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Dietary supplements
by on Monday, February 17, 2014  (2 comments)

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I used to take large doses of antioxidant supplements daily. My supplement was a combination of Beta Carotene, Vitamin C and Vitamin E. It was recommended to me by my doctor way back when I was in high school and I kept taking it until just a few years ago. I figured it might help and what's the harm?

Did you notice that I stated I "used to" take these supplements? I've been following Steve Magness for quite some time and he, along with a few others, was pointing out studies (such as this and this) that said not only was antioxidant supplementation not beneficial but it might actually dampen the body's response to training.

Now, a new study that again took up the topic of how antioxidants affect our training has come out. The results? Well, not a ringing endorsement for antioxidant supplementation. While running performance didn't seem to be affected, there was clearly a difference between those taking the antioxidants and those who didn't at a cellular level. There was evidence of an increase in mitochondria in those who were on the placebo, while there was not in those who were taking antioxidants. Remember, mitochondria are often referred to as the "power plants" of the muscle cells, where glucose and oxygen are processed to produce the form of energy the muscle cells can use. At the cellular level, more mitochondria is one of the key results we're looking for when we do aerobic training.

It's a little confusing that we would see a difference in mitochondria production but not a difference in running performance but the lesson here is that, however you look at the results of this study, antioxidant supplementation did not help the runners.

It's not just the vitamins we know about that make our foods healthy. There is more going on and supplements that pump us full of this incomplete nutrition aren't helpful and might even be harmful. Focus instead of eating whole foods. Nature has things pretty well figured out, don't assume we can engineer things that will work better than nature. If you don't know how the supplements might affect you, don't assume like I falsely did some time ago that they couldn't hurt. That could very well be a bad assumption, just as mounting evidence suggests my assumption was.

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2 comments
Lighty

This is interesting. The only time in my life I took vitamin supplements was during my pregnancy because they were prescribed by my doctor. Every pregnant woman I knew took prenatal vitamins so I took them. They made me nauseous and turned my pee a bright almost neon yellow, but I endured. I have three healthy children so I suppose it was worth it. But aside from the prenatal vitamins, I have never taken any supplements. The reason being I absolutely HATE swallowing pills! I had a very hard time each day getting those enormous prenatal vitamins down my throat so I was overjoyed when I was allowed to stop taking them. Aside from that I'm also somewhat paranoid about what's in the pills. Do you really know what's in that little fluid filled capsule or that tightly packed pill? What about the funky colored candy coating or the nauseating smell some of them have? I prefer to eat an apple, carrots or some salad greens. At least I have some idea where they came from in nature, a tree, a root or leaves from a plant.

I know many people, my mother included, who swallow a plate full of supplements each day. Just watching my mom gulp all those colorful pills down sets off my gag reflex. I have to look away. She's healthy and active in her 70s and she firmly believes it's because she takes all these man-made processed little pills. I don't know. I don't buy it. I'm looking at 50 in a couple of months and I feel just fine without ever having taken supplements of any kind.

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Ryan

I should disclose that I do still take supplements. I take iron because I've been anemic twice in my life (once before running and once as a collegiate runner) and I need to continue supplementing to maintain healthy levels. If I stop supplementing, my levels begin dropping. Even if I'm eating tons of spinach leaves or other good dietary iron sources. I also take a one a day and Vitamin D, not every day but most days.

The message I'm trying to get across is that these supplements can do harm. You have to know the risks associated with these. For me, the iron is critical. There are risks but the risk for me personally of not continuing to supplement is greater. So I supplement and monitor. As for the other supplements I take, I'm always on watch for new research on them. I'm especially looking for negative news.

That's what I think people should do. I think you're right that we don't know a lot of what is in supplements and how it might affect us. The supplement industry is the Wild Wild West right now. Very unregulated and unmonitored. As a result, you have to be very careful.

I obviously believe some supplements can be beneficial or I wouldn't take them. I just want to get out the message that they can be harmful and we should pay close attention to what we're taking and make sure we understand the pros and cons. It would also be nice if they were more closely regulated and monitored so we could have confidence that what we're told we're getting (and not getting) is in fact the truth.

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