As you browse your local health food store, it can be easy to get blown away by the sheer variety of dietary supplements available. Should you take just one multivitamin? Or should you combine a variety of individual vitamins somehow? And what about protein supplements—do they even work? Here, we’ll lay out the basics of multivitamins and protein supplements and explain how to get the best results from each of them.
Multivitamins are the most common of all dietary supplements. They’re also one of the most debated. Why is there so much controversy surrounding them? They’re just essential vitamins and minerals in capsule form—so what’s all the fuss about?
Well, for starters, some people see them as unnecessary. Vitamins and minerals are important, of course— but only in quantities that our bodies are able to absorb and use. In other words, we can get all the essential nutrients we need by eating a balanced diet (which, granted, is increasingly difficult). Multivitamins were created for people who could not attain a balanced diet—for financial, logistical, or health-related reasons.
So what good is a multivitamin, really? Let’s consider the standard multivitamin, which tries to fit into a pill exactly 100% of the RDA of most essential micronutrients. Such a multivitamin will likely be of little benefit, as your diet is probably richer in the same vitamins and minerals. As for those micronutrients in which deficiency is most common, standard multivitamins have them so underdosed as to have little impact on your health.
Those micronutrients in which deficiency is most common are:
- Magnesium. While clinical deficiency is rare, not consuming the optimal amount isn’t.
- Potassium. This is the most common deficiency, and not one that supplements can easily compensate for, since you need several grams a day. So eat your veggies!
- Zinc. Deficiency is especially common among athletes and vegetarians.
- Vitamin D. Particularly problematic for people who don’t live near the equator, or who are “allergic to sunlight.”
When choosing a multivitamin, you want to make sure you already know which micronutrients are lacking from your diet, as well as the daily minimum and maximum you should aim for. Some micronutrients (especially minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, which can accumulate in the body from day to day) can be harmful in high doses.
If a multivitamin happens to meet your needs and the doses are right, go right ahead, take it. Otherwise, don’t bother, and just get the micronutrients you need from individual supplements. In the end, you want what your body wants—and taking a capsule of a dozen redundant vitamins and minerals may do more harm than good.
Protein supplements are often shrouded in health myths, which is a shame, as they have some advantages, from both a biological and a practical point of view.
Powders are the most common form of protein supplement, with whey being the most popular type. Whey and casein are both derived from milk protein (which is 20% whey and 80% casein). If you are neither lactose intolerant nor vegan, whey is an easy choice, for it is cheap and very anabolic (good for building muscle). Casein is more expensive, less anabolic, but more anti-catabolic (good for preserving muscle). Since casein digests slowly, it is often seen as the ideal protein to consume before going to sleep.
Whey and casein aren’t overly processed, which goes against the common preaching that protein supplements are “unnatural.” To produce casein and whey, milk is simply divided into curds and whey via an enzymatic treatment similar to the one traditionally used to make cheese. Casein and whey powders are just the dehydrated end products of this process. Unlike whey, casein clumps easily when rehydrated, which makes it suitable for puddings or thick shakes.
Whey and casein are basically dehydrated milk without the fat or sugar. By no means are they nutritionally balanced, so they should never constitute the bulk of your diet; but sometimes you simply need or want additional protein. Rather than yet another chicken breast, it’s easy to see why a protein shakeeasy to make, easy to flavor—is an attractive choice.
Protein from whey or casein powders and from whole foods have similar effects. An adequate protein intake, in any form, helps you feel full, helps you build muscle, and thus may reduce fat gain or support fat loss. Among other health benefits, your protein intake supports your immune system. It can also reduces the risk of degenerative bone disorders as you get older, especially when paired with resistance training, such as weight lifting.
Vegans can enjoy protein supplements, too! Two popular options are soy, a complete protein, and a 70:30 pea:rice blend, which is seen as the vegan alternative to whey due to their similar amino acid profiles. Depending on processing techniques, the estrogenic isoflavone content can be greater in soy isolate than in soy concentrate, but it is still too small to elicit any significant hormonal response when as much as 200 g of soy protein isolate is consumed per day.
Protein supplements are easy to carry around (as dry powder in a shaker bottle, for instance). Ultimately, they’re simply a convenient way of adding protein to your diet, especially if you’re tired of lean meats. Protein supplements aren’t mandatory by any means—and if you can increase your protein intake by eating whole foods while staying within your caloric allotment, then all the better.
Ergogenic aids are supplements that provide a small boost at the gym, thus helping you shed fat and build muscle. A few proven and safe ergogenic aids you can use to test the waters are:
- Creatine, for events that are power-based (such as rowing or weight lifting).
- Caffeine, for both powder-based and endurance-based events (especially if you don’t consume caffeine on a regular basis). To help take the edge off caffeine and improve focus, you could use caffeine in conjunction with the amino acid theanine.
- Beta-alanine, for events that are moderately endurance-based, such as crossfit. This supplement isn’t as likely to have a strong effect as the previous two.
Another group of ergogenic aids is known as nitrates. Isolated nitrates aren’t found in dietary supplements, however, due to regulations against sodium nitrate in high quantities. So to benefit from the short- and long-term endurance boost nitrates provide, you’ll need to increase the amount of leafy green vegetables and beetroot in your diet. You could also find an extract (typically beet juice or powder). As it stands, some people have taken to shredding lettuce (high in nitrates, low in taste) or beetroot in a blender, and they drink the resulting juice about an hour before going to the gym.
That sums up the benefits and most effective uses of multivitamins, protein supplements, and ergogenic aids. You’ll get the best results from multivitamins if you understand which vitamins you need and how much of each. You’ll get the best results from protein supplements if you treat them as you would meat protein—and work hard at the gym. And you’ll get the best results from creatine and beta-alanine if you take them daily—but caffeine and other stimulants will work best if you only take them when you go to the gym. If you keep these tips in mind, you may be able to use these different weapons to give your diet a genuine boost.