Why We (Mostly) Don't Do Supplements

Dec 28, 2018

My clients, their results, and their personal happiness, matter to me. I work on holidays if they need me, I answer emails at strange times and places, and I read research for hours a week so I can bring them the best practices. It's my responsibility to stay informed on the latest science in nutrition, psychology, and behavior change because they deserve it and I want to call myself an expert and still sleep at night. I want to know my craft, and do it better than anyone else. 

That brings me to the topic of dietary supplements, and why I rarely spend time talking about them, while I talk about all sorts of other things, like sleep, stress, joy, activity, and the benefits of furry pets. 

To say it briefly, my clients have goals involving weight loss, muscle gain, improving sports performance, and eating disorder recovery. In these contexts, supplements are generally a waste of time, and I have mountains of evidence-based, effective strategies which work better and cost less. 

Here's a bit more in-depth discussion about why I am not a "supplement person", and why I don't (and won't) sell them, even though they are a gold mine of profit. 

1. Generally, They Don’t Work.

The claims made by dietary supplement manufacturers are some of the biggest lies you can find in any industry’s advertising. The tricky wording is part of the deception: The bottle won’t say that it lowers blood pressure, it will say that it "supports healthy blood pressure." Likewise, you can find pills to "support" all sorts of things, like heart health, mood, energy, focus, bone health and of course, your sex life.

So why does this "support" word pop up everywhere? Because the flimsy laws regarding labels only specifically bar dietary supplements from a few words: diagnose, treat, cure and prevent are all verboten. So instead of saying that a supplement "treats" high blood sugar or "prevents" diabetes, they’ll say it helps to “maintain healthy blood sugar levels already within a normal range.” (source) That sounds reassuring, but when you read it carefully, it doesn’t actually mean anything. So if you have healthy blood sugar, this pill claims to help you stay the same.

It’s important to mention that some supplements are effective in specific uses, such as taking a specific nutrient for which someone has a diagnosed deficiency. Yet, sadly, these are the minority of cases in which people actually buy and use supplements. Most people aren’t treating a diagnosed deficiency, they are looking for a health boost or noticeable result which never happens. 

So if you have scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), rickets (Vitamin D deficiency), or iron-deficiency anemia, a supplement (along with dietary changes) is effective. But if that's not you, don't waste your money. 

2. Any Effect Is Small But Overblown

Even if a supplement does work for other health conditions, which is a very very small percentage of all that are sold, the effect is often minuscule, yet blown out of proportion in the media and in advertising.

A meta-analysis that reports that a particular probiotic “had a positive effect in weight loss in humans” (like this one, in which that quote appears) will generate headlines and spike sales of that supplement. And you can bet the supplement companies will plaster it all over their bottles and posters, positioning their probiotic next to bikini-clad fitness models. But if you actually read the paper and look at the data you see that the effect amounted to just a fraction of a pound over 6 months. You’d find the same thing in these two reports (one, and two). In cases where researchers have found a statistically significant effect of probiotics on weight loss, it is a pound at most, and over several months.

Additionally, what they won’t show you are all of the studies or meta-analyses that showed no significant effect like these:

Or studies that concluded that probiotics can cause weight and fat GAIN, like these:

For Americans, the National Institutes of Health sums it up beautifully:

“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not determine whether dietary supplements are effective before they are marketed.” 

3. They Have Risks

Side effects are common from taking dietary supplements, even when taken as directed by the label. Most frequently, they aren’t dangerous and are merely uncomfortable... things like stomachaches or cramps, dizziness, constipation, headaches, unpleasant breath (like fish burps), tingling, flushing or lightheadedness. If you take more than is recommended, the risk of these discomforts increases. It’s also worth remembering that the food you eat may also provide some of the same compounds contained in the supplement, resulting in a total that may be higher than the safe limit. For example, your diet plus your supplement can lead to an excess of Vitamin A, giving you chronic headaches and weakening your bones. Eating iron-rich food plus taking a multivitamin with iron could overload you on this mineral, causing nausea and vomiting, plus harm to your liver. (Source

The risks of dietary supplements also include that they can deactivate or interact with a medication you’re taking in numerous ways. Birth control pills, cancer chemotherapy, blood thinners, blood pressure medications, and antidepressants can all be rendered less effective by pairing with the wrong supplements.

As scary as it sounds, there’s also a fair chance that your dietary supplement doesn’t contain what it says it does, or that it contains substances that aren’t declared on the label. I’ve read many reports of supplements which were labeled as containing only all-natural herbs actually being found to contain prescription medicines such as statins or Viagra. Muscle-building supplements, sexual performance enhancers, and so-called testosterone boosters are notorious for having undeclared steroids in them. 

4. For Weight/Fat Loss, FOOD Is What Stands Between You And Your Goal

Any measure of energy that goes into purchasing or forming the habit of taking a supplement is energy that would be better spent on your eating behaviors.

If you aren't eating very high quality food, very consistently, working on your food behaviors is the most effective thing!

One of our roles as professional nutrition coaches is to focus every client’s mental and physical effort into avenues which will give them the biggest payoff. When a trainer, nutritionist, or other coach tells you to put your effort and dollars into supplementation before they have examined and optimized your eating patterns - take it as a signal that they do not mind frittering away your money and time or that they don’t have enough expertise to know what gives the best results over the long run. Recommending supplements is an easy way to make money. 

If it’s lasting changes to your body that you are after, your behaviors are the currency necessary to get them. What and how much you eat are the things that determine your body weight, and workouts are what make you stronger, faster and more muscular. You can take all the supplements in the world, but without proper nutrition and exercise, it won’t make a difference.

Think about what you do here, not at the supplement counter.

If you’ve tried traditional diet and exercise programs only to have them fail, it makes you want to do something different. But don’t let that steer you down the row of pills in the drugstore. You can do better. We’re dedicated to empowering people with what actually works in the real world, forever. It’s not following a limited diet or taking supplements, it’s new skills. So think about the skills you’d like to pick up, rather than a bottle of empty promises.

Fat Loss Comes From Skills Not Pills. (Sorry, I couldn't resist).

Want to know what skills WILL make a difference in your body, permanently? Here they are. Most people are already good at some of them but have plenty which they know they need some improvement on to see results. And getting better at those skills is like anything else you want to get better at... you break it down to a level that fits where you are at now, and practice. If you need a hand, coaching offers the added direction and accountability to get you maximum results for your effort.

Quit your diet job by learning weight loss skills!

Our entire weight loss skills system is available free of charge. We believe that the best information on the net should be free.

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