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Everyone of us who steps a foot inside a gym has goals. It doesn’t matter if we are just beginning or if we are Olympic level athletes, goals are the foundation of our success. With intense workouts comes a need for full recuperation between training sessions to ensure safe gains. This is optimized by the right amount of rest and proper nutrition.

During the last several decades, there have been enormous changes in understanding the role of diet and supplementation in exercise and physical performance. Many individuals, whether they are athletes, bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts or weekend warriors have reported great gains while maintaining a strict whole foods diet. Are supplements necessary? You bet but don’t take my word for it. Let’s explore the respective benefits of supplements and whole foods and how they can synergistically improve athletic endeavours.

What are whole foods?
These are foods that are eaten as close to their natural form as possible, with minimal processing and refinement. Examples include fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, unprocessed fish, lean meat, and whole grains. They can be cooked without being processed.

Whole foods contain a wide array of nutrients including not only well-known vitamins and minerals, but dozens of other biologically active compounds – all interrelated in a complex biological system supportive of the life of the plant or animal from which the food was derived.


What are supplements? More importantly, what are dietary supplements?
Dietary supplements are vitamins, minerals, herbs, homeopathy, complete proteins or single amino acids (the individual building blocks of proteins), or parts of these substances. They can be in pill, capsule, tablet, powder, liquid or injectable form. They supplement (add to) a healthy diet and can play an important role in maximizing health and wellness.

Whether one is an elite athlete or not, most health care providers would argue that whole foods should be used and make up the majority of an individual’s long term diet. According to Godfrey P. Oakley, professor of epidemiology, Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, “It’s really tough to know what’s in food, but you can know what’s in a pill”. Oakley adds, however, that in instances where a medicinal amount of a nutrient is warranted, supplements do have dose on their side. “You almost can’t eat enough nutrients in plants to get your blood levels to where they should be.”

When we grocery shop, there are many unknowns. For example, were the whole foods grown in depleted soil or watered by acid rain? How many days prior to arriving on your plate were they harvested? Were they grown 10,000 miles from home and harvested before they were ripe? These issues contribute to less than optimum nutrition.

Benefits of Whole Foods
Supplements aren’t intended to be food substitutes because they can’t replicate all of the nutrients and benefits of whole foods, such as fruits and vegetables.

Whole foods offer three main benefits over dietary supplements: 
•    Greater nutrition. Whole foods are complex, containing a variety of the micronutrients your body needs – not just one. An orange, for example, provides vitamin C plus some beta-carotene, calcium and other nutrients.
•    Essential fiber. Whole foods, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes, provide dietary fiber. Most high-fiber foods are also packed with other essential nutrients. Fiber, as part of a healthy diet, can help prevent certain diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and it can also help manage constipation. Fiber helps absorb toxins and is instrumental in removing them from the body through the digestive tract. Fiber helps increase transit time through the digestive system.
•    Protective substances. Whole foods contain other substances important for good health. Fruits and vegetables, for example, contain naturally occurring substances called phytochemicals/phytonutrients, which may help protect you against cancer, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. Many are also good sources of antioxidants – substances that slow down oxidation, a natural process that leads to cell and tissue damage.


Benefits of Supplements
Supplements have dosage on their side and they may be appropriate if you:
•    Don’t eat well or consume fewer than 1,600 calories a day.
•    Are a vegan or a vegetarian who eats a limited variety of foods, you may be deficient in B vitamins, iron and protein. Note: an iron supplement should only be taken on the advice of a doctor after a blood test. Remember, too much iron is more detrimental to health than not enough.
•    Have a medical condition that affects how your body absorbs or uses nutrients, such as chronic diarrhea, food allergies, food intolerance or a disease of the liver, gallbladder, intestines or pancreas.  Perhaps one has Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance that has flattened the cilia in the small intestine making it impossible to take up vitamin B12.
•    Have an overgrowth of intestinal candida.  Candida flourishes with too much sugar, alcohol, or processed foods.  While antibiotics, birth control pills and steroids are lifesavers; they are also major contributors to intestinal yeast, which makes it difficult to absorb nutrients from food.
•    Have a genetic predisposition to low stomach acid, making it difficult to break down and absorb nutrients.
•    Have had surgery on your digestive tract and are not able to digest and absorb nutrients properly.
If any of these conditions apply to you, then talk to your doctor or a dietician about which supplements and what doses might be appropriate for you. Be sure to ask about possible side effects and interactions with any medications you take.

Nutrient Amounts: Quantity in Food vs. Quantity in Pill
Some health authorities may downgrade supplements; however, for athletes and active individuals whose nutritional needs may be higher than those of less active people, it is often difficult to meet all nutritional needs from food alone. For example, you can get much higher amounts of EPA/ DHA from fish oil gel-caps or liquid than you are likely to ever get from eating fish. Quality fish oil supplements are generally made from fish taken from clean waters of the far north and are filtered and tested for the presence of heavy metals. Those who consume fish regularly have valid concerns about the presence of mercury and other heavy metals. High consumption of toxic fish can lead to different health issues including nervous system disease, cardiovascular disease and brain tumors according to a study by Drs. Gonzales and Mendez in the Journal of Toxicology and Pharmacology.

Vitamin D
Is absorbed from the sun on bare skin, eating fatty fish and fortified milk and milk products. It is important in preventing bone disease, heart disease, depression, fatigue and Type 2 diabetes and is fundamental in the production of hormones, to mention just a few of its uses. Most people just don’t get enough Vitamin D from natural sources. Supplements are recommended in the winter in northern climates and in the summer for people who are not outside enough. A simple blood test can determine your vitamin D status and your doctor can recommend the optimal supplement dose.

Calcium and Vitamin D
Work synergistically in the maintenance of bone health.  To achieve recommended daily requirements of calcium, large amounts of milk and green vegetables need to be consumed daily.  For the many people who are sensitive or allergic to milk or any of its components (lactose, casein, whey) milk consumption is out of the question. According to studies by Dr. Holick, PhD, MD Boston University School of Medicine and Dr. Grant, Ph.D., the conditions with strong evidence for a protective effect of vitamin D include several bone diseases, muscle weakness, more than a dozen types of internal cancers, MS and Type I diabetes.

Are Supplements Necessary? Absolutely.
It is important to understand that with any fitness and athletic endeavour, the right training, the right diet and the right supplements all combine to make a significant difference in performance, aesthetics and goals. Whether or not one is an elite athlete, natural bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast, the use of supplements is necessary to achieve maximum results and peak performance. In such cases, there are sectors that are related to performance-limiting factors in which nutrition alone is not enough. Research on the effect of these factors has focused on how to improve or minimize the impact of these limitations. Supplements are often used to negate these limitations.

Performance Limiting Factors: A Target for Supplementation.
Muscle/Fat Mass. The relative strength or power of an athlete declines with increasing fat mass. This holds true for every level of fitness. As such, all physically active individuals who move / replace their own body weight will benefit from having a high lean body mass / low fat mass. Consequently, individuals will benefit from training regimens and nutritional factors that boost protein synthesis and reduce fat mass. Essential amino acids, branched-chain amino acids in combination with carbohydrates and arginine improve lean body mass, strength and physical function (Broheim et al, 2008). EAA is necessary to stimulate muscle protein synthesis and thus increases fat-free mass.

Glycogen Depletion.
A lot of study has focused on the importance of muscle glycogen for energy homeostasis and performance. Studies have shown that as soon as specific muscles or muscle fibres become glycogen depleted, they will be impaired in their ability to perform repeated high-intensity contraction (F.Broun et al, 2002). The availability of carbohydrate and the size of the glycogen stores are important. When the carbohydrate stores in muscle and liver are increased by diet manipulation, athletes are able to perform longer at high exercise intensity. Glucose and glucose polymers for muscle and carbohydrate in combination with amino acids help to maximize muscle and liver glycogen resynthesis. This means supplements are necessary to aid muscle glycogen for energy homeostasis and performance.

Creatine (Creatine Monohydrate).
Creatine is one of the most popular nutritional supplements of all time. It is used to fuel energy in the muscles, primarily for high intensity, short duration exercise such as sprinting and lifting weights. Research shows that it can help you work out harder, longer, recover faster and when used during resistance training, creatine has been shown to increase total body and lean body mass. Of the 300 or so studies that have investigated creatine for its ability to enhance athletic performance, about 70 percent have found statistically significant gains.

Adenine Nucleotides Depletion.
After intensive training sessions there is a decrease of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). Depletion of adenine nucleotides causes a number of metabolic changes to occur in muscle, which leads to a change in TAN (total adenine nucleotide). Some of these changes include depletion of the creatine phosphate store and breakdown of ATP→ADP→AMP→end products/ acidosis in muscle cells, increase in muscle and blood lactate and increase in muscle and blood ammonia. This adds to lactic acid build up and increases muscle soreness. Food components in supplements that are thought to enhance resynthesis as well as storage of ATP are ribose and creatine phosphate.

Poor Performance.
Food components found in specific supplements may increase endurance or maximal oxygen uptake and thereby improve performance. Especially beneficial are coenzyme Q10 and branched-chain amino acids.

Muscle Damage.
Food components in specific supplements can reduce the occurrence of muscle damage during exercise and improve exercise recovery times. Especially beneficial are antioxidants such as vitamin C, vitamin E and Beta-carotene.

There is no substitute for professional advice in creating the correct individualized supplement combination and dosing schedule for each unique individual. If professional advice is not available, be sure to educate yourself well in terms of food and supplements.

Here are some guidelines for food:
•    Choose fresh, whole, locally grown organic foods whenever possible.
•    Eat foods of many colours every day. They are high in antioxidants, vitamins and bioflavonoids.
•    Do not overcook vegetables. The more they are cooked the more water-soluble vitamins are lost.
•    Think out of the box. Steak and vegetables taste great for breakfast.
•    Eat small frequent meals throughout the day to keep energy levels high and nutrition levels even.
•    Calculate and know the amount of protein your body requires every day.  Too much is hard on the digestive system and kidneys, while too little will not create the desired muscle mass.

Here are some guidelines in choosing supplements: 
•    Find supplements as close as possible to their natural form, such as freeze-dried green supplements, vegetable source vitamin E and all organic whey protein.
•    Use a well-known reputable company that uses utmost care in all phases of its production, from ingredients, to manufacturing, to testing for potency and quality of a standardized final product.

While an optimal whole food diet is the preferred method of taking in nutrients required for the highest levels of wellness, in the case of athletes, bodybuilders and active individuals, studies show that supplementation is often necessary to achieve peak results. To fulfill your increased nutritional needs on a daily basis, the combination of whole foods and supplementation work synergistically to achieve your desired results. Be sure to do your research and ensure you are getting high quality standardized supplements that are a must in the creation of the highest performance athletic body possible and are absolutely preferred over cost-saving lower quality products.

To build the fittest, healthiest best body you can, use the finest food and supplements available in conjunction with your training program.

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Michael F. Holick, Ph.D, MD- Vitamin D, Skin and Bone Research Laboratory, Section of Endocrinologoy, Diabetes, and Nutrition Department of Medicine, Boston University Medical Center, Boston University School of Medicine.
Becque, M. D., J. D. Lochmann, and D. R. Melrose (2000). Effects of oral creatine supplementation on muscular strength and body composition. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 32, No. 3, pp. 654–658.

Brouns, F, van Nieuwenhoven, M, Jeukendrup, A & van Marken Lichtenbelt, W (2002) Functional food and food supplements for athletes: from myths to benefit claims substantiation through the study of selected biomarkers. British Journal of Nutrition, 88, S177-S186.
Borsheim, E, Bui, Q-U, T, Tissier, S, Kobayashi, H, Ferrando, A.A and Wolfe, R.R (2008). Effect of amino acid supplementation on muscle mass, strength and physical function in elderly. International Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Metabolism, 27, 189- 195.
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Rennie, MJ & Tipton, KD (2000) Protein and amino acid metabolism during and after exercise and the effects of nutrition. Annual Review of Nutrition, 20, 457-552.

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Angela Anoliefoh, M.Sc. Angela brings with her sound scientific, academic and athletic credentials. She has a Master’s of Science from Purdue University. She has certifications in Biological Medicine and Rubimed (Energetics) Therapy. She is a Medical Support Manager for healthcare practitioners including medical and naturopathic doctors, DTCM to help with protocols. Angela has been an elite Track & Field athlete specializing in the Heptathlon and now competes in Figure.

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