“Some supplements work for some people some of the time. Many supplements don’t work for anybody any of the time.”
Dr. Ron Maughan, Emeritus Professor of Sports and Exercise Nutrition, Loughborough, United Kingdom
In my last post, I discussed the basics of dietary supplements with a focus on multivitamin-minerals. This week, let’s talk about muscle building and weight loss supplements. Bottom line up front: there are some sports supplements that can help active adults train harder and recover faster, but most of what you read about, like the headline, “want a killer physique?” won’t happen without hard work in the weight room and a stringent diet to reduce body fat. A supplement by itself, despite wild claims, will not give you a killer physique. Sorry. And, weight loss supplements are not much better.
Headlines can be persuasive!
So, what can we say about muscle-building and weight loss supplements. First, here are few more headline grabbing claims:
- “Drop body fat in a single dose”
- “Boost muscle growth by 600%”
- “Incinerates excess fat”
- “Produces immediate results in energy, size, strength, pumps, performance, mental focus, and training intensity.”
The downside of weight loss supplements
Between 5-20% of supplements (mostly muscle-building and weight loss supplements) contain prohibited substances: for athletes, that could mean a positive drug test and banishment from sport. For older active adults, it could mean physical harm. For example, a weight loss supplement called SmartLipo 365 was found to contain unlabeled sibutramine and phenoltphathein. Sibutramine is an appetite suppressant that was taken off the US market in 2010 and phenoltphathein is not approved for dietary use due to concerns of causing cancer.
Many of the supplements for weight loss contain harmful substances when taken in high doses; case in point, 25% of emergency room visits for adverse effects from dietary supplements are from weight loss supplements, with cardiac symptoms being the primary complaint. Not too surprising when many of these supplements contain stimulants. Don’t be fooled by so called “natural, herbal” stimulants like guarana, kola nut, or green tea extract. A stimulant is a stimulant. Consumer Reports identified 15 supplement ingredients to always avoid. It’s worth taking a look at the list and stay away from supplements containing any on the list.
One popular weight loss supplement that has it’s 15 minutes of fame on a popular doctor’s television show is garcinia cambogia. It is a small fruit that is traditionally used as flavor enhancer in cooking. It contains a substance called hydroxycitric acid that has been touted as a weight loss miracle. However, in a 12-week study on overweight men and women the researchers concluded, “garcinia cambogia failed to produce significant weight loss and fat mass loss beyond that observed with placebo.”
What does work?
For active athletes, a few supplements have stood the test of time (and research), including caffeine, B-alanine, beetroot juice, and creatine. Here’s a quick overview of what types of athletes might benefit, the effective dose, and the expected result.
Caffeine: Most of us know that caffeine can help keep us alert and ward off fatigue. Caffeine’s main effect is on the central nervous system. It is an adenosine receptor antagonist. Adenosine induces sleep and fatigue, so blocking thee ffects of adenosine with caffeine promotes a more alert state. The response to caffeine is highly variable (some of you can’t fall asleep if you have even a tiny amount of caffeine in the evening, while others can drink a pot of coffee and have no trouble sleeping). A small dose of caffeine can be effective for sports performance; just 2 to 3 milligrams per kilogram of body weight; for a 154-pound person, that is a dose of 140 to 210 milligrams of caffeine or the amount found in a small to medium cup of coffee. More certainly isn’t better!
B-alanine: This amino acid can buffer lactic acid and shows promise in athletes performing high intensity exercise (sprints). Some research shows it might also help endurance athletes who need to sprint hard to the finish line. This is not needed by recreational athletes. Effective dose is about 3-6 grams/day.
Beetroot Juice: Beets are naturally high in nitrate and it might increase skeletal muscle efficiency by lowering oxygen demand. It is used by endurance athletes who run or cycle. To be clear, nitrate is not carcinogenic, but nitrite can combine with amino acids from foods to form nitrosamines, which may be cancer-causing. In research studies, a dose of about 4 mg/kg/body weight has been used. My advice, eat beets!
Creatine: It is used a source of muscle energy and is in short supply during high intensity exercise, like sprinting or weight lifting . Supplemental creatine is usually taken as a powder mixed with water or juice, 3 to 5 grams/day. It can increase muscle stores of creatine by 10 to 30% and, when combined with exercise, can increase muscle cell volume. Researchers describe the benefits of supplemental creatine as, “small increases in lean body mass with repeated, high-intensity duration (less than 30 seconds) exercise.” For most healthy, active older adults, creatine supplementation isn’t necessary.
For more information on dietary supplements, check out Food & Fitness After 50.