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Should I Take Supplements?
By Crystal McCullough, RN, MSN
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This is a question I get asked a lot from my athletes both on-site and online. The simple answer is ‘it depends’. That’s really not a simple answer, I know. One rule of thought should always be FOOD FIRST. If you are not getting an adequate amount of something from food, then supplementation may be an option. Don’t look at supplements as a way to replace food, but rather as in addition to.
First and foremost, it is important to understand some basic principles of nutrition: macronutrients and micronutrients.
As you may know, we at Mash Elite have a nutrition program we call Eat What You Want and it is based on macronutrients (macros). Yes, our program is called Eat What You Want, however, our philosophy is nutritious, whole foods a very large majority of the time, but being able to sneak in an indulgence now and again. This allows for sustainability and no shaming of yourself when you enjoy a treat.
The three macronutrients are protein, fat, and carbohydrates.
• Protein has many roles in the body. When it comes to muscle, it is needed for muscle repair and growth. The amount a person needs is usually around 0.7-0.8g/day per pound of body weight. Good sources of protein would be meats, eggs, and legumes.
• Fat is not the enemy at all. On the contrary, essential fats play a huge role in cell function. Dietary fat is the main fuel source during low intensity training. On top of this, you have Omega-6 and Omega-3, where both are needed in a good balance. Omega-3 is actually an anti-inflammatory!! Good sources of dietary fats would be avocado, nuts, seeds, and oils such as coconut oil and olive oil.
• Carbohydrates or carbs are not the enemy either! Carbs are the main energy source during high intensity training. Good sources of carbs would be sweet potatoes, rice, quinoa, fruits, and green leafy vegetables.
Protein is normally a constant based on body weight while fats and carbs can be manipulated based on which fuel source an individual reacts better to. The key is not to any one macronutrient out. Your body needs all three.
What people sometimes fail to remember are micronutrients. Micro means we need them in small amounts, but if we are deficient, the body is hugely affected. Examples of micronutrients are iron, calcium, magnesium, vitamin A, vitamins B6 and B12, vitamin C, biotin, riboflavin, etc. The best source of micronutrients is whole or real food! I’m sure you can guess that iron would come from red meat, beans, and dark green leafy vegetables. Calcium would come from dairy and vegetables. Vitamins and minerals are found in your green leafy vegetables.
If you are eating a well-rounded, wide variety, nutrient dense diet, you can get everything you need from simply eating food. Where supplements would come in is if someone were deficient in a micronutrient and needs to take a supplement. One instance would be with vitamin B12. For someone with a medical condition called pernicious anemia, their body does not absorb B12 very well and they have to get injections of B12 regularly. This is just one example.
That was just a quick lesson in some basics of nutrition without too much science behind it.
Now, you need to understand what your goals are and where you are health wise. Are you an athlete? Are you a weekend warrior? Do you simply train to look good naked in the mirror? Do you have a chronic disease? Depending on your goals, you may or may not need supplementation.
As an athlete, there may be supplements that someone with a chronic illness may not be able to take or vice versa where someone with a chronic illness needs to take a supplement while an athlete doesn’t need it. That is where the ‘it depends’ comes in.
For all intents and purposes, this article is focused on what a healthy individual, more so an athlete could be taking and what I might recommend to them.
Supplements I might recommend:
Fish Oil – I would actually recommend this to anyone. This is the only supplement I would do that with. You have the Omega-3’s: DHA and EPA, which are essential fats. It can be found rather inexpensively in your health food or even grocery store. You have both liquid and gel cap form. As I said before, it is found to have anti-inflammatory properties.
Creatine – it is actually a substance that occurs naturally in meat. Storage of creatine occurs in the muscle. It helps with short intensity forms of exercise. An example would be a 1-3 rep max on a lift. The idea behind creatine is you will see an increase in performance in these smaller rep ranges of high intensity lifting and over time, strength will increase. Creatine is relatively inexpensive and you can find good quality fairly easily. The most recommended form is creatine monohydrate and dosage is 5g per day. You can take it pre- or post-workout. I put it in my coffee in the morning and I’m done for the day.
Beta Alanine – it combines with another substance in the body to form something called carnosine and is stored in the muscle. This supplement is best used when doing lactate work. The down side to beta alanine is that it causes an itchy sensation and a lot of people don’t like that feeling. The recommended dose is 3.2-6.4g/day, but it can be reduced to as little as 0.75g if the itchiness is bothersome. It is found in a lot of pre-workouts. However, research has found that it is best taken during or post-workout so the muscles are primed to absorb the beta alanine since it is stored there.
Powdered Protein – there is a window of opportunity post-workout for optimal absorption. You should take in a 1:2 ratio of protein to carb. So, you would take in 25g of protein and 50g of carb as an example post workout. Many people can’t stomach a real meal post workout. The alternative would be a 1:2 ratio of a protein powder with a carb source. Personally, I prefer Whey protein, which research shows as higher quality than other types, but soy is an alternative for anyone with sensitivity to whey.
BCAAS (branched chain amino acids) – amino acids are the building blocks of protein, so they are good for muscle repair and growth. Research has shown they have a positive effect on lactate and endurance training. When taken post workout, it has been concluded in some studies to help with muscle soreness and fatigue.
If you look at the list above, three of the supplements are commonly found in pre-workouts…….my personal go to pre-workout is caffeine, i.e. COFFEE!!
I am not advocating for any one brand over the other. Maybe except for BiPro Protein because it tastes delicious, is tested and USADA approved, and they support the Mash Mafia Strength Team!
The question now is do you ‘need’ any of these? The quick answer is again ‘it depends’. As athletes, we are going to have inflammation. It is much safer and more beneficial to take fish oil than it is to take an NSAID daily. This is the one supplement I DO recommend to athletes. For the rest of the supplement list, if you are willing to spend the money, you might see some benefits to using any or all of these supplements. For anyone that feels they may have a deficiency, consult a physician and get blood work before taking any micronutrient supplementation.
About the Writer:
Crystal McCullough BIO
40-year old Army wife and Mom to a genetic 13-year-old freak. Basketball player turned runner turned CrossFitter turned powerlifter. Crystal has podiumed over the years at 5k and 10k road races, local CrossFit competitions, and most recently competed at the Arnold 2016 XPC Powerlifting Finals as well as USAPL Raw Nationals 2016 in the Open division. Her best lifts are 145k squat, 81k bench, and 162k deadlift. She is an RN with a Masters degree in Nursing Education, a CrossFit affiliate owner, and a Mash Elite Performance nutrition coach (among other stuff). She is a member of the Mash Mafia Powerlifting team and is currently studying for her CSCS as she prepares to move to Winston Salem with her family in May to join the Mash Mafia crew on a full-time basis.
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