The unsupported claims, inflated price points and aggressive sales tactics of products ranging from recovery beverages to “fat burning” pills to meal replacement drinks can make the vast nutrition marketplace more than a little confusing. And it becomes even more challenging when those hawking the products are well-known fitness brands imploring you to put your health in their hands.
Understand, the Whole9 doesn’t sell any supplements. We actually don’t push supplements in any way – everything we’ve ever written about, from fish oil to Vitamin D3 to magnesium, has been presented as an optional addition to your daily, healthy, eat-real-food diets. And while there are a few supplements we take on a daily basis, these aren’t things we think YOU should take… they’re just what we use for ourselves, in our own context. So we thought it would be helpful if we shared a bit of our own evaluation process with you, so you can make your own educated decisions about which supplements to take, and which to ditch.
Our Checklist, Revisited
Today’s post details our Supplement Evaluation Checklist – the criteria we use when purchasing vitamins, minerals or other supplements. We run each product through this checklist, making sure it meets every single one of these criteria before continuing with our evaluation. If a supplement fails at any point, with very few exceptions, we skip it. If a product passes each test, we’re then left with one final question – one that we are able to answer only for ourselves.
Start at the top, and ask yourself the following questions about each and every supplement you’re being pitched, sold or pressured to take. Does it pass the test?
1. Does it contain garbage ingredients? Does your supplement contain, in no particular order: added sugar (in any form), grains (wheat, corn, or other grain by-products), dairy (whey, casein, or other dairy by-products), soy (other than in trace amounts or in “lecithin” form, which we’re not concerned with), artificial colors or chemical-sounding ingredients you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce? Even worse, does the manufacturer refuse to clarify their “proprietary blend”, leaving you in the dark as to what their supplement actually contains? If quality or full disclosure is compromised, your evaluation ends here, folks.
2. Is the product designed to replace real, high quality, fresh food in your diet? Meal replacement shakes, vegetables-in-a-pill or breakfast bars all promise to do just as much good as real food in your everyday diet. Foolishness. There isn’t a powder, pill or shake in the world that can replace the vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber (the stuff that actually makes you healthy) found in natural, healthy, fresh foods.
3. Are the product’s claims too good to be true? The supplement industry is wholly unregulated – which means manufacturers can make all sorts of claims about their product’s ingredients and benefits. Beware of inflated, unsupported claims that sound too good to be true, and have little to no peer-reviewed long-term research to back them up. The idea that a pill can “put a protective coating around your muscle so only the fat is trimmed off” should be enough to make you both laugh out loud and run for the hills.
4. Does the label focus on aesthetic changes? Products that are designed with the primary purpose of slimming/leaning/trimming you out miss the forest for the trees, often in a dangerous way. Most of these “slim” pills, powders and shakes contain ingredients that could be harmful to your health, like stimulants and diuretics. And all of these supplements are asking you to focus on what’s in the mirror instead of long-term, sustainable health and body composition. Let’s face it – if you lose a few pounds by taking a pill without effectively changing your eating habits, how likely are you to actually stay at that weight?
5. Is there a hard and heavy sales pitch behind your consideration? If your motivation to buy is based on an aggressive, big-business marketing campaign, fear-mongering (“If you don’t take this pill, you won’t succeed!”) or generalized group-think (“All the event competitors use our shakes”), then think twice. Beware of products who yell, scream and intimidate to get your attention. When was the last time you saw a You-Tube commercial for kale?
6. Finally, is it cost-prohibitive to eating better quality food? Even if the supplement meets all of the above criteria, if the daily cost means you’ll have to cut your real-food budget just to afford it, it’s simply not worth it. You’ll always get more benefit from improving your meat, fish and egg quality and choosing fresh, local vegetables and fruits, so skip the supplement and save your pennies for a quarter cow and a CSA share instead.
The Final Cut
If you’ve run the supplement-in-question through our entire checklist and it still makes the cut, then it’s time for you to exercise your own judgment. At worst, your vitamin, mineral or supplement is going to put you out a few dollars and still not provide the purported benefits – a waste of money, but no negative effects on your overall health and fitness. At best, the supplement will provide a boost to the already high quality food you are eating, and help you fill in those small missing pieces in your daily diet and lifestyle. Make up your own mind. Do your own research, talk to someone you trust, or try it for yourself for 30 days and evaluate your own experience.
In the meantime, take a peek inside your own cabinets, and see which bottles would pass our Evaluation Checklist. Post your results (and your thoughts) to comments.