How To Choose Exercise/Bodybuilding Supplements, Part 1: Tips For Finding Quality Supplements

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 10:16am

By Krista Scott-Dixon, PhD

Go into any health food store and you’ll be confronted with a wall of bottles whose labels scream outrageous claims: Burn fat! Gain muscle! Get ripped! Get huge! There are pills, powders, and serums aplenty. You might even trip over a pyramid of weight gainer buckets on your way to the vitamin aisle. With so many products that often sound scientific, and health store staff who frequently act as poorly informed pharmacists or salespeople, how do you know which supplements are worthwhile, and which are just making your urine more expensive?

Most supplements don’t help much

The first thing to remember is that most supplements do not work. For example, although many supplements advertise themselves as “fat burning,” they are more likely to be appetite suppressants. Supplements advertised as “muscle gainers” may simply be high-calorie, sugary drink mixes. Very few legal supplements provide the genuine and noticeable effects that illegal substances such as anabolic steroids do. Most supplements do very little in practical terms beyond occasionally giving you a buzz or some wacky flatulence. A handful of supplements are even dangerous.

Without a good diet and exercise, good supplements are worthless

The second thing to remember is that the supplements that are worthwhile do not work without a good diet and training program. Even anabolic steroids, the “real deal,” won’t be much use for building muscle if you don’t also work out (although they do help preserve muscle for people with wasting diseases). No supplement in the world will substitute for poor nutrition and inactivity. If you’re looking for the magic pill to drop fat and re-sculpt a stunning physique, forget it.

Supplements are unregulated

Third, buyer beware. Unlike the food industry, which has stringent standards for labeling, the supplement industry remains largely unregulated. If you buy a can of tomatoes, you can be pretty sure that the can contains tomatoes (not carrots or dog food), that the tomatoes are safe to eat, and that any other ingredients will be listed on the label. This is not the case for supplements. Supplement companies can say anything they like on a label or in promotional materials. It doesn’t have to be truthful. It doesn’t have to accurately reflect what’s in the bottle. Nobody is checking up on them.

A 2000 study in the American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy1 that examined ephedra, a common ingredient in so-called fat burning products found:

  • Amounts of ephedra varied considerably among products, ranging from 0.0 to 18.5 milligrams per pill, as well as from batch to batch. Products were wildly different from each other—as much as 1000% variation (yes, that is a thousand percent) and even the same product could contain drastically variable amounts.

  • Often the cheaper pseudoephedrine and the illegal norpseudoephedrine were present without being mentioned on the label.
  • One product that claimed to include ephedra was missing ephedra altogether!

For more information on guidelines when buying supplements see the following article from TheDietChannel: How to Protect Yourself When Buying Supplements.

Beware of bad supplement science

Fourth, be critical of the science. Many supplements back themselves up with evidence that sounds credible. But when you dig a little deeper, you discover that in fact, there is little basis for the claims. A few characteristics of bad supplement science include:

1.   Avoid supplement labels with big claims

Which sounds better: “This supplement rips through fat” or “This supplement demonstrates a modest appetite suppressant effect that, in motivated subjects, leads to slightly reduced caloric intake.” The first one, right? But the bigger the claim, the less likely it is to be true.

2.   Be wary of supplement labels wher complex processes are reduced to a single factor (e.g. fat loss)

This could be cortisol, insulin, your imaginary magnetic aura, whatever. Human physiology is complex. Anything that claims one factor is responsible for fat loss and muscle growth is untrue.

3.   Think twice before buying suplements where the label gives poor evidence, and/or just testimonies

Good scientific studies are done under controlled, rigorous laboratory conditions. The results must be repeatable by other labs and the research should be published in a respected journal. Evidence that consists of Joe R. from Montana raving about the pill doesn’t count, nor does only one study done in the supplement company’s lab.

In the next installment of this article, I cover some of the basic supplements that are worth purchasing.

1 BJ Gurley, SF Gardner, and MA Hubbard. “Content Versus Label Claims in Ephedra-Containing Dietary Supplements.” American Journal of Health-System Pharmacy 57 no. 10 (May 15 2000): 963-969.