Are Vitamin Supplements Worth Taking?

Are vitamin supplements worth taking? Here’s the full text of an interview with Dan DeFigio about nutrition supplements on CNN’s Fit Nation:

Are Vitamin Supplements Worth Taking?

A nutrition supplement is a substance that isn’t whole food that is eaten in order to ingest its nutrients. Vitamins are supplements. We don’t “need” supplements to stay alive or to stay reasonably healthy, but there is a good body of scientific evidence indicating that proper nutrition supplementation can improve health and physical performance. *Proper* is the key word — there’s a lot of junk in the nutrition marketplace.

Do different athletes need different vitamins, if so can you give some examples of who needs what and why?

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Some vitamins are worth taking. Endurance athletes will often benefit from a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement with a B-complex, because lengthy cardiovascular exercise chews up a lot of B vitamins, and heavy sweating can deplete minerals.

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Strength athletes may need additional protein to maintain muscle mass, so a whey protein supplement is generally a good idea.

How about muscle-building supplements?

Most performance-enhancement or muscle-building supplements for athletes are junk, but there are a few supplements that are worth the money. Here are a few nutrition supplements that have solid research backing their use by athletes:

  1. Creatine Monohydrate
    A safe, inexpensive, and well-researched supplement that improves muscular strength and explosive power. Read more about creatine here.
  2. Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)
    Proteins are made up of chains of amino acids. Three of these amino acids (leucine, iso-leucine, and valine), called Branched-Chain Amino Acids due to their chemical structure, make up a third of total muscle protein. Exercise uses up a ton of BCAA, and when athletes become depleted of BCAA it is not possible to maintain muscle tissue. Supplementing with a couple grams of branched-chain amino acids each day can help spare muscle tissue, increase muscle protein synthesis, and increase recovery. Take your BCAA capsules along with a standard protein source.
  3. Glutamine
    Glutamine is the most abundant amino acid in the body, and a critical component of the immune system. Adequate glutamine reserves are vital for muscle growth. Without boring you with a biochemisty lesson, glutamine powder is not very stable in solution, so OKG (ornithine alpha-ketoglutarate – the carbon skeleton of glutamine) is a better choice. 2-4 grams each day (with other protein) should make a noticeable improvement in muscular gains and recovery time.

Should different genders be interested in different vitamins and supplements? Or, do men and women ever need different amounts of the same things?

For the most part, men and women have very similar nutrition needs. Women may want to monitor their iron levels and if warranted, seek out a multi-vitamin/mineral supplement with additional iron. Menopausal women concerned about bone density should supplement with a good osteoporosis prevention mix that includes calcium, magnesium, vitamin D, boron, and vitamin K2. Pregnant women need extra folic acid and need to watch out for too much vitamin A.

Are there any vitamins or supplements that you commonly see over used or misused? For example, do we really need all that vitamin C?

Megadoses of anything are generally not recommended. The research overwhelmingly shows that there is very little risk in using vitamin supplements in reasonable doses. The same cannot be said for other substances, though. There are many, many “supplements” on the market that promise all sorts of performance enhancement, testosterone booting, longevity, and fountain-of-youthfulness. Most of them are garbage, and some of them contain contaminants or other dangerous substances. Stick to “normal” supplements that are supported by research. Be sure to buy brands that test well in the lab for purity and labeling accuracy, and that carry the USP and/or GMP manufacturing seals.

What results can we reasonably expect from a steady intake of vitamins and supplements? Do clients ever have unreasonable expectations based on misinformation?

For the most part, sensible supplementation can improve your energy and your immune system function. Correct supplementation can improve bone density and athletic performance, when combined with good overall nutrition and proper exercise.

Many less-than-proven products will promise to erase your wrinkles, save your hair, supercharge your libido, and make you a superhero genius. If you believe these silly claims you will be disappointed. And poorer. You can’t believe advertising, you have to do your own research.

What are your most commonly recommended supplements?

Basic nutrition supplementation can benefit just about anyone, athlete or not. For basic nutrition support, the kinds of supplements that can improve your health and immune system function are:

  • High-quality multi-vitamin/mineral supplement with a B-complex built in.
  • Fish oil (1 or 2 grams per day is a good dose).
  • Probiotic (preferably a brand with a wide spectrum of bacterial strains — see

Optional “basic” supplements would be whey protein, if the individual needs more protein in the diet; or a good organic green drink for extra vegetables. The usefulness/necessity of these depends on what the rest of your diet looks like.