The Fallacy of Supplements
It’s hard to watch sports these days without getting bombarded by commercials for supplements. Gatorade insists you need their products to recover. Advocare shows ripped athletes doing incredible feats of fitness (with the aid of their product, of course). And Muscle Milk encourages you to be like Steph Curry. But you aren’t Steph Curry. You aren't a pro athlete, or even a competitive athlete. The reality is, you’re probably just someone who likes to workout, run, lift, or ride a bike here and there.
While most of us average ‘Joes’ may need a boost from time to time, one thing most of us don’t need are supplements. The vast majority of us can and should find all of our nutrients and dietary needs in our food. Pills and potions, whether chemically or naturally produced, should be reserved for extreme situations – chronic and acute pain/sickness/injury situations where food isn’t readily available (outer space and Mt. Everest), and those who live ‘extreme’ lifestyles… like pro athletes. Those of us mortals who just need a little pre-workout boost or want to shed a few pounds just need more veggies, real protein, water, or a cup of coffee.
Chances are, none of these are doing you any good. [Photo credit: Pixabay]
You Don't Need Supplements to Be Fit
ESPN ran an expose recently targeting Advocare and the ethics (or lack thereof) related to their business model. The piece specifically attacked the direct sales platform as a business model. Advocare and similar supplement manufacturers like Herbalife use Multi-Level Marketing (MLM) and direct sales platforms as the foundation of their distribution. ESPN was highly critical of Advocare for presenting a disingenuous message to their distributors in terms of the kind of income they will actually make. Of 517,666 Advocare distributors, only 2806 made over $10,000 annually.
But the legality or validity of the MLM business practice in the supplement industry isn’t the biggest problem; it's the way they market their products. Take a look at the marketing for Advocare, Herbalife, or even Gatorade. They use spokespeople like Drew Brees and Steph Curry, and the imagery they use depicts competitive and elite athletes. The new national campaign for Gatorade features pro athletes recovering from their strenuous workouts, lying on their backs with Gatorade energy bars and drinks. The intended message? To be like a professional athlete, drink more Gatorade!
There’s only one small problem with this equation - you aren’t anything like a professional athlete. The pros need to supplement their food because they work out continuously as part of their job. But ‘regular’ people just need real food. That’s the message we should be promoting and accepting.
You Don't Need Supplements if You're Fat
On the opposite end of the spectrum from supplements marketed to athletes are weight loss supplements. Companies aggressively market their products to overweight people as the easy solution to their problem. Like the marketing of performance supplements, companies selling weight loss prodcuts use ‘experts’ like doctors and fitness personalities.
Their strategy plays on our systemic societal misconception about wellness: that answers come in convenient pills and boxes. They imply that if you trade in your Oreo cookies for an Oreo-flavored energy bar or protein shake, it's a "healthier" choice. That is ludicrous, but the supplement industry has become a multi-billion dollar giant based on exactly that type of suggestion.
Science Does Not Support Supplements
Supplements have become big business. This is despite the fact that the industry is unregulated, and their claims of athletic and health benefits are unsubstantiated. The science is damning:
- A study published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism reviewed evidence surrounding hundreds of weight loss supplements and concluded that no research exists that proves that any one product results in significant weight loss, and many products have detrimental health benefits.
- The FDA has stated that approximately 50,000 adverse reactions to supplements have occurred every year.
- The Annals of Internal Medicine has published three papers stating that vitamins and minerals don’t reduce the chance of a cancer or cardiovascular disease diagnosis. They even went so far as to release an editorial, stating:
“The large body of accumulated evidence ... is sufficient to advise against routine supplementation... The message is simple: Most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justiﬁed, and they should be avoided. This message is especially true for the general population with no clear evidence of micronutrient deﬁciencies, who represent most supplement users in the United States and in other countries.”
- In his book, Do You Believe in Magic, Dr. Paul Offit concluded that “high doses of vitamins and supplements increase the risk of cancer and heart disease and cancer; for this reason, not a single national or international organization responsible for the public’s health recommends them.” Offit doesn’t condemn all supplements, specifically exempting four types: fish oil, vitamin D, folic acid, and calcium.
What You Actually Need: Hard Work and Real Food
Are all supplements bad? Certainly not. But do you, as a person who just wants to work out and lose a few pounds, need supplements? No, you don’t. Despite how their advertisements portray them, supplements are niche products designed for professional athletes in extreme conditions.
It’s dangerous to suggest and accept that supplements are some sort of cure, or intended for consumption by the masses. Given the magnitude of problems such as obesity and metabolic syndrome in our society, it’s vital to present real solutions. When supplements are deceptively marketed as those solutions, we muddy the already turbid waters of what leads to real wellness.
Instead of looking for convenient short cuts to the issues of health, performance, and weight management, we need to focus on lasting results. Those come only from hard work and real food. It’s high time for us to see through the marketers, sales people, and spokespeople. We as consumers and end users must seek out and demand real solutions and real food.
Do you even know what you're taking?