reduction properties and is also a powerful antioxidant that promotes brain health, and may help protect against certain cancers, particularly breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer. In the past 15 years almost 7,000 scientific papers have been published on the therapeutic properties of turmeric and curcumin.
Keep In Mind: To maximize bioavailability and disease-prevention effects, I recommend using Longvida, Super Bio-Curcumin (BCM-95), or Curcumin Phytosome (Meriva), as these forms of curcumin have been researched in humans. The typical effective dosage for curcumin is from 500–4,000mg per day.
- Vitamin D
The vast majority of multivitamins don’t contain anywhere near “optimal” amounts of vitamin D, so it may be prudent to take a little extra, especially in the winter months. Vitamin D functions as a steroid hormone precursor—which means that without enough vitamin D, your body cannot produce optimal amounts of estrogen or progesterone. Vitamin D is most well known in medical circles for its beneficial effects on bone health, blood sugar control, immune function, cardiovascular health, and cognitive function, helping to fight depression and reduce stress. In fact, recent research has shown that vitamin D affects more than 2,000 genes in the body, including several in muscles that help promote a lean, sculpted physique.
Keep In Mind: Many of us are downright deficient in vitamin D, or at least have suboptimal levels. This is especially true if you have dark skin tone, use a lot of sunscreen, and/or live in the northern part of the country. Most multis provide only 600–800 IU of vitamin D, but ideally you should be getting about 2,000 IU per day. Since D is a fat-soluble vitamin, try to take it with a meal that contains some fat so that the body can absorb it properly.