November 18, 2010

Top 5 Supplements for Better Health and Physiques

For whatever reason, dietary supplements seem to be a source of fascination and debate for pretty much everyone. At one side of the spectrum, you have those individuals who’ll buy pretty much anything that promises “explosive gains”, “extreme fat loss” or “unlimited energy”.

And at the other side you have individuals who argue till they are blue in the face that people can meet all their nutrient needs through food.

If your fridge looks like this, you have a problem.

Personally, I find both extremes to be pretty ridiculous. Although I’m more closely aligned to the “get your nutrients from food” camp, there are pretty clear cases where “supplementing smart” is not only beneficial, but necessary, in order to improve the quality of someone’s diet.

So today I thought I’d share my top 5 supplements for health and physique enhancement. These are the supplements that I recommend most often and seem to provide the largest bang for your supplement buck.

#1. Whey protein powder

It’s astounding how much published data exists demonstrating that individuals who eat a greater percentage of total calories from protein improve their body composition to a greater extent and demonstrate better hunger management than those individuals eating a low protein diet.

Yet ask 90% of the North American population what they had for breakfast and you are sure to hear: carbs, carbs, carbs and more carbs. Now while there is nothing wrong with consuming carbohydrates for breakfast, particularly for active individuals, when carbohydrates are eaten by their lonesome selves, they tend to do pretty nasty things to blood sugar.

This is why investing in a high quality protein powder can be a lifesaver. Many people cite “a lack of time” as the reason for why they don’t consume protein (or anything healthy for that matter) at breakfast.

For people like this, adding a scoop of whey protein to a shake that takes 60 seconds to prepare and can be consumed on the way to work is the perfect way to help get their nutrition in order.

P.S. And don’t let anyone tell you that adding peanut butter to a piece of toast is “adding protein to your breakfast”. While natural peanut butter is a great source of monounsaturated fat, it’s a pretty terrible source of protein.

To get the same amount of protein contained in a scoop of whey protein (~25 g), you’d need to consume 6 TBSP of peanut butter. You are now looking at 600 kcal and ~ 50 g of fat. Does that seem like a good source of protein to you?

I didn’t think so.

#2. Fish oil

The phrase “you are what you eat” is especially true when it comes to fats (they do make up the vast majority of our cell membranes after all). So if your diet is currently laden with garbage fats, it’s no surprise that you look and feel like garbage as well.

Without getting into a political rant on economics and shoddy science, suffice to say that our current food manufacturing practices in North America cause us to consume far too many omega 6 fats (i.e. vegetable oils) in our diet, throwing our cellular fatty acid ratios all out of whack.

In order to help you re-establish a reasonable cellular ratio of essential fats, adding a concentrated source of animal-sourced omega 3 fats (i.e. fish oil) is one of the smartest things you can do.

Obviously for anyone who regularly consumes fatty fish (salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel) the need to take fish oil isn’t quite so pressing… but the number of people who consider these fish staple foods is pretty small indeed.

I tend to prefer the liquid fish oil to the capsules, since it is easier to consume the high doses of the active ingredients (EPA & DHA) required for body transformation benefits, but both approaches do the trick.

#3. Vitamin D

If there ever was an element in our food next to impossible to ingest in large enough doses for optimal function, it’s vitamin D. Sorry “you can get all the nutrients you need from food” guys, but I’m just telling it like it is.

The reason why vitamin D is so critical to supplement with is as follows: the vast majority of our vitamin D production happens during the summer months after we are exposed to the sun’s rays (UVB rays in particular). In fact, we can produce anywhere from 10,000-20,000 IU of vitamin D in as little as 20 minutes of exposure to the mid-day sun.

This raises this question, if we naturally produce such large amounts of vitamin D, why is our “daily recommendation” only 400 IU? Something doesn’t add up…

Incidentally, the Institute of Medicine is slated to release new vitamin D recommendations on November 30th of this year. Who knows what they’ll ultimately recommend, but the Vitamin D council is currently suggesting 5,000 IU per day for 2–3 months, then obtain a 25-hydroxyvitamin D test.

At that point one should adjust their dosage so that blood levels are between 50–80 ng/mL (or 125–200 nM/L) year-round.

Unfortunately, for individuals living in Northern climates (helloooo Canada), we don’t get any UVB exposure from ~Oct-Apr. So no chances to produce vitamin D naturally.

But what about our food, can’t we get vitamin D from food?

Sure, but there isn’t a whole lot to go around.

Food Item Serving size Vitamin D content
Canned salmon 75 g 600 IU
Multivitamin 1 tablet 400 IU
Sardines 1 can 350 IU
Milk 8 oz 100 IU
Egg yolk 1 yolk 25 IU


So if we go with the operating assumption that adults may need at least 4000-5000 IU/day, the chances are slim to none that any Canadian could take that much in from food.

#4. Green tea

Everyone loves burning more fat. Unfortunately, many fat burning products also put a beating on the heart and should only be used with extreme caution.

Thankfully, green tea provides a healthy dose of fat burning potential, with little to no cardiac stress. Plus green tea may help decrease risk of cancer, improve blood chemistry, fight osteoporosis, etc.

Bottom line, drink more of the stuff.

#5. Multivitamins

It’s funny, I used to be anti multivitamin. Now I just think that too many people’s diets have such gaping holes that to ignore the benefits multivitamins can provide is sheer folly.

Now let’s be clear, taking a multivitamin is not an excuse to never eat vegetables. But as our environment becomes more polluted, our food supply deviates further from how nature intended animals and plants to grow and our stress levels climb ever higher… odds are our micronutrients needs are much higher than we think.

Two multivitamins a day keeps the doctor away…

One word of caution, you get what you pay for with vitamins. So although the budget 300 vitamins for $15 seems like a great deal… it really isn’t.

One of the brands I’m increasingly recommending for people are the Platinum Naturals line of products. They are Canadian owned and manufactured, plus they carry a Certified for SportTM certification from NSF® International, which is always a nice feature.

So there you have it, my 5 universal supplements that can improve pretty much everyone’s diets.

This isn’t to say I don’t value or recommend other supplements, because I do. Creatine, digestive enzymes, and greens powders were very much in contention for this list. But when it came down to supplements that will benefit virtually everyone, these 5 stand out at the head of the class.

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!


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