What is a supplement?
According to the magic Google machine:
So, in terms of lifestyle and food, any addition that rounds off or tops up what is already there in order to complement it can be termed a supplement.
If we accept that icing on a cake enhances the taste and the look of the cake then we’d be stupid not to put icing on our cakes as a supplement. But what would you say to the person attempting to make a cake without any eggs or an oven, but who had every ingredient known to man to make the best icing in the world?
What about the person who lived their life eating from takeaways and did no exercise but asked about the best form of protein powder to take?
Sometimes the lowest hanging fruit is also the least attractive and has the least money spent on its’ marketing. Before you start to worry about how many minutes you should wait after training to have your super shake, or how many grams of powdered lizard tongue you need to make it to The CrossFit Games, ask yourself a few questions:
- Did you have breakfast this morning? And, for a bonus, did it contain over 25g of protein?
- Do you regularly sleep 8-10 hours a night in a cool, dark room?
- How many calories do you eat on a regular day to day basis?
- Do roughly 80% of your calories come from real food?
As with all rules, from time to time they are there to be broken, and any discussion of diet wouldn’t be complete without some information about extras that we feel everyone (in varying degrees) could benefit from:
- Daily doses of Vitamin D3
Living so far from the equator presents a number of problems, not least the lack of sunlight during the winter (and sometimes summer) months. A quick Google search of “benefits of vitamin d3” returns about 2,500,000 results, so start your research there. Whilst there doesn’t appear to be any firm agreement on how much is necessary but getting an adequate level in the blood has been linked to, amongst other things, decreased hypertension, reduction in systemic inflammation and increased levels of fast twitch muscle fibres. A rough formula to inform how much of a dose you need is produced by Dr JJ Cannell:
Bodyweight in pounds / 25 x 1000 in IUs
Obviously when possible, get some Vitamin D for free by getting some sun on your skin, but please don't confuse severe sunburn with adequate Vitamin D levels.
- Daily consumption of probiotics
What’s the point of eating food to support your goals if your gut isn’t absorbing it? How closely linked is your gut health to your overall health and wellbeing? What if some of the foods you eat damage your gut bacteria? Do you think that antibiotics from the doctor just target the bad ones and leave the good ones intact?
Regularly eating fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, yoghurt, kombucha and kefir introduces plenty of beneficial bacteria into your system and is very cheap to do.
If you cannot face any of those foods then look out for a high strength probiotic and use daily, and potentially think about upping the dose after antibiotics or any other illness.
- Finding a balance with your Omega 3 levels
The fatty acid balance of many people in the Western world is thrown out of kilter by our diets, and instead of our Omega 3:Omega 6 ratios being close to 1:1 they are often as high as 1:20 or 1:50.
• Inflammation (sometimes severe)
• Higher risk for heart disease and high cholesterol
• Digestive disorders
• Joint and muscle pain
• Mental disorders, like depression
• Poor brain development
• Cognitive decline
Without delving too deeply, the first recommendation to redress the balance is to limit your consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids. Whilst the second one is to increase your intake of foods rich in Omega 3, such as mackerel, salmon, herring, sardines, chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts. Again, if those foods are off the table for you then reaching for some form of supplement will help - turn the bottle over and look for the EPA and DHA amounts and try to get over 500mg combined per day.
- Take some creatine
As well as it being an incredibly well researched supplement in terms of increasing athletic performance, it is more recently being linked with cognitive enhancement. As it’s a naturally occurring substance, don’t be alarmed and think that it’s some kind of crazy steroid, but be prepared to put on a kilogram or two in water weight.
Don’t be sucked in by the inflated price tag on some fancy named stuff and stick with creatine monohydrate in the dose of 5-10g/day to reap the benefits (and be ahead of the curve when everyone is taking creatine in a few years time).
You've probably noticed that this list doesn't have any fancy recommendations on. You might even be disappointed by that. If that's the case then I'm sorry and you should definitely go and throw your hard earned money at the supplement company with the most expensive marketing budget because their products have the fanciest names, have words like XPLODade or HYPERPUMPA written on them and are packed with 'proprietary blends' (code for "we're not really sure what's in here but this should confuse some people").
For those who skipped to the end looking for a list of recommendations, here it is:
- Limit your life stresses
- Eat breakfast when you wake up
- Go to bed earlier than you think you need to and sleep in a cool, dark room
- Make sensible food choices on a daily basis (eat like an adult)
- Have an idea of how much food and drink you consume on a regular basis