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Supplements, Powders, Pills, Oh My!

An extremely common question I get asked is, “what are the best supplements to take?” To best answer this, a simple one-sentence response will not be enough. It’s time to explore when supplements are necessary, which are the most beneficial, and what sources are the safest. 

First, why do we take supplements?

Supplements are indicated when your body’s needs for nutrients exceed what you can get from eating a well-rounded, whole foods diet. It is incredibly important that any athlete begins with food as the basis. Staple tips are to use the plate method with proper hydration (water) before using supplements. From there, an athlete and his or her nutrition coach should evaluate training regimens, lifestyle, recovery patterns, and performance metrics. For example, an ultra-runner may find their knees ache from the high-volume training they must log every week. A nutrition coach knows that Omega 3 and collagen supplementation can reduce inflammation and lubricate the joints, thus enhancing recovery and enabling the runner to sustain their training regimen. Olympic and powerlifters have significant protein requirements that can be difficult to meet just by eating whole food. In this case, consuming whey protein powder within the workout window makes achieving those requirements feasible. 

The supplements backed by research that we will discuss are protein powders, collagen, creatine, caffeine, beta-alanine, HMB, B Vitamins, vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids, probiotics, and electrolytes. This article is the beginning of a supplement series in which all of these will be covered. This round, we will focus on protein and collagen for health and performance! 

Protein Supplementation

Protein Powders: regardless of the protein form that you choose, it is best to purchase a product that is as naturally derived and least processed as possible. When consuming milk-based proteins (whey, casein), it is advised to use grass-fed sources with minimal excess ingredients. Talk to your nutrition coach for the best brands. 

  • Whey protein: this form of protein is quickly digestible and absorbed quickly in the gut. It is best consumed either within 1 hour before or 30 minutes post-workout. These timeframes are when the muscles are primed for absorption. The three types of whey protein are: concentrate, isolate, and hydrolysate. The latter two are better tolerated by those with lactose intolerance. Whey protein promotes muscle growth and can support a healthy metabolism. As a perk, it curbs hunger when achieving fat loss. It is best consumed in 25-50g servings depending on individual protein needs. Use it in protein pancakes, smoothies, and mixed in shaker bottles. 
  • Casein: this other milk-based protein differs from whey protein in its rate of digestion and how long it remains in the body. It quickly enters the bloodstream but remains in the tissues for hours so that it can be utilized over a long period. This form of protein should be consumed before bed as it is digested while you are sleeping and will stimulate muscle growth and recovery, as well as curb appetite. Another time to consume casein is as a meal replacement or heavy snack when getting a full meal is difficult. Great recipes include casein puddings, cookies, and muffins. 
  • Plant-based proteins: the vegan/vegetarian protein that is most comparable to the rapidly digesting whey protein is pea protein.  It contains all 9 essential amino acids that we need for muscle synthesis. It is also a source of iron, which is beneficial for anyone avoiding meat or animal products but looking to prevent anemia. Consuming this paired with vitamin c will enhance absorption. Like other sources of protein, it satiates you for longer and promotes fat loss. When purchasing this form of protein, it is especially important to select organic, high-quality brands that do not contain pesticides or glyphosates that are damaging to health. 

If you have an active job, are working out, or looking to promote overall health, experts recommend protein supplementation of 1.2 to 2.2 g of protein per kg of bodyweight. Eating the above protein sources helps you reach those macronutrient goals. 

Collagen

Even though we talk about muscle more often than the proteins that make up our connective tissue, collagen is the most abundant protein in your body! It forms the skin, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. It is naturally occurring in foods such as bone broth, gelatin, and fish. Eating this in a well-balanced diet is recommended, but it is best absorbed via supplements that are hydrolyzed. You find this in pill, powder, and gel forms. Pills or capsules should be taken on an empty stomach. The benefits of collagen include: 

  • Improved skin health and bone health
  • Relief of joint pain and joint lubrication
  • Promotion of brain and gut health. 

Collagen is easily mixed into both hot and cold drinks such as coffee or tea, blended into smoothies or soups or puddings, or formed into gummies from gelatin! 

  • Some great brands for collagen are Further Foods, Vital Proteins, and Neocell. 

Protein supplementation should only be done after creating a well-balanced, whole-foods based nutrition plan tailored for your body and lifestyle. Working with a nutrition coach can help you decide which protein supplements to use, when to use them, and how to incorporate them into your plan. Next week, we will dive into four supplements that enhance physical performance: creatine, beta-alanine, caffeine, and HMB. 

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