While it's best to get your nutrients through whole, natural foods, supplementation is a great way to complete—or enhance—an already solid diet. For Bodybuilding.com athlete Kathleen Tesori, supplementation is one just key piece of the healthy, fit lifestyle puzzle.
"For me, supplementation is about filling in nutritional gaps to ensure I maintain a healthy immune system and nourish my body," she says. "Even those who are trying to maintain a well-balanced diet and a good physical activity schedule might still have holes to fill if they're looking to meet their goals and optimize their performance."
While fruits and vegetables are part of Tesori's meal plan year-round, and lean proteins are a must, a busy schedule makes it hard for her to always find the time to have a sit-down meal. "Real food is always my first priority, but with work and a busy schedule, it's not always a convenient option," Tesori adds.
Even when you have the time to prep a home-cooked meal, the foods you consume might not always be as nutrient-rich as you think. "I believe that mass production and re-engineering have made our foods less nutrient-rich than they once were," she says. "Even if we ate vegetables with every meal, we might still be deficient."
Make sure you're getting all of the nutrients you need to grow strong with a supplement stack that's tailored to your needs. Not sure where to start? Check out what Tesori uses on a daily basis!
Supplement Alpha lipoic acid (ALA)
Dosage: 300 mg
Time taken: With breakfast and lunch, especially during stress or show prep
Benefits: ALA, a common ingredient found in multivitamins and anti-aging supplements, acts as an antioxidant, protecting the body against damage caused by aging and stress.1 "I was introduced to this supplement during my competition prep" Kathleen says. "I still take it when I'm doing intense workouts and working towards a definite goal."
Current research suggests that ALA may also offer some anti-inflammatory benefits, making it a great supplement to add to your stack during periods of intense training.2
Supplement Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
Dosage: 10 g
Time Taken: Every day before training; drink throughout workout
Benefits: BCAAs help prevent the breakdown of muscle. "When dieting and working hard in the gym, you risk losing muscle because your body might break it down to help fuel your workout," Kathleen says. "BCAAs help prevent that breakdown cycle and fight fatigue."
BCAAs serve as an important energy source during exercise, and can help improve recovery and reduce post-exercise soreness.3 Kathleen combines BCAAs and L-carnitine before cardio sessions and workouts.
Supplement Digestive enzymes
Taken: A serving with heaviest meals
Dosage: Serving as directed by product
Benefits: Enzymes help our bodies break down food, separate nutrients from waste, and aid in the absorption of nutrients. Taking a daily dose of digestive enzymes helps replenish or add to natural enzymes that may have been lost when cooking your foods.
"Without enzymes, our body's digestive tract has to work extremely hard, which can lead to indigestion, gas, bloating, constipation, and reflux," says Kathleen. "Since I eat six meals a day, I look for enzyme products that contain amylase to digest carbohydrates, protease to digest proteins, and lipase to digest fats."
Supplement Essential fatty acids (EFAs)
Time Taken: With breakfast, lunch, and dinner
Dosage: 1000 mg per serving
Benefits: EFAs are needed in almost every area of the body to help aid many different functions. While you might be eating fish and snacking on the occasional handful of walnuts—both of which are rich in essential fatty acids—it doesn't hurt to supplement. EFAs are essential for building healthy cells within the body, and maintaining brain and nerve function. EFAs have even been shown to reduce the inflammatory response following intense exercise, lessening post-exercise muscle damage.4
Time Taken: Before bed, first thing in the morning, or post-workout
Dosage: 1 scoop (5 g)
Benefits: Glutamine is an amino acid involved in protein and glycogen synthesis. It can also help provide support for the immune system. During exercise, glutamine helps regulate your body's pH by removing excess ammonia, so it comes as no surprise that during intense workouts there is a dramatic decrease in the level of glutamine found in plasma and tissue. Supplementing your diet with glutamine may help replenish glutamine stores, helping you recover faster and stay healthy!5,6
Time Taken: Before each cardio session with water
Dosage: Serving as directed by product
Benefits: L-carnitine is an amino acid that serves as a transporter of fatty acids into the cell, and may help increase the use of fat for energy.7 "This nonstimulant weight-loss product helps convert fat into energy and makes me sweat, which is why I use it before my cardio sessions," Tesori says.
While carnitine is found naturally in red meats, supplementation can help. "I'm a huge fan of flank steak, but I eat it sparingly and usually for a special occasion," Kathleen adds. Including the supplement in her pre-workout regimen ensures that she's getting the benefits daily.
Time Taken: Once daily with food (any meal of the day)
Dosage: Serving as directed by product
Benefits: When it comes to meeting your daily requirements for vitamins and minerals, even the most dialed-in diets can fall short. For this reason, Kathleen incorporates multivitamins into her diet. Aside from paying close attention to what the supplement contains, she also keeps an eye on dosage and frequency before making her decision.
"I like multivitamins you only need to take once a day," she says. "I also look for a liquid capsule because they dissolve more quickly, which leads to less waste." The benefits, she says, are clear. "I notice a positive difference in my hair and nail growth and strength when using a great multivitamin."
When picking out a multivitamin that will work for you, look for products that contain iron and zinc, which can oftentimes be lacking in the diet. Females tend to be low in iron (due to menstruation and a lower consumption of red meat), so look for a supplement that provides 18 mg of iron, and wash it down with a little orange juice, as vitamin C can help increase the absorption rate of iron.
Zinc is an essential micronutrient that is required by over 100 enzymes, some of which are responsible for protein synthesis, immune function, and blood formation.8 Strenuous exercise can increase the loss of zinc from the body, so unless you are a frequent consumer of seafood or red meat, look for a supplement that has 8 mg of zinc.
Supplement Powdered greens
Time Taken: When traveling or during cold season
Dosage: 1 packet a day or 1 serving depending on the product
Benefits: Eating whole fruits and vegetables is a must, but when your diet falls short on dirt candy, supplementation can help you maintain a balanced diet. A scoop or pack of powered greens is a great way to squeeze in a few more vitamins and minerals, especially when you're traveling and don't have access to your normal veggie stash. "It's an easy way to fill in the holes of a diet lacking in fruits and vegetables," Kathleen adds.
Supplement Protein powder
Time Taken: 1 or 2 times a day, usually as second and fourth meals of the day
Dosage: 20-25 g per serving
Benefits: Protein is essential for tissue growth and repair, so it's one of the most important nutrients for any hard-training athlete.
When you're on your way to the gym or rushing to get to the office, portability is key. That's where protein shakes come in. They're especially convenient for on-the-go nutrition. Plus, they're inexpensive. "Good, tasty protein powders range in price from $0.89-$2.00 a serving," says Kathleen. "Protein powder is easy to pack on trips or to keep a few servings at work."
New to the world or protein powders? Always check the labels. "I look for powders that are high in protein, are gluten- and lactose-free, contain little to no preservatives, and have great taste and texture," Tesori says. Look for protein powders containing whey, as this fast-acting protein can help increase rates of protein synthesis, helping you maintain your hard-earned muscle mass.
- Shay, K. P., Moreau, R. F., Smith, E. J., Smith, A. R., & Hagen, T. M. (2009). Alpha-lipoic acid as a dietary supplement: molecular mechanisms and therapeutic potential. Biochimica et Biophysica Acta (BBA)-General Subjects,179010), 1149-1160.
- Ren, J., & Chung, S. H. (2007). Anti-inflammatory effect of ?-linolenic acid and its mode of action through the inhibition of nitric oxide production and inducible nitric oxide synthase gene expression via NF-?B and mitogen-activated protein kinase pathways. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 55(13), 5073-5080.
- Shimomura, Y., Inaguma, A., Watanabe, S., Yamamoto, Y., Muramatsu, Y., Bajotto, G., ... & Mawatari, K. (2010). Branched-chain amino acid supplementation before squat exercise and delayed-onset muscle soreness. International Journal of Sport Nutrition, 20(3), 236.
- Jouris, K. B., McDaniel, J. L., & Weiss, E. P. (2011). The effect of omega-3 fatty acid supplementation on the inflammatory response to eccentric strength exercise. Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, 10(3), 432.
- Hiscock, N., Petersen, E. W., Krzywkowski, K., Boza, J., Halkjaer-Kristensen, J., & Pedersen, B. K. (2003). Glutamine supplementation further enhances exercise-induced plasma IL-6. Journal of Applied Physiology, 95(1), 145-148.
- Castell, L. M., & Newsholme, E. A. (1997). The effects of oral glutamine supplementation on athletes after prolonged, exhaustive exercise. Nutrition,13(7), 738-742.
- Cerretelli, P., & Marconi, C. (1990). L-carnitine supplementation in humans. The effects on physical performance. International Journal of Sports Medicine,11(01), 1-14.
- Hunt, J. R. (2003). Bioavailability of iron, zinc, and other trace minerals from vegetarian diets. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 78(3), 633S-639S.