People always want to know, “what can I take to speed up fat loss” or “build muscle faster” or “recover better?” And you know what? You don’t need to spend a dime on supplements to get results.
By definition, a supplement should be supplemental to your diet – something to fill in the gaps between eating a (mostly) healthy diet and getting enough water, sleep, etc. You don’t need to take any supplements at all. But there are some that can be beneficial, which I’ll share with you in this article.
If you struggle to eat enough protein or prefer not to eat much meat, a high-quality protein powder can help you get enough of this vital nutrient. It’s also more convenient than packing a Tupperware container of chicken everywhere you go; single-serving packets are awesome for traveling, when it can be a struggle to find quick, quality protein sources.
What are the benefits?
Most diets fall woefully short of adequate protein intake. Protein is essential for healthy body function because protein contains amino acids, which your body uses to build and repair every single cell in your body. You are literally made of protein! Skimping on this vital nutrient isn’t a good idea.
Benefits of adequate protein consumption (from food or from a supplement) include better workout recovery; faster fat loss; muscle sparing during a calorie deficit (you won’t lose as much muscle when dieting); and the potential for better cholesterol and blood lipid levels.
How much protein should you consume daily?
Research shows that 0.8-1.2 grams of protein per pound of lean body mass is a good daily target for people who want to lose fat or build/maintain muscle. I simplify that number to 1g/lb of body weight, or 1g/lb of your goal weight if you have a significant amount of weight (+20 lbs) to lose. In other words, a 150-b person should consume about 150g of protein from lean meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, and/or protein powder each day.
Which protein powder is best?
There are a lot of protein supplement options on the market, so it’s easy to get confused.
The most common type of protein powder is whey, which comes in several forms: whey protein concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate.
Whey concentrate is low in fat and carbohydrates, but the percentage of protein varies greatly depending on the quality of the protein. Lower quality concentrates can have as little as 30% protein content, while higher end concentrates can contain up to 90% protein by volume.
Whey protein isolate is processed to remove (almost) all the fat and lactose, a milk sugar, and usually contains at least 90% protein. This is a higher quality protein option, and my recommendation. I prefer Ascent Native Fuel whey isolate, which comes in several delicious flavors that taste like ice cream when mixed only with plain water.
Whey protein hydrolysate is marketed as a “predigested” form of whey protein because it has undergone partial hydrolysis. This process is necessary for the body to absorb protein. Therefore, hydrolyzed protein doesn’t require as much digestion as whey concentrate or isolate.
This form of whey is commonly used in medical protein supplements and infant formulas because of it’s improved digestibility and reduced allergen potential.
Honestly, unless you’re an infant or someone with a dairy/lactose allergy, whey hydrolysate is a pricey choice for supplementation. Stick with whey isolate.
Other protein supplements include plant-based and egg white protein, both of which are a good choice if you are lactose-intolerant or following a vegetarian diet (egg white protein is obviously not vegan).
When selecting a plant-based protein powder, look for one that is free of gluten and soy. Not all plant-based proteins are created equally. This is because most plant proteins are “incomplete,” meaning they lack all of the essential amino acids.
According to the “protein digestibility-corrected amino acid score” (PDCAAS), a method of evaluating the quality of a protein based on both the amino acid requirements of humans and their ability to digest it, pea and rice protein are the best plant-based protein sources, scoring 0.89 and 0.9 out of 1.00, respectively. If you chose to go plant-based, look for pea and/or rice protein as the top ingredients.
And whenever comparing protein powders, look for those with fewer ingredients, low sugar content (below 5g) and low fat content. That will tell you that the protein is more concentrated and generally of higher quality.
If you want to build muscle size/definition or strength and power, this is the tried and true supplement for you. Creatine monohydrate has been studied exhaustively my sport/exercise scientists, is affordable, and has almost no side effects.
What’s it do?
Creatine is an “ATP re-energizer,” meaning it helps refuel adenosine triphosphate, the battery of your cells, so that your muscles produce greater force and you get stronger and more powerful.
What are the benefits?
Creatine has been linked to increased workout performance, especially for short bursts of high-intensity activity like weightlifting and sprinting. It improves hormone profiles that help with muscle growth and development. Studies also show promising effects on neurological health, indicating that creatine may help combat Parkinson’s and other neurological diseases. It may also help lower blood sugar levels and help with diabetes. Finally, it can increase brain function and decrease fatigue and tiredness. (Source)
How to use creatine
Look for powdered forms of creatine monohydrate and simply add to your protein shake (if you take one) or to any liquid (juice, coconut water, etc) that has a little bit of sugar in it – the sugar helps with creatine absorption.
Many bottles of creatine will direct you to use a “loading phase,” but that’s not necessary. You can take 5g of creatine per day indefinitely, or up to 10g per day if you have more muscle mass than average.
Forget expensive pre-workouts that leave you feeling tingly and jittery. A small cup of coffee is the best (and cheapest) workout fuel you need. Caffeine is the most widely-used stimulant in the world with very few side effects when dosed moderately and the best choice for a pre-workout boost.
Drinking a small cup of coffee/tea about 20 minutes before your workout will give you all the energy you need to kick some butt in the gym without any of the unpleasant side effects (jitteriness, tingling, nausea) that come along with taking pre-workout drinks.
Many pre-workout supplements contain unnecessary filler ingredients to make you “feel like” they’re working, such as beta-alanine or niacin, which produce flush or tingly feelings on your skin. Coffee? It’s just caffeine.
If you hate vegetables, or just simply don’t get enough in your diet, a greens powder can help you get vital vitamins and minerals. Most of ‘em taste like grass, honestly, but the one I use daily is called “Athletic Greens.” It’s a little pricey, but they have the best damn ingredients, and their customer service is top-notch, too.
Check them out here: Athletic Greens.
You can’t find A.G. in stores, so other options that can be found at most grocery stores (Whole Foods, Natural Grocers, Vitamin Cottage) include Amazing Grass and Purely Inspired brand’s organic greens. (Note: I would generally avoid any greens powder that prominently advertises “detoxification” on it’s label as most detox products are B.S.)
If your joints feel creaky whenever you start lifting heavy, this can be helpful. Fish oil caps are full of omega three’s – which are seriously lacking in the modern diet (most restaurant and processed food is packed with omega six oils). When 3:6 are out of balance, it can create inflammation in our bodies. Supplementing with fish oil can help correct that imbalance.
Don’t go cheap on these – look for each gram (generally 1 soft gel in pill form) to contain 700 mg out of 1000 mg of DHA and EPA. So, 70% of the content should be DHA + EPA.
Fish oil supplementation has also been shown to improve nervous system function, cardiovascular function, immune function, and insulin sensitivity. As a starting point take 2-3 grams daily to notice the benefits of fish oil, split up between meals throughout the day. (If that seems like a lot, yeah, it is, that’s why you want a capsule with a high amount of DHA + EPA so you’re not taking a dozen capsules per day).
I personally take Carlson’s wild caught super omega-3 (1,200 mg) which can be found at most vitamin stores or online. Another good option is Nordic Naturals fish oil.
Supplements to Skip
There’s no need to take BCAA’s, pre-workouts, fat burners, carb blockers, raspberry ketones, or any other supplement promising fast weight loss. They’re all useless.