I wonder how many blog posts across the world at the moment are starting with “It’s that time of year again”. Fact is, it’s true. Every year we go through the same process – and you only need to be a member of a gym, or know somebody who is, to see it in full action.
Everyone spends a lot of money on other people – perhaps also on themselves – then they eat a lot, possibly drink a lot, and do not very much.
So come January, nobody has any money and everyone wants to get in shape. Plus then there’s the whole tradition of making New Year’s Resolutions – which seem designed to push people to set themselves outlandish goals which they know they will never achieve, at a time when everyone else is doing it so nobody will remember to hold each other accountable for the goals they don’t fulfill.
But that’s not the point of this post. Even if we are already fit, healthy, and feel we are pretty much on top of things, generally the festive season both shakes things up enough, and gives us enough time to pause and reflect, that we may start thinking what we could do differently in the new year. Which is why you may notice supplement companies are bombarding us with taglines about our goals for the new year and getting back on track.
Now people tend to think that vegan diets are expensive, that we are all forced to take supplements to be healthy, and often that lean and athletic physiques are due to drug and/or supplement use. I was a victim of these widely held stereotypes too, when I first saw protein powder tubs, thinking they “must contain something dodgy”. I had to be talked into taking my first protein powder ever only about three years ago!
I do like experimenting with different supplements, and every so often will try something new just to see its effect. I haven’t, admittedly, tried much – but already I can see what I would happily spend extra money on, what I would buy if I had more disposable income, and what I would never bother with. So I’ll just try to outline some of the more common ones here for anyone who might be wondering whether it is worth investing in the hope of achieving their next fitness goals.
Worth it? Yes – whoever you are, at any level of sporting activity or looking to lose a little bit of weight.
Average spend? Cheapest I have seen is £10.99/kg, most will gravitate around the £20/kg mark.
Why? How? The main reason must be convenience. If it is any other reason, you need to address your diet. A protein powder is a convenient way to ensure your protein needs are met – not because you are vegan but because you are active, and you can’t necessarily carry around a high-protein meal with you to have after training, nor can you necessarily face wolfing down a high-protein meal within 30 minutes of vigorous exercise. If you are looking to lose any weight, you’ll have to be reducing calories – if you are reducing calories, your body will be eating into its reserves for energy – and the last thing you want it to do is eat away at your hard-earned muscle. So a protein powder is also a convenient way to reduce calories without compromising protein intake (which will help with satiety as an added bonus).
Worth it? Yes – but worth assessing your budget.
Average spend? Generally about £40-50/kg.
Why? How? As above, convenience, for all the same reasons – they are often sold as meal replacements so both the convenience and the weight-loss aid arguments hold strong. An all-in-one will generally be a recovery shake made up of protein, carbohydrates (often a fast-digesting source and a slower-digesting one) and often some combination of vitamins and minerals – they will normally also have an extra “health-boosting” ingredient (for example; maca, or green tea extract, psyllium husk…) as their unique selling point. More expensive but will be more beneficial to your recovery after training because they will provide everything your body needs in one fell swoop, and in an easily digestible format to boot. So it’s worth considering how much you feel you need help with your recovery versus how much you can afford to spend per month. I made this assessment and have decided to invest in a monthly supply every month – anyway I still spend less than if I were going out drinking or to the movies or whatever else I might be doing if I wasn’t at the gym!
Worth it? Yes – as long as you find the right one which actually has solid ingredients that agree with you and help you get the most out of your workout.
Average spend? From what I’ve seen, about £1.50-2 per serving is about average.
Why? How? There are two main categories of pre-workout supplements, or two main reasons to take them. Some just offer you a boost to help you get the most out of your workout, with a combination of carbs, electrolytes, often caffeine, and as above normally one or two other ingredients as a unique selling point. Some add branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) to minimise the damage to muscle fibres during strenuous exercise. The latter will normally be more expensive. Again, you need to look at your budget and work out whether it is worth it for you – unlike a straight-up protein powder, these aren’t ingredients that are normally found in your diet so the reason isn’t convenience. Personally after a long day or week I have seen some great benefits from these, but at the moment I can’t really afford to use pre-workout drinks when I could put more effort into getting a proper night’s sleep, eating properly during the day leading up to the workout, and psyching myself up for a session properly. If I had more disposable income I would use these more regularly.
Worth it? Yes.
Average spend? Normally about £5-7 for 20 tablets, with 1 tablet used for 500-750ml of water depending on the brand.
Why? How? When we sweat, we don’t just lose water – we lose sodium and potassium, but mainly sodium. We sweat constantly throughout exercise, but we don’t rehydrate constantly. Plus, many sports become quite uncomfortable with a stomach full of water. So we tend to dehydrate – weigh yourself before and after exercise (wring your clothes out if necessary), and it’s a fairly safe assumption that the weight difference amounts to sweat loss. Again, sweat isn’t just water, so we can’t just expect to put water back in. While it’s easy to mix up your own hydration mix, we are living in a culture where people would rather spend a fiver on lunch each day (and whinge about being broke) than spend 20 minutes the night before making a packed lunch – so I’m not taking any excuses that “there are cheaper alternatives” (apart from people who are actually making their own mixes, of course!). Electrolyte tablets are handy, really not very expensive, and personally I feel a huge difference when I use them. They are now part of my standard daily routine. They’re also handy when travelling on aeroplanes or when you are sick – and often, they’re just tasty!
Worth it? Yes – if caffeine agrees with you, obviously!
Average spend? Hard to say – you can either get yourself a cup of coffee, take a tablet, or find it mixed into an energy drink, or even an eletrolyte.
Why? How? There have been several studies finding that caffeine increases time to exhaustion in endurance athletes. For me, it makes me feel more focussed. Unfortunately many people feel jittery after consuming caffeine, a lot of people have digestive troubles as a result of caffeine’s diuretic affects, and it also will dehydrate you and can block the absorption of many vitamins and minerals. Luckily, the amount of caffeine needed to give your workout a boost is, if I recall correctly, less than what is contained in a cup of coffee – so if you find caffeine agrees with you, look for an electrolyte or pre-workout supplement (if using) with caffeine.
Worth it? In general, probably not, but if it works for you then sure!
Average spend? Again, hard to say for the same reasons as caffeine, that you can either take it in pill form in various potencies, drink it in commercially available soft drinks, or find it added to a pre-workout supplements.
Why? How? Well this is an odd one as there have been no conclusive studies, to my knowledge, about its effects. However, I find it works for me. Generally it is sold as being an energy booster without the jittery effects of caffeine – I especially find it helps me feel focussed though I can’t say I feel much physical difference. It might just be a placebo effect which is fine with me. I did routinely use it, but I now find that electrolytes give me the same effect so I just use those instead. Usually guarana tablets aren’t very expensive, so it could be worth experimenting and you won’t break the bank.
Worth it? Could be, depending on your goals, but never an essential.
Average spend? Starts at about £12-20/kg, but then it comes in tablet forms in various doses, and also often in all-in-one mixes.
Why? How? Generally sold as a mass-gainer and power-enhancing aid, people I know who have used it have found it beneficial. However, much of the mass gains are linked to water retention, and many people have found that the power enhancement disappears when not taking it – although obviously some of the strength gains will hold. I have never used it on its own so can’t comment, but haven’t noticed any effect from having it in an all-in-one. Never been tempted either, to be honest, I don’t really see it as a valuable use of my money when I could get the same gains by other means (smarter training mainly).
Thermogenic agent / Fat burner
Worth it? Absolutely – but only depending on the ingredients.
Average spend? Such a wide range of supplements available and there is almost always something on sale to tempt people – watch January as they explode onto the market in full force – but generally I would say you’re looking at about £20-30 per month.
Why? How? First, there is a load of garbage out there. From so-called “superfood” weight-loss agents (açai is a big one at the moment) to carb blockers to simple green-tea extracts, all the way up to potent chemical weight-cutters, be really careful what you go for. Spend some extra time doing some research – most of these are a waste of money, some could well be harmful for long-term use. A few things I know; there is no proof as to the effectiveness of açai or raspberry ketones in weight loss. White kidney bean extract has had some success in regulating the metabolism of starchy carbohydrates. Green tea and cayenne pepper are proven effective thermogenic agents and will help speed up and regulate your metabolism. Everything else, be wary of and do some proper research online (not just browsing an online forum) – research the ingredients, not the product. In the end, it should be a product with no hidden or unknown ingredients – unless you are having to cut weight hard for a competition and have to resort to a powerful weight-cutter, stick with natural ingredients which will promote overall health and regulate metabolic processes (ginseng, guarana, cinnamon and ginger are all examples) and that you could easily get from your diet if it weren’t just more convenient to take it in pill form. Be cynical with this one.
Omega 3 and 6
Worth it? Yes.
Average spend? As these are highly fashionable and in the public eye at the moment, you’ll find a lot of stupidly expensive products in fancy packaging. Most of the leading brands of vegan omega 3 supplements sit at around £15-20 per month.
Why? How? Again, not a vegan thing, but a healthy diet thing. It’s all about the ratio of omega 3 to omega 6. Unfortunately, although we can easily increase our omega 3 intake, Western diets are typically very high in omega 6 and this throws everything out of whack. Many omega 3 sources are also omega 6 sources, so it’s difficult to widen the gap effectively through diet alone, unless you plan everything out properly. So we’re back to the convenience issue. It is probably worth investing in a good omega 3 supplement and taking a high enough dosage to cover your back. Unfortunately omega 3 deficiency only really shows when the damage is done and often irreversible. I hate fear-mongering and to be honest I don’t currently take an omega 3 supplement, but it’s something I think I should do and I think everyone should do, vegan or not.
Vitamins and minerals
Worth it? Not really unless you really can afford to pay for convenience.
Average spend? You can find practically anything at any price – from supermarket value effervescent vitamin C to high-end organic multivitamins.
Why? How? Same as for the protein – as these are things you can get from your diet, if you are taking these for any reason other than convenience you need to reassess your diet. Athletes may have higher needs for certain vitamins and minerals (namely iron, vitamin B12 and other B vitamins – whether you are vegan or not) but you need to get this checked out by a doctor with the help of a blood test. Vegans must take a B12 supplement. Most people should really be taking a D supplement – D3 is the most easily absorbed but is usually not vegan, however there are now some companies selling vegan D3 and they will specify that their D3 is vegan. Many women and/or athletes need to supplement iron. Besides this, get your levels checked and have your dosage recommended to you by a doctor. Zinc and magnesium can often be overlooked and highly beneficial, calcium could be a problem but mainly linked to vitamin D deficiencies, and I’d be shocked if anyone was vitamin C deficient. But I won’t say any more – get it checked out.
I think that covers the main ones. I know I haven’t provided any evidence for any of my claims, but I have just tried to summarise all the information I have read over the past couple of years. If you have any questions please do get in touch and I will dig up some trustworthy research, otherwise hopefully this will be a useful starting point for your own research. If nothing else I hope it cultivates a sense both of wariness but also readiness to accept certain training/nutritional aids into your life – I am notoriously bad at accepting that I may need to take something alongside my fairly healthier-than-average diet. The bottom line is that I would never take a supplement because I couldn’t get something through my diet, if other people regularly get enough of it through diet alone.
Currently, I take a simple protein powder (hemp, pea, brown rice isolates) for two servings a day, an all-in-one recovery shake after a training session or sometimes as a breakfast/afternoon snack meal replacement on a non-training day, an electrolyte tablet per training session, a daily effervescent multivitamin, a B12 tablet every other day, and an iron supplement whenever I remember (ideally every day). At the moment I also take two servings per day of a thermogenic blend, but that’s just for the holiday period and when the bottle runs out I probably won’t renew it for a while. I think I will also invest in a D3 supplement, and perhaps an Omega 3.
Please let me know what your supplement routine is, if you have had any particular success with anything, or of course if you have any questions! I am no expert but I often know where to find reliable advice 🙂