Have you ever walked past a gym or workout studio and seen streams of sweaty people furiously shaking an oddly shaped water bottle, before hungrily consuming the contents? Chances are, they are consuming a post-workout protein shake.
- The complementary medicine industry in Australia is worth around $4.9 billion per year
- Australians have doubled their spending on vitamins and dietary supplements in the past decade
- Supplements may assist in helping you reach your fitness goals, but they aren’t a magic bullet
Protein shakes are almost synonymous with working out, but they are far from the only supplements out there targeting those hoping to achieve their health and fitness goals.
And for people just getting into the health and fitness space, either returning from a long lay-off or trying it out for the first time, knowing what supplements to take, or whether to take them at all, can be very overwhelming.
Exercise physiologist and nutrition coach Jesse Chandler often gets asked by her clients about what supplements to take.
“Typically I see clients who have some aspect of chronic disease, whether that’s obesity or heart disease, osteoporosis, [and I ] also see clients who are just looking to improve their general health for long-term wellbeing,” she says.
“That might be somebody who just generally doesn’t know how to exercise, or doesn’t know where to start with their nutrition.
“So that question [about supplements] comes up quite quickly in conversation.”
Consumers are continuously bombarded with advertisements for products which promise to help them achieve a particular look or lifestyle.
The supplement industry plays this game as well, often using social media influencers to sell an ideal to customers.
Unfortunately, experts say there is no “magic bullet” to a healthy lifestyle.
“It’s always one of the first things on [my clients’] mind, because people want to get things done really quickly,” Ms Chandler says.
“I always try to remind clients first and foremost that we need to be looking at what you’re doing consistently, and what you’re going to be able to do sustainably, too.
“So when you’re looking at things like weight loss and improving your long-term health, it’s changing your lifestyle so that it can be done forever, versus what can you do for the next four to six weeks without falling off the bandwagon.
“Supplements aren’t a magic bullet at all. There’s some that might aid you in your goals, but everything else needs to be addressed first.”
Supplements industry worth nearly $5b a year
Australians spend an enormous amount each year on the complementary medicines industry, with the sector hauling in $4.9 billion a year, an increase of $2 billion from five years ago.
Complementary medicines can be broken down into four categories: Vitamin and dietary supplements; sports nutrition; herbal or traditional products; and weight loss.
Complementary medicines industry
Spend in AUD per year
Vitamin & dietary supplements
Ms Chandler believes the rise of social media has contributed to the massive increase in spending in the industry.
“If you look at dietary supplements, and vitamin supplements, that’s $2.77 billion per year in Australia, and it’s doubled in the last 10 years,” she says.
“Influencers look how people want to look.
“So if they’re saying that they’re taking the latest supplements or vitamin pills, then you automatically kind of correlate the two together, like how that influencer looks versus what they’re selling.
“But they have financial gain behind what they’re trying to sell, so they could sell anything, and make money off of it.”
The rise of internet shopping has allowed suppliers or influencers to sell directly to customers with just the click of a link, but Ms Chandler warns there is risk in not buying from a reputable outlet.
Part of that risk stems from the level of regulation on these products by the Therapeutical Goods Administration (TGA).
“Supplements are regulated as listed medicines, which is the least regulated thing you can registered as under the TGA,” Ms Chandler explains.
“There just can’t be anything illegal within that supplement.”
The TGA website defines listed medicines as: “Unscheduled medicines with well-known low-risk ingredients, usually with a long history of use, such as vitamin and mineral products or sunscreens. These are assessed by the TGA for quality and safety but not efficacy.”
Are any supplements worth taking?
Now we’re getting down to the brass tacks of the matter: what supplements might be worth taking to help you reach your goals?
Before going any further, it’s important to remember supplements are just that — supplements. As in, supplementary to a balanced, healthy diet.
“We like to look at what are they currently eating? How much are they currently eating? What does their physical activity levels look like? What’s their sleep? What’s their stress levels? You know, what are the recovery methods that they’re doing?” Ms Chandler says.
“There’s so much more that can be addressed before you even consider a supplement. Because at the end of the day, a supplement is just there to supplement your current lifestyle.
But if you think you’re ticking all the boxes, and want to add something to your diet, there are two standout options, and some things to be aware of.
“The first massive red flag is fat burners,” Ms Chandler says.
“The only benefit out of a fat burner would be the fact that you’re getting some level of caffeine, and you also might be getting something like a beta alanine.
“Independently, those two supplements certainly have their place for improving athletic performance in the gym or in your training, but all of the other fillers that go into it, they’re not going to contribute to a fat loss unless you are in a calorie deficit.
“Fat burners don’t solely contribute to weight loss. It all comes down to what you’re consuming.”
If all of that sounds pretty technical, think of it like this: If you eat fewer calories than you use, over an extended period of time, you will lose weight.
Fat burners contain caffeine, which might improve your workout, but adding one to your diet won’t shift the scales alone.
While the promise of fat burners might fall flat, there are some supplements with a hefty amount of research behind them.
The two most popular are protein and creatine.
“If you are consistently in the gym, working hard, you’ve got a program that’s suited towards your goals, you feel like you’re starting to tick the goals with your nutrition as well. Once you’ve got those bases covered, that’s when I would start to recommend something like protein and creatine,” Ms Chandler says.
“Specifically, you want a protein that is high in [amino-acid] leucine, which is an essential amino acid. Leucine is essential for developing or improving muscle protein synthesis.
“When you go to the gym, your muscle fibres break down, you need them to rebuild to get stronger, and to increase your lean mass. That’s muscle protein synthesis.”
Protein could be particularly useful for people on vegetarian or vegan diets, who could struggle to achieve a high amino acid profile from their diet.
Research suggests 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight, through diet and supplementation, is optimal for someone attempting to gain muscle.
Creatine, specifically creatine monohydrate, is a naturally occurring compound involved in the supply of energy for muscle contraction, and adding more to your diet will help restore energy between sets. It’s one of the most researched compounds in the health and fitness space, and is considered safe for most people.
Supplements alone won’t improve your health
But while adding protein and creatine to your diet could improve your athletic performance and help you reach your goals, Ms Chandler says there are far more important factors to get right.
“Supplements are always a ‘nice to have’. They’re never a ‘must have’ in terms of improving your long-term health.” she says.
For anyone looking for a quick fix, there’s bad news — achieving your goals comes down to consistent application over an extended period of time.
That being said, there are some things that will help you in your quest, and they don’t come in powder or pill form.
“In terms of just general health, and improving your fitness, sleep is always king,” Ms Chandler says.
“A lot of people underestimate the power of consistently getting good sleep. Sleep plays into your hunger hormones, it plays into how well you’re going to build muscle and recover and grow.”
Adults should be aiming for between seven and nine hours sleep per night. Anything less is considered sleep deprivation (except for the few who have a gene mutation).
Beyond sleep, adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate to intense exercise per week (around 22 minutes per day) which can range from walking to lifting weights, and aim for a balanced diet, where they consume fewer calories than they burn.
There are no shortcuts to improved health, but it only takes a small change to start the journey.