An Introduction To Supplements

For as long as I can remember supplementation has been a hot-topic within gyms and is something I am regularly asked about. So, over the next 5-10 minutes of your time I hope to educate you on the basics of supplementation and whether it has a necessary place in your diet and/or training regime. Avoiding misconceptions, I’d first like to simply state that supplements are not evil! However, they are also not the be-all and end-all of your health.

Supplement Categories

Often viewed in a wide range of different categories, at the source, supplements are actually split into just two: food and non-food.

A food supplement provides nutrients which, in theory, you could get from the consumption of a well-balanced diet. It is rare for the packaging and advertisement of food supplements to make any big health-related claims. This is because they are often used when our diets lack specific things. For example, the two most common food supplements I come across are protein powders and fish (Omega-3) oils.

Non-food supplements provide nutrients which are found in ineffective doses in our diets. Therefore, non-food supplements are usually used to improve a specific area of our health, recovery or athletic performance. Caffeine and creatine, for example, are two common non-food supplements which both improve athletic performance, but cannot be provided in effective doses by our diets.

Now that’s covered, I will go into depth on some of the supplements which you may regularly see or hear about. Some may even be relevant to you. It would be easy to write essays on most of these individually, however, I have attempted to keep it as brief as possible for you.

Protein Powders

For the sake of this article I am going to refer to all protein as whey, simply because it has the most complete amino acid profile (the building blocks of protein) and is the most easily absorbed and utilized by the body.

Protein powders are a quick, cheap and convenient way of adding more protein to your diet, however, they provide very little in the way of other vitamins and minerals. This means that protein powders will never be better than getting protein from a natural food source. It’s important to bear in mind that the average person will be able to achieve their desired protein intake by having a diet which prioritises protein at each meal. Therefore, these powders are usually only necessary for a certain groups of people such as athletes of vegans.

An interesting way of choosing between protein powders is by looking at their biological value (BV). The BV indicates how much of the protein source is absorbed into the body’s tissues. It is measured by looking at the amount of nitrogen present in the protein source. The BV also represents the amount of amino acids which are able to be absorbed by the body. Egg protein is typically used as the baseline measure at 100, because it has a high level of amino acids.

Here are some examples of other sources and their scores:

  • Whey protein concentrate – 104
  • Pea protein – 65
  • Casein – 77
  • Whey protein isolate – 159

From these examples you can see that your best choice appears to be whey protein isolate. Websites like can then help to further your choice on which brand to use via their ratings.

Carbohydrate Powders

While a lot less common than the protein powders mentioned above, supplements such as dextrose and multi dextrose still have their place. Carbohydrate sources like this are more likely to have an edge over food sources when used for sporting performance. This is due to the decreased digestion time of carbohydrate powders.

However, they will provide no fibre and will not satiate (fill you up) you as much as a food source will. The main benefit of these powders is that they help to increase hydration, replenish carbohydrates after a workout and increase overall calorie intake. Lean bodybuilders and long duration athletes will benefit from these the most.

Carbohydrate Drinks

Carbohydrate drinks are also hugely popular and easily available. There are three types of these drinks: isotonic, hypotonic and hypertonic. They are most useful for people who are exercising for long periods of time. Of these three, the hypertonic drinks are the most effective. They usually contain around 10g of carbohydrates, which are used to replenish glycogen during bouts of intensive exercise such as team sports.

However, the majority of the general public will not exert themselves enough to warrant the use of these, so opting for an isotonic drink is your best choice due to these having a similar sugar concentration to our blood which will help to reduce dehydration.


These are powders which are dissolved in water and help create fluid balance during and after exercise, while also preventing dehydration and muscle cramps. They often work very well alongside carbohydrate powders (mentioned before) and are most commonly used by athletes and sportsmen/women when undertaking a long duration or high intensity exercise. To get the best source you should make sure it includes all of the electrolytes, which are: potassium, calcium, sodium and magnesium.

Fatty Acids (Omegas)

These are fish oils or algae supplements which contain eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Research has proven that they aid in the reduction of inflammation, improve blood lipid markers (meaning a decrease of cholesterol in the blood) and improve brain health. They appear to be most beneficial in doses of 2-4g a day and can be beneficial to everyone but especially those in post-surgery recovery and overweight individuals.

Vitamin D

This can be found in two primary forms- vitamin D2 and D3. Due to being very similar, especially in relation to the way they are metabolised, they can be considered interchangeable (for the purpose of this). Upon digestion or synthesis (through the skin) of vitamin D it is metabolised and sent to the liver where it becomes a hormone; where it’s primary use is to help maintain bone health.

Supplementation of this vitamin has a wide range of benefits, such as reducing the risk of bone fractures and reducing symptoms associated with colds, crohns disease, diabetes, pain and depression.

However, being deficient in vitamin D can cause many issues, including rickets and cardiovascular disease. Vitamin D deficiency is common in people who live outside of the tropics and/or have very little exposure to the sun. Due to this, the government recommends that everyone uses a vitamin D supplement especially during the winter months. This is the only vitamin that I have mentioned in this blog post because of the commonality of vitamin D deficiency among the general population.


I’m pretty sure at least one, if not all of you reading this will have come across and/or consumed caffeine recently. While not often thought of as a supplement, its use as one can provide effective results. One of the reasons we feel tired is due to a build-up of adenosine in the brain.

Caffeine works by blocking our adenosine receptors in the brain. It also causes the secretion of two neurotransmitters, called acetylcholine and dopamine, producing effects of blunted fatigue and increased mental and physical performance.

Caffeine has been proven to improve physical performance in doses of 3-6mg per kilogram of bodyweight for up to two hours. It can also aid in fat loss, because caffeine has a positive effect on thermogenics (the increased thermal effect we get from an increased metabolism) and on our NEAT (non-exercise activity). Caffeine is found in many products on the market, including sports drinks, coffee and caffeine supplements. So, trial what works best for you and go for it!


This is an essential component in our skeletal muscle because 95% of creatine found in the body is stored there as phosphocreatine. Now, this is where the science comes in. The main role of phosphocreatine is in relation to our energy systems. It is broken down, allowing it to donate its phosphate group to a molecule of ADP (adenosine diphosphate), which then creates a usable molecule of ATP (adenosine triphosphate). This can then be used to create muscle contractions.

Now, the easy bit. Supplementation of creatine has been shown to contribute towards increased maximal strength, improved sprint performance and increased abilities to repeat near maximal effort multiple times – which is excellent when looking at sports performance.

Recommended dosages are 3-6g per day, every day, taken around the workout period. ‘Loading Phases’ which saturate the muscles are often advised but are not necessary to get the full effects. Be aware that creatine is perfectly safe for both men and women to use and can be beneficial to anyone competing in sport or weight lifting. It will cause a weight gain of 1-2kg in the first few weeks of use, which is considered normal because the majority of this will just be water.


While mostly found in our bones this mineral is also very abundant in our muscles, where it plays an important role in enzyme function – it contributes to over 300 systems in our body.

Magnesium deficiency has been associated with muscular weakness, nausea, unwanted weight loss, sleep deficiency and muscle cramps. Athletes and people undergoing strenuous activity on a regular basis are most likely to be deficient. However, magnesium deficiency is one of the most common mineral deficiencies among the general public too. Supplementation appears to have no serious health consequences. Paired with the supplement of zinc, it has been documented to work very well in males especially.

The US department of health recommends to supplement anywhere between 350-420mg a day for adults. However, for those undergoing heavy exercise, it is recommended to increase that dosage.

Beta Alanine

The final supplement! This one is only really associated with sport and athletic performance, however it is backed by significant research and definitely worth talking about. Beta-alanine supplementation prior to exercise stimulates the production of a molecule called carnosine, which is responsible for pH buffering within our cells. Keeping it simple, during bouts of high intensity exercise the acidity within our muscles cells increase and causes the ‘burn’ that some of us long for. Carnosine buffers this acid, which allows us to perform harder for longer (when looking at exercise lasting from 60-240 seconds). Supplementation has been shown to be effective with dosages of 80mg per kilogram of bodyweight daily (with no side effects shown).

My final notes on supplementation are simple. Use the information above to assess whether you need or want to use any of them and then trial them to see if and how they work for you. There are many supplements not mentioned here which you will come across so just be sure to do all your own research before using them. Make sure you add supplements one at a time into your diet to see the effect of each of them clearly.

Thanks for reading.

Keep training,


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