What are supplements? Products that are intended to add further nutritional value to your diet.

Have you ever walked into your local health food store and felt overwhelmed by the hundreds of bottles with obnoxiously decorated labels that surround you? Advertising tells you there’s a pill for weight loss and a powder for muscle mass, but the question you want answered is, “What are supplements?”

What are Supplements?

The FDA defines a supplement as follows:

“A product…intended to add further nutritional value to (supplement) the diet.”

That’s not a bad definition, but I would add a few details. A supplement must:

  • Be available as a pill, capsule, powder, or drink.
  • Contain nutrients that fall into one of four types of supplements (listed below).
  • Be used to achieve a specific goal (e.g., better sleep, weight loss, pain relief, etc.).

Vitamins vs. Supplements

My clients often ask, “What’s the difference between vitamins and supplements?”

A vitamin is a supplement. The word supplement is an umbrella term used to describe all dietary aids that come in pill, powder, or liquid form. When you buy a multivitamin or a single vitamin, such as vitamin D, you’re buying a supplement. Vitamins are just one type of supplement.

Types of Supplements

The Council for Responsible Nutrition conveniently divided all supplements into the following four categories:

Vitamins and Minerals

The most popular type of supplement is a multivitamin. Vitamins and minerals encompass all multivitamins, single vitamins, and single minerals. Popular examples of single vitamins and minerals include the following:

  • Vitamin C (immune booster)
  • Vitamin D (bone health)
  • Vitamin B12 (energy)
  • Zinc (hormone health)
  • Magnesium (sleep aid)

Specialty Supplements

If a supplement is taken to alleviate symptoms of a medical issue or improve cardiovascular health, it is considered a specialty supplement. Some of the most popular examples of specialty supplements include the following:

  • Fish oil (heart health)
  • Probiotics (digestive health)
  • Glucosamine (joint health)

Herbals and Botanicals

Herbals and botanicals are extracts from plant-based sources. This type of supplement can be found in capsule or tincture form. The idea is to provide a highly concentrated extract from the plant so that only a small serving is needed to reap the benefits associated with the ingredient.

  • Echinacea (immune booster)
  • Ginseng (energy)
  • Turmeric (anti-inflammatory)
  • Rishi mushroom (liver health)
  • Rosemary (digestion)

Sports Nutrition and Weight Management

Aside from multivitamins, supplements that are used for attaining specific fitness-related goals, such as athletic performance, muscle building, and weight loss are the most popular in the industry. Sports nutrition and weight management supplements may be broken down further into subcategories:

  • Pre-workout (taken before a workout, usually to improve performance)
  • Intra-workout (taken during a workout, usually to keep energy levels high and protect muscle tissue)
  • Post-workout (taken after a workout to support immediate recovery)

Some of the most popular sports nutrition and weight management supplements include the following:

  • Whey protein (muscle building)
  • Caffeine (energy)
  • Protein bars (muscle building and meal replacement)
  • Creatine (intra-workout energy and recovery)
  • Pre-workout blend (contains several ingredients to improve performance during workout)

Are Supplements Right for You?

Possibly. There is no universal answer, because it depends on a number of factors, including medical history, allergies, and your individual goals.

Some supplements can worsen the symptoms of certain medical conditions, such as taking caffeine when you already have hypertension issues. Allergies to specific ingredients, artificial sweeteners, or coloring may also pose a problem, but allergic reactions can easily be avoided by carefully reading nutrition labels.

Supplements are a form of support to help people achieve their goals; they are not magic bullets. There is no one supplement that will turn you into a fitness model overnight. Your results will come from exercise, diet, and hard work. Supplements are there to support your progress.

Do You Need Supplements?

Absolutely not. Don’t buy into the marketing hype that you need every supplement out there in order to be successful. It is entirely possible to achieve muscle mass, fat loss, and better performance through diet and exercise alone.

Supplements can be helpful, but anyone who says you need to take supplements is trying to make a profit off of you. Remember what happened to Dr. Oz in 2014 when he claimed a supplement was a “miracle pill?” He was brought before Congress for making unrealistic and potentially dangerous claims about supplements.

Do I Recommend Taking Supplements?

Yes and no. I don’t support one-size fits-all supplements. For example, I don’t recommend multivitamins because it might result in taking too much of one vitamin or mineral, which could pose a risk for toxicity.

With that said, I do support taking supplements that are used alongside a proper exercise program and meal plan to achieve healthy and realistic goals. For example, I recommend using whey protein powder if you’re trying to build muscle mass or if you want a meal replacement shake.

Supplements and Your Doctor

Before you begin using any type of supplement, consult your doctor. This is especially important if you have any medical conditions and aren’t sure how supplements might affect you.

Do You Use Supplements?

Which supplements do you use on a daily or weekly basis? What benefits have you experienced from those supplements? Which supplements do you want to learn more about? Let me know in the comments below!

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