Greens supplements are one of the fastest-growing supplement categories on the market. Who wouldn't want a day's worth of fruits and veggies in a convenient pill or powder? It is a fact that greens supplements allow you to consume a concentrated version of several fruits, vegetables, and herbs, but their purpose and effectiveness in a hard-training, clean-eating diet are often accompanied by fictional claims.
If used correctly, greens supplements can aid your dietary health but, if used incorrectly, they can potentially sabotage insulin sensitivity and future muscle growth. Green doesn't always mean good. Before you surge through the green light, let's go behind the scenes and separate fact from fiction when it comes to everything green.
1. Greens Can Replace Your Multi: Fiction
Why eat four daily servings of veggies when you can just pop a few pills to get the same nutritional benefits? Well, because you can't. Greens supplements might be full of concentrated fruits and vegetables, but most companies don't formulate their products to meet essential vitamin and mineral levels. This is especially true for hard-training lifters, who require an increased intake of minerals like zinc and magnesium.
Unless your greens supplement lists out all the vitamins and minerals it contains in their total amounts—or at least in percentages relative to the recommended daily value—don't look for them to become your new daily multi.
2. Greens Might Restore Your pH Balance: Fact
The human body likes to maintain homeostasis. Your acid-base balance, or pH balance, is no different. What you eat may influence the body's pH. This is where green supplements can be beneficial. Grains, dairy, and protein are acidic, while green leafy vegetables are alkaline, or basic. Greens supplements are alkaline, and one of their main benefits is their ability to improve your body's acid-base balance.
Some people design entire diets solely around optimizing pH. This seems a little extreme—and is based on fluctuating research—but there is some logic behind it. An unbalanced pH may lead to decreased bone health, excessive cortisol, and slightly impaired thyroid function. So eating more alkaline foods, like fruits and vegetables, isn't a bad idea from a pH perspective.
Since greens supplements are vegetable powerhouses, it's been proposed that they're a good way to optimize your body's pH. They might actually work that way. A study published in the "Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition" found that two weeks of daily supplementation with greens led to significant improvements in urinary pH, moving subjects from an acidic pH to one considered optimal. The results from this pilot-type study suggest that a daily greens supplement may improve an acid-base balance that is out of the optimal range.
3. All Greens Are Created Equal: Fiction
It's important to look for ingredients you can quantify in a greens product. You wouldn't use a creatine supplement without knowing how much creatine was in it, right? While the dose-to-effect relationship with greens supplements isn't as clearly defined as creatine, it's still important to be as informed as possible. If a greens supplement advertises that it has green tea extract, it would be good to know how much green tea extract the product contains. Don't take everything at face value. The company might just be sprinkling in enough of the supplement to say that it's there instead of adding the amount necessary for you to experience a quantifiable effect.
4. Buy greens based on their oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC): Fiction
Oxygen radical absorption capacity (ORAC) was developed by a group of USDA scientists in an effort to quantify the antioxidant capacity of foods. In theory, it was designed to create a level playing field in which we could know how well one food ranks in antioxidant capacity compared to another. Since greens supplements are concentrated fruits and vegetables, their ORAC values have always been very high. This is the main reason greens supplements can be touted as "equivalent to X servings of fruits and vegetables."
The downside: Despite the excitement surrounding it, the use of ORAC isn't as relevant as initially expected. The USDA has even gone as far as removing ORAC ratings from its database. While many products use a high ORAC rating as padding for their main selling point, don't let that be the driver behind your buying decision.
5. Greens supplement Timing Doesn't Matter: Fiction
This is one case where timing does matter—sort of. As long as you don't take a greens supplement immediately post-workout, you can take it any time.
Exercise is a physiologically disruptive process. It promotes inflammation and oxidation. At first glance this would seem like the perfect time to take a supplement loaded with anti-oxidants ... but it isn't. Training is all about recovery and adaption. The inflammation and oxidation that occur as a result of hard training are part of the natural process your body undergoes to create lasting change. Research shows that dosing your body with high amounts of antioxidants post-workout can put the brakes on your capacity to build muscle.
"As long as you don't take a greens supplement immediately post-workout, you can take it any time."
How? Intense exercise leads to the production of compounds called reactive oxygen species (ROS). In other areas of healthcare, those are considered bad. When you hear people talk about oxidative stress, that's ROS at work. However, with intense exercise, ROS may promote the growth of muscle by enhancing the activity of cells in your muscles that are responsible for rebuilding and repairing muscle tissue.
Increased insulin sensitivity is one of the biggest benefits of exercise, but supplementing with antioxidants after exercise can also decrease insulin sensitivity. This means potential gains may go down the drain. To avoid this, don't take your greens supplement within three hours of training.
6. Greens Override The Need For Whole Fruits And Vegetables: Fiction
Greens supplements are not a replacement for eating fruits and vegetables and, if you're already eating 10 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, they're probably unnecessary. The additional antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals won't provide much more of a benefit compared to the fruits and vegetables you're currently eating. However, if you eat a low-carbohydrate diet or a small amount of fruits and veggies, then a greens supplement can be a beneficial addition to your supplement regimen.
"Greens supplements are not a replacement for eating fruits and vegetables and, if you're already eating 10 or more servings of fruits and vegetables per day, they're probably unnecessary."
I especially recommend greens supplements to clients when they travel. Even if you try your best, eating on the road is never as clean as eating at home. The major deficient generally comes in the limited amounts of fruits and vegetables you have access to. Traveling is also stressful on your system, and the added antioxidant power in a greens supplement is a welcomed ally.