Sunday, March 14, 2010

When Supplements Do More Harm Than Good

" physique development and sports performance, even rather intelligent folks can be resistant to removing any one element of the puzzle when they are currently pleased with the results being produced and see things consistently moving in the desired direction over time. Are there any practical ways to help such people break the 'perception is reality' mindset where they would otherwise embrace evidence to the contrary that may be presented but are pleased with their results to the point of wanting to stick to the current recipe or rotation of recipes 'as is'?"

That was part of a comment a user made in response to Alan Aragon's recent post. The quote raises an interesting point in regards to how some people think about supplementation. Which is, despite being aware of the lack of any evidence of efficacy of the supplement in question, they continue taking it once they started.

Among some people there is an almost superstitious fear involved in removing any "pieces of the puzzle," due to a belief that on some level it might affect their results. The pattern of thinking is similar to that of obsessive compulsory disorder. The individual is aware of his irrational behavior, but dares not break the pattern for fear that bad things will happen.

Not unique to supplementation, this thought-pattern also includes certain behaviors related to training and diet. I've met and conversed with a fair share of educated people that clung to certain irrational beliefs in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence disproving them. But let's focus on supplementation for now.

What's the harm? Is it a money issue? Partly. After all, you're spending money on stuff that isn't doing you any good while supplement-company CEOs are laughing all the way to the bank. Then again, most people, including me, spend money on things with questionable usefulness. Unless your supplement regimen is seriously impacting your economy, this argument may be a moot point.

The real problem in this obsessive over-reliance on supplements is that they may actually be hampering your efforts on many levels. Here are few examples of what I mean:

* I've dealt with a fair share of clients that were resistant to the idea of omitting the post-workout-cocktail that they had relied upon until working with me. These "recovery shakes" consisted of an ample amount of very high GI-carbs, such as waxy maize starch, maltodextrin or dextrose, mixed with whey protein. In some cases this added more than 400 calories to their diet. That's more than 400 non-satiating liquid calories with low nutrient value that were a big part of why they couldn't lose fat efficiently in the past. These post-workout-cocktails serve no function whatsoever for the recreational weight trainer. Faster muscle glycogen synthesis is a moot point for everyone but elite athletes, who may train twice a day. The use of recovery drinks during a fat loss regimen is extremely counterproductive. Those calories are much better spent on whole foods.

* Over-reliance on protein shakes to meet protein intake poses a similar problem. People need to learn to eat and enjoy whole food protein. In more than a few cases it's just an issue of laziness or habituation.

* Some people believe that supplementing with BCAA on top of an already BCAA-rich diet has benefits despite any evidence to suggest so. Alan deals with this issue in his latest research review. Similar to the points made above, that this only provides additional non-satiating calories to your diet, there's also evidence to suggest that BCAA-supplementation may have "anti-anorexic" properties and stimulate appetite. Certainly not a desirable effect during dieting. If you're eating high quality protein sources such as meat, fish, cottage cheese and egg-protein, there is no need to supplement with BCAA.

Note: I recommend BCAA-supplementation for fasted training, but not in addition to meals or in between meals. My stance hasn't changed much since the BCAA-roundtable I participated in.

* A high calcium intake equals better fat loss, but very high intakes are linked to prostate cancer.

* Mega-dosing omega-3-fatty acids seems to be a trend in some circles, but this comes with a list of not so desirable side-effects. The less serious ones includes fish breath and diarrhea, and the more serious one is excessive bleeding. Fish-oil has a blood-thinning effect which may cause your blood not to coagulate quick enough if you suffer a cut or injury. And if you're unlucky enough to suffer a major injury, this side-effect can potentially prove fatal. You could also be increasing your risk of exposure to chemicals and toxins like mercury and PCB (on a related note: see this).

* Antioxidants are popular these days. They claim to do everything from slowing the ageing process to help with recovery from training. But recent studies show that ingesting antioxidants from supplements weakens the body's own response to deal with free radicals created by training. In a similar vein, excessive Vitamin C-intake slows mitochondrial biogenesis and prevents some cellular adaptations to exercise.

I hope I'm clear: some supplements can be useful, which I covered in my supplement guide. But in some cases, they may do more harm than good, be that from a purely behavioral point of view or a physiological point of view.


Wilmar said...

i personally go through the routine of trying something if i think it will help, but if over one cycle there's absolutely no obvious alteration in performance, it's good grounds to drop that product from my grocery list.

and what's considered a fish-oil mega dose? chad waterbury has prescribed to 10-20 grams per day. is that excessive (i kind of think it is).

Anonymous said...

Wilmar -

10-20 grams probably won't kill you. However, if you follow Poliquin's recommendations (30-45 g/day), you better be damn careful not to scrape your shins when deadlifting!

Navid said...

The calcium intake studies raises some questions for me. The prostate-cancer one found that ~1500 mg/day increased the risk, while the fat loss study is based on data ~1.2k-2km mg calcium/day. So there's no way to play it safe? e.g. gaining the decreased fat absorbtion while not taking on the increased cancer risk?

Mark Young said...

I think in our society we've created a "this for that" mentality that is hard to shake.

Have a problem with something? Take this pill.

Have a problem with something else? Take that powder.

In the end, I think it comes down to addressing the root cause of the problem instead of trying to supplement our way to health and fitness.

Anonymous said...


I recognize that anecdotal observations don't always hold a lot of water (not to mention the fact that they often rely on trusting what another is saying), but many championship caliber physiques have been fashioned without the use of fancy supplements or special workout drinks, so it is very possible to achieve, I think many of us have just been seduced into thinking we absolutely need the whistles and bells or else there's no way for maximal success.

~Troy Brower

Anonymous said...

Hi, Martin.

I wanted to get your take on something related to omega 3's. While a lot of various types of specialized blood tests are generally viewed as more suited to being at-risk for certain conditions, do you think the following tests performed on an infrequent but cyclical basis (say 1x or 2x/year) would be of any value in assessing if you're making the most out of fatty acid intake (specifically n-3) and to determine if you're in an optimal range or not?

With relation to the latter site, they have a fairly extensive menu of tests, and it would be interesting (if you had the time in the future) to see a post with your general thoughts on what type of blood work/tests might be worthy of tracking on a regular basis and what would be excessive or a waste of money outside of very specific situations.

And one final thing I wanted to throw out there was the idea to possibly include a future post with a brief glimpse into how you go about scanning through the research and determining what you want to look into and then how you narrow down what to read and what to put aside.

As someone who doesn't have a major background in this stuff, I am fascinated by your ability to stay on top of things and appear fluent on so many topics. From the outside looking in, I can only marvel at your ability to pick and choose the most pertinent things and then your discipline to read so much and so often.

Have a great day!

Dan Brockton

Martin Berkhan said...


That's hard to say. My hunch is that it would depend on various factors, the omega 3:6-ratio being one. A clinical consensus on what constitutes an exsessive dose has yet to be established afaik.

Anecdotally, I've heard people start noticing excessive bleeding from 20 g/day.

Martin Berkhan said...


Christensen et al saw no further benefit on fat loss above 1241 mg calcium/day in their meta-analysis. If you use that as a guideline you'll get the maximum benefit with regards to fat loss without increased risk of prostate cancer.

Christensen et al. Effect of calcium from dairy and dietary supplements on faecal fat excretion: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Obes Rev. 2009 Jun 1.

Martin Berkhan said...


Keeping track of the Omega 3 Index could be of some use seeing that it's been used a health marker in clinical trials, but I'm not sure how well that blood test kit works in practical terms (i.e how well does it stack up against the equipment used in the trials).

Whether I think it's a good idea to keep track of it, well, why not.

But I got a hunch that the people that bother checking this stuff is the people that are least likely to be in real need of it.

If you're eating whole foods, avoiding refined junk, supplementing with fish oil/eating fish a few times a week, and keep a relatively low body fat percentage, you're already miles ahead of the pack and at an extremely small risk for cardiovascular disease.

hailtotheking said...


can i ask what your opinion on dolomite capsules is? I've been taking 3x caps a day on non-training days, which happens to be days where i dont each much dairy (i cant tolerate dairy every day so i have to cycle it) which gives me 396mg calcium carbonate and 216mg magnesium carbonate. This seems far lower than the calcium levels implicated in cancer risk.

Wilmar said...

i always thought magnesium carbonate was weightlifting chalk. never knew it was a dietary supplement.

Martin Berkhan said...


You're likely getting calcium via non-dairy sources (i.e veggies like broccoli contain a fair bit of calcium) so 400 mg calcium from dolomite may be just right.

If you're unsure, calculate a sample day and see if you hit about ~1250 mg calcium which is the intake for max benefits without risks.

Tan Yew Wei said...

Dam, that makes too much milk no longer an option. 1250mg calcium would be so easily obtained from 1L of milk.

Great info as always, and I always take your recommendations seriously.

On the point of protein shakes, if I understand you correctly, after factoring for digestion speed, you're saying that the issue is more a matter of behavioural implications?

Martin Berkhan said...

Nothing wrong with protein shakes now and then. I was mainly referring to those who rely on them too much and wonder why they're constantly hungry on their diets.

nondual said...

I use 1-2 protein shakes per day to help hit my protein intake goals, but the way IF works, hunger is just eliminated anyway.

Anonymous said...

Can you define "Mega-dosing omega-3-fatty acids" is 6g a day mega doses?

Anonymous said...

I love meat, but don't have the appetite to get my daily protein intake. Chasing a protein shake after a meal or two helps me get there.

Martin Berkhan said...


It's hard to define and there is no clinical consensus on it. Like I said before it would depend on various factors, the omega 3:6-ratio of the diet being one.

I'd say that 6 g is perfectly safe and probably 10 g as well. But once you start going over that, say into the 15-20 g range, people start noticing side-effects.

hailtotheking said...

Martin thanks for the previous reply. I think i'll stick to the 2x dolomite caps on my non-dairy days, and it seems i do get plenty from my veggies as well, as you suggested.

Whats your opinion on combining vitamin D3 supplementation with calcium supplementation? I keep hearing that vitamin D3 can cause excessive calcification of joints and internal organs in the presence of high calcium intake, but i dont want to quit taking my Vitamin D3 caps because i feel much better for taking them.

Martin Berkhan said...

I don't think you'll be at risk if you stick to the aforementioned figure of ~1250 mg calcium or so. Not sure where you've heard that Vitamin D may pose such a risk in the presence of high calcium. Combined calcium and Vitamin D3 supplementation is commonly used to support bone health in the elderly.

Albin said...

Everytime I read this blog I get motivated to get off my ass and hit the gym. I just wonder, can you give us a sneek peek on what exercises you perform and how often youre at the gym. Afaik you workout 3 days each week with 2 upper body and 1 lower body frequency?

Thanks a lot, now I'm off to the gym to be a mini version of you!

/IF client Albin

Martin Berkhan said...

Thanks, Albin. I'm planning a post on my current routine (next week?) so keep looking out for that.

JunkSilver said...

Hey Martin

Ive been following your stuff (I can certainly relate my highschool years as I was the chubby kid that girls would turn their heads in disgust) for quite a bit now and just experimenting with PSMF w/IF. Ive been losing fat very quickly but I wonder if I needed a diet break to bring metabolism up to speed or does the IF style refeeds keep things in tune? Also Im thinking of experimenting with something like the ABCDE diet (but calories at reasonable level) where I do a few weeks of dieting, followed by a few weeks of lean bulking. Appreciate any comments Martin and cant wait for the book

Martin Berkhan said...

I've taken clients from 20%+ bf to 6-7% bf without diet breaks. I've found that the frequent refeeds makes breaks more or less obsolete from a physiological perspective. Clients tend to lose in a fairly linear fashion all the way to the end.

I view their (diet breaks) primary role from a psychological perspective, where they can be beneficial in recharging your motivation if it's lacking.

Chris D said...

Poliquins recommendations of 20-30 grams of fish oil a day are completely safe.

There's roughly 300mg of w-3 fatty acids per gram of fish oil, which puts you at a max of 9 grams of w-3 or so a day.

4% of total calories from w-3 are "demonstratedly" safe from various cultures that just consume that much (Eskimo for example).

9 grams of w-3 fats is roughly 3.15% of a 2000 calorie diet.

Also keep in mind, Poliquins recommendation is only for a month or so to normalize w-6:w-3 balance, then he recommends something like 5 grams/day after a month of the high dose.

My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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