The amount of full sugar monster energy I drank in the Marines was borderline unhealthy. I say borderline because most days of the week I was doing two workouts a day with a diet that had few other areas of added sugar. Was I addicted? Possibly. Were there better options? Definitely. Redbull and Monster were the OG’s of energy drinks. Soon, there were dozens of options like Redline, Bang, Rockstar, Reign, etc. None of them swayed me to convert. Not even Bang energy with their “super creatine” blend. I considered it, but bang energy never listed how much creatine it contained. Come to find out, it didn’t have any. In September of 2022, Monster was awarded $293 million in a lawsuit against Bang for falsely advertising it had “super creatine” when in fact it had none.
You’re probably wondering why bang was allowed to sell their product with false advertising. That is because in 1994 the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act was amended to include supplements and under the new law, “the FDA does NOT have the authority to approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness, or to approve their labeling, before the supplements are sold to the public”. Yes, this includes your protein powder, multi-vitamin, pre-workout, beta-alanine, etc. I know it seems silly the FDA wasn’t given authority over this but lucky for us, there are third party certifications that have stepped in to assist us as consumers. Look for labels such as Informed Choice, USP, or NSF. These companies ensure the supplement has only what it says is in it and in the quantity it says it has.
While these third party certifications verify what and how much is in the product, what about the effectiveness of the product itself? A good place to start on researching supplements is with the ISSN’s exercise and sports nutrition review and recommendations. I’ll highlight a few supplements but check the link for the full list. Creatine monohydrate is the most studied supplement and in the authors view, the best supplement at increasing high intensity exercise capacity and lean body mass in training. 𝞫-alanine also has strong evidence of its effectiveness at improving high intensity exercise capacity in the 1-4 minute range and as a result, increasing lean muscle mass. Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s) surprisingly have mixed evidence. I say surprisingly because we know Leucine plays a huge role in protein synthesis signaling and yet, the evidence is mixed on just how much it actually helps in application. Whatever the future of BCAA evidence turns out to be when it comes to protein intake, it just makes more sense to spend your money on either whey or casein protein. These both have strong evidence they work, are cheap, and are complete protein sources. Finally, MCT oil (medium-chain triglycerides) became wildly popular through the ketogenic diet with promises of ‘immediate’ energy that was ‘healthy’ and would keep you ketogenic. Unfortunately for ketogenic dieters, the studies offer little support that MCT oil enhances athletic performance and might actually hinder it due to the gastrointestinal distress many study participants reported.
At this point you’re probably thinking this is way too complicated. Now you are wondering if you could get these supplements from your diet. It depends. Protein powders can be swapped for animal sources of protein like chicken or greek yogurt because they are complete protein sources high in leucine, making it perfect for building muscle. On the flip side, for vegans it might be worthwhile finding a protein supplement since plant protein sources are incomplete protein sources and low in leucine. Nitrates can be found in high enough doses in beetroot juice, but some would argue that is a supplement. Eating beets as part of a dinner would not be a large enough dose of nitrate to reap any performance benefits. On a side note; nitrates have limited or mixed evidence on their effectiveness for athletic performance so again, check the ISSN review for more info.
Creatine is found in meat but unfortunately, you would have to eat anywhere from 1-3 lb of meat per day to get the required dose to reap the benefits. Coconut oil is 54% MCT oil, so you could theoretically consume coconut oil but it would be better to supplement so you don’t get the other fats and added calories.
Supplements are exciting yet confusing. For most people exercising to stay healthy you will be just fine without supplementing. If working out is your passion and/or you want to see serious results, then Creatine, 𝞫-alanine, and protein powder all seem to be the best bang for the buck in terms of price to performance to efficacy. After that, if you want to go down the supplements rabbit hole then you can dip your toes into sodium bi-carbonate (yes this is baking soda) and nitrates. As always, you should talk to your doctor before taking a new supplement. Even well studied and supported supplements like creatine have side effects such as abdominal cramps and headaches that affect certain populations. Remember that supplements are not regulated before they are marketed and sold, so make sure they are third party tested. Shameless plug: you can use our affiliate links to Thorne and ensure they are tested by NSF.
-Enrique, B.S Nutrition