All About Dietary Supplements

by Peter J. Morel C.F.C

The issue of dietary supplementation can be both complex and confusing. What to believe... what to discount... what to use... what to discard? Let's take a look.

In order to give you some background, we'll begin with the first of the supplements to start the craze - weight-gain powders. Although these supplements were once dubbed "meal replacements", we know this was never the case. Weight gain products are not formulated to replace a proper diet. The true intention was that the user would supplement his or her diet with the weight gainer to add needed protein and calories and facilitate a growth in lean mass. Weight gain powders were to be used in conjunction with a low fat diet (many weight gain products are somewhat high in fat) and a moderately heavy weight training program.

Most weight lifters, athletes and bodybuilders already eat sufficient protein and consume more than enough calories to complete the task of protein synthesis. If you have a reasonable diet, but are always on the go and seem not to be increasing your muscle mass, you may lack the necessary caloric intake you need (it takes about 1,000 calories to sustain every new pound of muscle). In this case, a weight gain or lean gainer may be a good idea.

A popular supplement, often taken for granted, is the daily vitamin and mineral tablet. There are two schools of thought on these products; the first is that if you eat a proper diet of six servings of fruit and vegetables, three or four servings of grains, breads and cereals, two servings of meat or meat substitutes like fish or poultry, and two servings of dairy products daily, you will receive all the nutrients you need and that can be absorbed. If we lived in a perfect world, everyone would eat properly - the reality is that most people don't! The second school of thought accepts that many people do not eat a proper diet and may therefore be deficient in one or more vitamins or minerals. Evidence strongly suggests that vitamin and mineral supplementation is often necessary, particularly for their antioxidant properties.

In recent years, the high-tech field of supplementation has become increasingly complex with supplements like HMB, Creatine monohydrate, CLA, Pyruvate, and others too numerous to mention all vying for position.

Many athletes ask their trainers what they think of these supplements. The fairest answer is: "it depends." The need for supplementation depends on a number of factors including your diet, genetics, level of fitness, whether you play a sport and at what level, and whether you train for strength, speed, endurance or aerobic capacity. There are no simple answers. Supplements do not work for everyone and will not always induce the reaction you're looking for.

That said, let's move on and continue our supplement investigation with HMB (short for beta-hydroxy beta-methylbutyrate) This dietary supplement is present in minimal quantities in plants and animals and occurs naturally in human mother's milk.

According to studies provided by the Journal of Applied Physiology, HMB can increase the body's ability to build muscle and burn fat when added to the diet in conjunction with an exercise program. Studies on animals show HMB to be safe and non-toxic. Extensive research on humans is not complete, but up-to-date results have not shown any adverse effects. Research done by Dr. Nissen at Iowa State University showed large gains in muscle size and strength in people who used between one and three grams of HMB daily, beneficial for athletes needing size and strength gains for such sports as football, rugby, and hockey.

Next, let's consider the very popular Creatine Monohydrate, a substance formed from three different amino acids, made in the liver. In its pure form, creatine is transported into the blood stream, absorbed by the muscle cells and converted to creatine phosphate. It is then stored in the cells until it is used to produce what all our muscles use for energy at the molecular level - ATP (adeno-sine tri phosphate). This translates to gains in strength and endurance, helps in the healing process of the muscles and is now thought to be a lactic acid buffer which reduces the risk of burn out. Studies show dramatic increases in all of the aforementioned areas when user take as little as two to five grams a day. Although it was reported that as many as five out of every eight Olympic athletes in Atlanta and Nagano who won medals were using creatine, it is important to remember that there are as yet, no long-term studies on the side effects of prolonged use.

Let's now take a look at CLA, or conjugated linoleic acid, a nutrient found in beef, turkey, and dairy products. Studies show CLA to be an anti-carcinogen that has been proved to enhance growth and increase lean body mass muscle, although it has been primarily promoted as a fat burner. The benefits of CLA are best obtained with doses of between two to six grams a day.

Finally let's consider Pyruvate, more commonly called pyruvic acid, which is manufactured from a mixture of sodium, calcium, potassium, and/or magnesium. Pyruvate is a natural compound in the body - the byproduct of sugar and starch metabolism. Researchers speculate that it may work by increasing the amount of energy the cell's mito-chondria uses by inhibiting fat production. One study indicates that Pyruvate can decrease fat in people even without exercise.

Choosing a dietary supplement is best done in consultation with your doctor and an experienced and well-informed trainer. Because research on the long-term effects of many supplements is not conclusive, it is best to arm yourself with as much information as possible before making a health or lifestyle change.

Until next time: stay fit and be strong!