At examine.com, the independent nutrition encyclopaedia of which I’m medical editor, we analyse dietary supplements. My work has shown me that you should take a target-driven approach: decide on your goals, from fat loss and muscle gain to athletic performance and health, determine which supplements will help you achieve them, then check your levels with your doctor to figure out if you actually need the boost. Here I’ve highlighted the supplements that our research has shown to be effective – and the ways to get the most out of them.
Whey protein has been proven to help with athletic performance, muscle building and fat loss. The best natural sources are the whey and casein proteins in milk, which have more branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) than vegan sources. The key amino acid you want in your shake is leucine – it’s the most important one for protein synthesis. Some brands will bulk out their powders with other amino acids to keep them cheaper but they aren’t as effective for building muscle, so check the label carefully to see if leucine is the main amino acid used. If possible, opt for protein that’s in isolate form, which is slightly purer than concentrate and hydrolysed.
Pure creatine monohydrate is the most studied and the most beneficial supplement for building strength. It gives you the capacity to get through a few more reps in a workout, boosts your power output and increases water retention in your muscles, called cellular swelling, which can help with muscle growth.
As with most vitamins, if you’re getting enough vitamin D – from your diet and exposure to sunlight – you don’t need supplementation. But if you live in the UK, it can be difficult to get what you need from sunlight, especially outside the summer months. It’s worth checking your levels – with your doctor or a test such as that found at vitamindtest.org.uk – all year round, not just in the winter. If your levels are low, so is your testosterone. Supps will help with this, with the knock-on effect of boosting training performance.
Vitamin K1 is what you get from green, leafy vegetables, but K2 comes from animal sources, especially livers. It can improve bone strength and decrease calcium build-up in your blood vessels, thereby reducing calcification of your arteries and risk of stroke and heart disease. Supplementation will help, especially for vegetarians who will miss out on these nutrients from animal foods.
This naturally occurring beta amino acid can help with endurance and possibly building muscle, but it’s not as well studied as creatine. It helps you buffer lactic acid to resist fatigue and get through a few more reps.
This is one of the most potent supplements there is, although few people know about it. It’s a pharmaceutical drug used to treat diabetes because it improves insulin sensitivity. If you have blood sugar issues and you put on fat easily, check with your doctor to find out if you could benefit from taking berberine.
Magnesium is used in over 300 chemical reactions in the body. If you have plenty of seeds, nuts, leafy green veg, dark chocolate and coffee in your diet you should be getting enough, but if you’re deficient it can affect energy, bone strength, the nervous system and blood sugar control. Magnesium supplements have been shown to help with recovery and muscle contraction and have a positive influence on blood pressure.
Any which whey?
Not all protein powders are created equal. Select the one that matches your goals
For recovery, look for…isolate
Isolate is a powder containing more than 90% pure protein, whereas concentrate usually clocks up 75-80%.
For muscle, look for… Glutamine
This amino acid plays an important role in muscle tissue repair. Take it after training to boost recovery.
For fat loss, look for…Carnitine
This naturally produced compound aids the breakdown of fatty acids. Put it in your shake to help you shed your gut.
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