I was at a fitness conference in August that featured a lot of fantastic thinkers and speakers in the Strength & Conditioning, Physical Therapy, and Nutrition worlds. At the end of the conference, they lined them all up for a panel discussion. The moderator opened the floor to Q&A from the audience and my eyes rolled back into my head. The problem with conferences is that it takes a while in any profession to realize what an idiot you are, then even longer to figure out good questions to ask the people who are smarter than you. Whereas conferences are usually stacked with people who are in the first few months of their career (and just FYI, the average personal trainer’s career is shorter than the average running back’s career). After a few "meh" questions, an older gentleman in the audience got the microphone and thankfully asked the best question I have ever heard in a conference setting. “What is the one question you wish people would ask you, but few do?” Socrates would be proud. While all of the responses were interesting, a nutritionist’s answer (or was it a question? Inception!) has stuck with me, sadly for longer than his name stuck with me. “I wish people would ask me what I eat instead of what supplements I use.” Every panelist’s head started nodding.
Hitting up the bank
The word “supplement” comes from the latin root supplementum which means “something added to supply a deficiency.” So if you’re supplementing something, it means you aren’t getting enough of it. This makes perfect sense if you can’t get enough of something on occasion like getting a loan from a bank to cover unexpected medical costs, but what do you think the loan officer would say if you showed up every morning with your hand out?
This is what I hear when people ask about supplements. You’re asking me about where to get great interest rates instead of whether or not you're spending more money than you make. The supplements to your income are distracting you from the reality that making it rain at the club every Saturday isn't sustainable. To put it even more simply, if you need the supplement every day, then something is wrong with your food choices.
No food expert who isn’t trying to sell you supplements will tell you that supplements are better than whole food sources of nutrition. All things being equal, your body is going to do better getting nutrients from food rather than not food. What’s the difference? Anything that’s a plant, an animal, or a rock (aka, salt) is food. Anything in a tub, a tube, a bottle is not food. According to Michael Pollan, if you bought it from the outside edges of the grocery store, it’s food. If you order it from Amazon or Biotest every month, it’s a supplement (and usually very damn expensive).
Replacing the Replacements
So how do you live a life without supplements? You start replacing them with food! It takes time. I started the process of ditching my favorite supplements (aka, “improving my food choices”) last year, and haven’t put an order into Amazon or Biotest since the summer. Here they are in order.
- multivitamin = eating a plant-centric diet with lots of variety and good fats
- greens powder = eating dark, leafy greens every day
- protein powder = eating more protein-rich foods (duh)
- vitamin D = spending at least 2 hours a day outside (easy in California)
- fish oil = eating more whole fish, avocados, and walnuts (at least one of these a day)
- Royal Butter Oil / Fermented Cod Liver Oil Blend = Coffee with grassfed butter and coconut oil
And most importantly, here are the steps I took to replace them:
1. Get a baseline. Go to your doctor and get your vitamin and hormones levels checked. Otherwise you’re just stabbing in the dark. If you really want to nerd out, go to WellnessFX.
2. Have a Key Metric. You’re not going back to the doctor every 3 weeks to see if things are working, so you need to have something relatively measurable that you can track. This is where the awareness comes in. A lot of people use strength levels or body composition. As I’ve talked about before, and I’m sure is TMI, my key metric is libido. If my libido is high, then it usually means that I’ve got everything like training, nutrition, sleep, and global stress “dialed in.” And yes, I track it.
3. Go one at a time, wait it out, then reflect. It’s strange to change something and wait around hoping that nothing happens, but with the human body only bad things happen quickly. When I change something, I wait it out for a minimum of 21 days before I assess what the effect was on my body. You’re going to have to be proactive about this assessment, too. I set a calendar reminder 21 days out that says “How’s [change] going?” then write about it on my training blog.
4. Check back against your baseline. This January, I went back to my doctor and had my vitamin and hormone levels checked. My hormone levels were the same and all but one of my vitamin levels were the same. Turns out my vitamin D levels were actually improved!
It’s important to note that I do not think supplements are “bad.” This is not a moral issue. I just think supplements can be a distraction from the real problems of your food and lifestyle choices. In a culture where we can just “take a pill,” we often forget that the pill might either 1) not work or 2) be masking a broader problem. Supplements have their place, and I have recommended all the ones listed above to people as a bridge to a healthier lifestyle. And for my clients who do not live in California, 10,000 IU Vitamin D supplements are your friend (just rethink them in the summer if you can get outside enough). I should also note, this process of replacing my supplements took me nine months, and I still use protein powder from time-to-time. I use it when it’s my last meal of the day and I realize I’ve eaten nowhere near enough protein-rich foods that day. Because a powder is a supplement, not an ingredient!