…in physique development and sports performance, even rather intelligent folks can be resistant to removing any one element of the puzzle when they are currently pleased with the results being produced and see things consistently moving in the desired direction over time. Are there any practical ways to help such people break the ‘perception is reality’ mindset where they would otherwise embrace evidence to the contrary that may be presented but are pleased with their results to the point of wanting to stick to the current recipe or rotation of recipes ‘as is’?

That was part of a comment a user made in response to Alan Aragon’s recent post. The quote raises an interesting point in regards to how some people think about supplementation. Which is, despite being aware of the lack of any evidence of efficacy of the supplement in question, they continue taking it once they started.

Among some people there is an almost superstitious fear involved in removing any “pieces of the puzzle,” due to a belief that on some level it might affect their results. The pattern of thinking is similar to that of obsessive compulsory disorder. The individual is aware of his irrational behavior, but dares not break the pattern for fear that bad things will happen.

Not unique to supplementation, this thought-pattern also includes certain behaviors related to training and diet. I’ve met and conversed with a fair share of educated people that clung to certain irrational beliefs in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence disproving them. But let’s focus on supplementation for now.

What’s the harm? Is it a money issue? Partly. After all, you’re spending money on stuff that isn’t doing you any good while supplement-company CEOs are laughing all the way to the bank. Then again, most people, including me, spend money on things with questionable usefulness. Unless your supplement regimen is seriously impacting your economy, this argument may be a moot point.

The real problem in this obsessive over-reliance on supplements is that they may actually be hampering your efforts on many levels. Here are few examples of what I mean:

  • I’ve dealt with a fair share of clients that were resistant to the idea of omitting the post-workout-cocktail that they had relied upon until working with me. These “recovery shakes” consisted of an ample amount of very high GI-carbs, such as waxy maize starch, maltodextrin or dextrose, mixed with whey protein. In some cases this added more than 400 calories to their diet. That’s more than 400 non-satiating liquid calories with low nutrient value that were a big part of why they couldn’t lose fat efficiently in the past. These post-workout-cocktails serve no function whatsoever for the recreational weight trainer. Faster muscle glycogen synthesis is a moot point for everyone but elite athletes, who may train twice a day. The use of recovery drinks during a fat loss regimen is extremely counterproductive. Those calories are much better spent on whole foods.
  • Over-reliance on protein shakes to meet protein intake poses a similar problem. People need to learn to eat and enjoy whole food protein. In more than a few cases it’s just an issue of laziness or habituation.
  • Some people believe that supplementing with BCAA on top of an already BCAA-rich diet has benefits despite any evidence to suggest so. Alan deals with this issue in his latest research review. Similar to the points made above, that this only provides additional non-satiating calories to your diet, there’s also evidence to suggest that BCAA-supplementation may have “anti-anorexic” properties and stimulate appetite. Certainly not a desirable effect during dieting. If you’re eating high quality protein sources such as meat, fish, cottage cheese and egg-protein, there is no need to supplement with BCAA.

Note: I recommend BCAA-supplementation for fasted training, but not in addition to meals or in between meals. My stance hasn’t changed much since the BCAA-roundtable I participated in.

  • A high calcium intake equals better fat loss, but very high intakes are linked to prostate cancer.
  • Mega-dosing omega-3-fatty acids seems to be a trend in some circles, but this comes with a list of not so desirable side-effects. The less serious ones includes fish breath and diarrhea, and the more serious one is excessive bleeding. Fish-oil has a blood-thinning effect which may cause your blood not to coagulate quick enough if you suffer a cut or injury. And if you’re unlucky enough to suffer a major injury, this side-effect can potentially prove fatal. You could also be increasing your risk of exposure to chemicals and toxins like mercury and PCB (on a related note: see this).
  • Antioxidants are popular these days. They claim to do everything from slowing the ageing process to help with recovery from training. But recent studies show that ingesting antioxidants from supplements weakens the body’s own response to deal with free radicals created by training. In a similar vein, excessive Vitamin C-intake slows mitochondrial biogenesis and prevents some cellular adaptations to exercise.