The supplement industry is a lot like gambling in Vegas: Lots of promise, hope, and big dreams, but the end result is usually disappointment and a big financial loss.
The parallels could go on and on. Las Vegas looks the way it does for a reason (lots of lost money), and the supplement industry—all $32 billion in 2012—has sucked dry (the wallets and hopes of) many individuals with great intentions of becoming healthier, losing fat, and gaining muscle.
That said, not all supplements are bad. While few fat loss supplements are actually fat burners, and creatine might be the only real muscle building supplement, that doesn’t mean everything is a waste of your money. Many have benefits, but reading through all the research to discover what you should buy can be difficult and confusing.
To save you time, I teamed with the supplement experts at Examine.com to uncover three supplements that frequently pop up as “must buys,” but are more hype than help for you fitness and nutrition goals.
Research By Examine.com
There are quite a few supplements, almost all of them fat-burners, that people take simply because of one man’s recommendation: Dr. Oz. These include raspberry ketones, green coffee extract, African mango (irvingia gabonensis), and 5-HTP (there are many more, but these seem to be the most popular).
While green coffee extract and 5-HTP may actually have a role in supplementation (though not really as fat-burners), and African mango seems to be pretty ineffective but not too popular, raspberry ketones is unique in the sense that is both incredibly popular yet has no evidence to support its usage.
There are currently no human studies using raspberry ketones in isolation in humans. There are a few studies that super-loading in rats worked minimally as a fat burner, but the equivalent dosage would be 1000 times higher than what you find in most pills as a modest estimate. In fact, the only way to reach such a dosage would likely be via injections!
- Morimoto C, et al. Anti-obese action of raspberry ketone. Life Sci. (2005)
Glutamine was one of the first amino acids to be recommended to athletes for the purpose of enhancing performance, recovery, and muscle building. The concept was pretty basic: the more glutamine a muscle cell gets, the more it builds muscle; a simple dose-dependent relationship that many people thought would result in more and more muscle.
Unfortunately, this did not pan out in human studies where glutamine supplementation failed to outperform placebo in building muscle. It wasn’t just one failure either; when tested glutamine failed over and over again.
It was later discovered that the intestines and liver really love glutamine, and they act to regulate the exposure of glutamine to the rest of the body, by sequestering its levels and feeding it to intestinal and immune cells.
While glutamine still has a role in states of a relative glutamine deficiency (burn victims, possibly vegans, and endurance exercise over 2 hours in length), it has no role as a super-loading supplement due to its inability to get to muscles in sufficient levels.
That doesn’t mean glutamine is without benefits. It can help your immune system, but in terms of fitness goals (beyond staying healthy), you won’t see any benefit. Most importantly to the marketing hype, your body tightly regulates the amount of glutamine your muscles actually get. Thus, glutamine does not induce increased muscle protein synthesis.
- Wilkinson SB, et al. Addition of glutamine to essential amino acids and carbohydrate does not enhance anabolism in young human males following exercise. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. (2006)
- Candow DG, et al. Effect of glutamine supplementation combined with resistance training in young adults. Eur J Appl Physiol. (2001)
Glucosamine is one of the most used supplements in the western world, and has a position where its reputation is nearly untouchable; it is apparently the ‘go-to’ joint health supplement.
That said, there are many issues with the research surrounding this product, including:
- It is not a ‘joint health’ supplement, it is an “anti-osteoarthritis” supplement. While the difference is not a concern for people with osteoarthritis, this is a completely different issue for an athlete who wants to reduce joint pain or post-workout soreness
- Glucosamine does not have any evidence for its efficacy following oral ingestion. Glucosamine sulfate does, and glucosamine hydrochloride paired with chondroitin sulfate does, but glucosamine hydrochloride does not.
- In regards to the selective italicization just now, it seems the benefits associated with glucosamine supplementation may actually be due to the previously thought to be inactive stabilizer of glucosamine (the sulfate).
Sulfur deficiencies are known to cause osteoarthritic symptoms, and many supplement that provide dietary sulfur (MSM, N-acetylcysteine, SAMe) are used to reduce symptoms of joint pain. Even glucosamine’s anti-osteoarthritic benefits are extremely unreliable, working in some people, and not in others.
The unreliability of the supplement fits well with the hypothesis that sulfur supplementation in response to a deficiency alleviates its symptoms (with no inherent effect on persons with adequate sulfur intake).
Bottom line: Glucosamine actually has no good evidence to support its usage, but another ingredient that has been slipped into the supplement (sulfate) may be effective. Even then, it’s only good for combating osteoarthritic pain, not joint pain.
- McAlindon TE, et al. Glucosamine and chondroitin for treatment of osteoarthritis: a systematic quality assessment and meta-analysis. JAMA. (2000)
- Richy F, et al. Structural and symptomatic efficacy of glucosamine and chondroitin in knee osteoarthritis: a comprehensive meta-analysis. Arch Intern Med. (2003)
- Clegg DO, et al. Glucosamine, chondroitin sulfate, and the two in combination for painful knee osteoarthritis. N Engl J Med. (2006)
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