Supplements should be used mindfully and only as, well, a supplement to good health habits.
THE WORLD OF supplements is a mysterious one to me. I’m not good at remembering to take them, so for most of my adult life, I excused myself from sorting it out by saying I eat well, and that’s good enough, right?
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But the more I have worked on fine-tuning my diet, for both energy and performance, the more I have become interested in how supplements could impact how I feel or perform.
I returned to Kelsey Klausmeyer, the naturopath who guided me through a ketogenic diet. At the time, he convinced me that supplements would be helpful on the low-carb, high-fat diet, enough that I take some regularly.
I’ve been eating ketogenic for four months now, with most weekends off to cut myself some slack. On the days I eat keto, I take MCT (medium-chain triglycerides) oil to push fat-burning, and I take branch-chain amino acids before I work out to signal my body to burn fat, not muscle. It’s the longest I’ve ever taken any supplements.
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Klausmeyer says before he recommends supplements, he wants his patients to exercise. It’s the best medicine he knows, he says; if he could put exercise in a pill, he would. Eating well is a close second.
For people interested in optimizing performance or changing body composition, supplements can be powerful to add on, he says. If you want to increase muscle mass, a good-quality whey protein is a great, generally safe approach, as long as you can tolerate whey.
His other recommendation for athletes is moderate doses of branch-chain amino acids, or BCAAs. When taken before exercise, they turn on a metabolic pathway to preserve lean mass. A lot of nutrition companies are adding BCAAs to formulas, but Klausmeyer says taking the amino acids on their own is effective, especially for stubborn fat.
Another supplement that works for most folks is caffeine. Yes, coffee. Drink a small dose of coffee (40 mg, or a small cup), and it activates adrenaline and a hormonal pathway that breaks fat mass down. Combine it with BCAAs to help your body respond even more quickly to fat-burning, Klausmeyer says.
The biggest challenge can be the supplement industry. Klausmeyer says the most important thing to know is that it is loosely regulated. You want to verify that you are taking what the label says you are taking. In addition to mislabeling, there’s also the issue of fillers. Some companies add ingredients to pills they say are inert, but actually might impair your body’s ability to absorb the supplement or compete with it, he said.
He recommends using companies that track every bottle they produce, and those that do independent third-party testing on each batch. The cost is higher that way, but it is better than taking supplements with ingredients that are not what is listed on the label.
Klausmeyer recommends professional-level brands that are sold to medical professionals or in specialty stores. He says to treat supplements as medicine.
“Supplements really are pretty strong medicine,” he says. “People should have a little bit of caution about putting things into their body, especially if they’re not sure of the effect.”
He sees many people taking fish oil, multivitamins and probiotics. All of those can be good, and it’s still important to discuss even those with your doctor, he says. Do not assume these popular supplements have no effect, especially if you have a health condition. The research also changes frequently.
After chatting with Klausmeyer, I still feel good about my BCAAs and MCT oil, though I might take a closer look at the brand I buy. I occasionally take fish oil and will keep it up. My take-away? Exercise, eat well and take supplements mindfully — combined with a sigh of happiness because I get to have my coffee.