Can Supplements Help You Lose Weight and Gain Lean Muscle?
The answer to the question, “Can supplements help you lose weight and gain lean muscle?” is — it depends on what else you’re doing. If you’re doing nothing else suitable to losing weight and gaining muscle, then supplements won’t do a thing for you; however, added to an appropriate diet and exercise regime, then “yes” the right supplement choices can be beneficial. Here are dozens to consider.
IN THIS article, I make the case that:
- Being lean matters more to your health — particularly as it relates to cancer — than simply looking good.
- What and when you eat are the biggest factors that influence lean body mass, followed by exercise; and
- Supplements can support your dietary and exercise efforts, but are neither necessary nor sufficient. This means that without a worthy diet and exercise program, forget the supplements — after all, what would they be “supplementing” if you’re doing nothing else?
In this article, you’ll discover:
- Why you may be fatter than you think — take the two tests;
- Why body fat matters greatly to your health (it’s not just aesthetics);
- How belly fat promotes cancer;
- Why exercise — specifically Interval Training — reduces chronic, age-related disease;
- How to eat right by reducing your feeding window;
- Which supplements may help reduce appetite; and
- Which supplements may help improve exercise and athletic performance.
Let’s dig in…
Why You’re Fatter Than You Think
Given that about two-thirds of much of the world’s population is either overweight or obese, your frame of reference may be slanted. It’s like you’re strolling through the mall and nearly everyone you see appears to be more overweight than you, so you think, “Hey, I’m not fat.”
Given that your comparative assessment is against an overweight population, is it really true that you’re not fat?
There are two quick and accurate enough ways to find out:
- Calculate your height-to-waist ratio.
- Look at yourself naked.
BMI is the standard method for indicating body composition in terms of weight, but as I wrote here, BMI can be worthless in some cases, and even if it accurately categorizes your body composition, it indicates little about your health.
Not so with your Waist-to-Height Ratio.
Check out these charts:
The data above come from a review of a study by scientists at City University London. Their three big conclusions:
- Your waistline should be no more than half your height.
- People adding inches on the waists could die early.
- A 30-year-old man standing at 5ft 10in with a 56in waist could lose 20.2 years of life expectancy.
Here’s how you measure WHR:
Use a cloth measuring tape, and measure halfway between the top of your hip bones, and the bottom of your rib cage (which for me is just over my belly button). Stand up straight, breathe in deeply, exhale, relax (don’t suck in your waist) and then see what the tape measure tells you.
Aim for your WHR to be half your height; ideally less.
Look at yourself naked
When I’m feeling chubby, I tend to avoid glancing up at the large mirror in my bathroom as I exit the shower. It’s a mind game — I know I’ll get down on myself if the mirror reveals chubby Joe. But I’m not delusional, as I can tell by how my pants fit if I need to trim down. Once the pants fit again, I’m happy to look at the mirror and mutter, “Job well done.”
Before you play such mind games, however, you need to be honest with yourself about your level of body fat. A real simple way of getting some clarity on that is to compare yourself with pictures of others who have measured their body fat, such as these:
Males should top out at 20% and females at 25%.
Why Your Body Fat Matters
Being aesthetically pleasing is nice, but the important reason your body fat matters is because too much of it endangers your health.
We’re taking about increased risks for heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome and even cancer.
- American males have a 40% chance of getting cancer and a 22% chance of dying from it; and
- American females have a 38% chance of getting cancer and a 19% chance of dying from it.
Turns out, that when it comes to cancer, body fat matters bit time.
The statistics are startling!
Excess Weight Raises Cancer Risk
In his latest newsletter, Dr. Gabe Mirkin summarized recent research that studied the effect of body weight on the incidence of cancer. He cited a study from Spain of 54,446 people (Prev Med, Jan 17, 2018) that showed:
- Overweight women are 12 times more likely to develop cancer and five times more likely to suffer a heart attack than women of normal weight.
- Overweight men are two times more likely to develop cancer than those of normal weight.
This study also showed that only 26% of the study population had normal weight. Overweight women who lost 12 pounds in their 40s, and did not put it back on, reduced their risk of suffering cancer by 20%.
Being overweight is associated with almost five million cancer deaths each year. Gaining as little as ten pounds between ages 18 and 55 is associated with increased risk for heart attacks, diabetes and the obesity-related cancers later in life (JAMA, 2017;318:255–69).
Here are some more numbers to underscore the point:
— The American Association for Cancer Research reports that being overweight is linked to 25 % of newly diagnosed cancer cases in the U.S. (Am Cancer Soc. Cancer Prevention & Early Detection: Facts & Figures 2017-2018). Adding lack of exercise and a pro-inflammatory diet increases the number to 33%.
— The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that being overweight increases risk for 17 different types of cancers: colon, rectum, esophagus, kidney, breast (women), endometrium, stomach, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, ovary and thyroid, as well as fatal prostate cancer and breast cancer in men, meningioma, multiple myeloma and B-cell lymphoma (N Engl J Med, Aug 25, 2016;375:794-798).
How Does Weight Gain — Particularly In The Belly — Increase Cancer Risk?
A study from Stanford (Cell, Jan 2018) showed that when people gained six pounds in one month, they suffered unhealthful changes in:
- Genes in their cells,
- Types of colon bacteria,
- Levels of inflammation, and
- Heart-attack risk factors.
After they lost the added weight, these indicators returned to normal.
Increased cancer risk is associated specifically with belly fat, a topic I waded deeply into in my article, Will Your Body Fat Cause Cancer?
Dr. Mirkin explains the nefarious biology of belly fat, which begins with the liver.
Depositing fat in the liver can prevent the liver of removing excess sugar from the bloodstream. This has downstream effects, because a high rise in blood sugar causes sugar to stick to all the cells in your body and damage them.
Your immune system responds to cell damage in exactly the same way that it responds to invading germs — it produces the same cells and chemicals called cytokines that attack and kill germs to turn on your immunity.
Your immune system is supposed to kill germs that invade your body and to help heal damaged tissues. Once this is accomplished, the immune system is supposed to, in effect, back off; however, if it stays active, the same mechanisms that it uses to kill germs and heal tissues causes systemic inflammation.
If you have systemic inflammation, your immune system attacks your genetic material, your DNA. DNA controls tells your cells that they are supposed to divide a certain number of times and then die, having been replaced by new cells. However, if the DNA in cells is damaged, the cells can forget to die and keep on dividing.
For example, breast cancer cells do not kill a person as long as they stay in the breast. They kill by becoming so abundant that they spread from the breast to invade and destroy your brain, lungs, bones and whatever other organs they invade.
The foods that cause the highest rises in blood markers of inflammation include sugar-added foods and drinks, animal fats and fried foods. One important step you can take to minimize inflammation’s role in cancer is to eat anti-inflammatory foods.
Dr. Mirkin says that the risk for cancer can be reduced by:
- Restricting calories, which lowers insulin and insulin-like growth factor-I (Frontiers in Physiology, 2012;3(318):1–10), and inflammation (Cancer Research, 2012;72(9):2314–2326).
- Regular exercise (Nature Reviews Cancer, 2008;8(3):205–211).
- Eating lots of vegetables and other anti-inflammatory foods (British Medical Journal, 2006;333(7578):1109–1111; BMJ, Nov 10, 2011;343).
How To Move More
So, you pulled out the tape measure and saw that your WHR is more than one half; meaning, that if you double your waist measurement, the sum is more than twice your height.
Then you stood naked in front of mirror and compared what you saw with those pics I posted above, and saw a disturbingly high body fat number.
Finally, you got rattled by the stats regarding how being overweight makes you vulnerable to a host of chronic diseases, including one that rattles everyone’s cage, cancer.
What do you do?
- Eat right (and I’ll explain that in a bit); and
- Move more (a lot more).
Moving more means just what it suggests:
- Rather than sitting at your desk (or on your couch for hours), set you’re smart phone timer to ring each hour, and when it does, get up and do move vigorously. Squats, burpees, push-ups, walking up stairs are all good options.
- Rather than slowly walking around the block, walk quickly up hills — you need to move under resistance (the slope of the hill) so that your muscles are worked and you build more of it, or retain what you have.
- Lift weights or do calisthenics.
For more about exercise options, click here and see what suits you.
Whatever you do or contemplate doing for exercise, include Interval Training.
If 82-year old Dr. Gabe Mirkin can do it, so can you. In his article, Intervals for Everyone, Dr. Mirkin points out:
All healthy people can benefit from some form of interval training. They can pick up the pace for a few seconds while walking, running, cycling, swimming, skiing or skating, and then slow down when they feel the least discomfort. Intervals for most people means to warm up by starting your exercise slowly, then pick up the pace for a short time until you start to feel the least burning in your muscles or the beginning of shortness of breath. Slow down and keep going at a low level of intensity until you feel fresh, and then pick up the pace again. Keep on alternating these pick-ups and slow-downs until your muscles start to feel heavy, then cool down at a very slow pace for a few minutes and your workout is finished.
The Benefits of Interval Training
I’ve written a bit on this topic, though I typically refer to it as High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT. You get much more out of Intervals/HIIT than steady state cardio, which is too often depicted by those people you see in the gym reading a magazine while on the treadmill or stationary bike.
Dr. Mirkin cites these benefits of Interval Training:
- It helps to control blood sugar more effectively than continuous training, helping to prevent and treat obesity, diabetes, heart attacks and certain cancers.
- It enables you to temporarily to exceed your lactic acid threshold, so you can increase the rate that muscles can take in and use oxygen and you can exercise at a faster pace.
- It enlarges the furnace (mitochondria), increases lactic acid transporter molecules, and increases the amount of lactic acid dehydrogenase.
For the specifics behind these claims, read Dr. Mirkin’s article.
Here’s how Dr. Mirkin describes his Interval Training practice:
I am 82 years old and have been exercising all my life. I do interval training on my bike four days a week and long slower rides on the other three days. I warm up for a mile or two, then do standing 50-pedal-stroke intervals that make me short of breath and cause some muscle burning. Each interval takes around 24 seconds. I then go slowly until I recover my breath completely and my muscles feel fresh and then start my next interval. I usually can do 21 of these intervals in a workout. Near the end of my workout, my muscles start to feel stiff and heavy.
How To Eat Right
Despite the value of exercise to your health and well being, it’s insufficient if your aim is to get lean. As the saying goes,
It can get really confusing given all the conflicting information that pummels us daily, but clarity comes from whittling things down to the basics.
If you’re overweight, your diet should:
- Consist of fewer calories than are required to maintain your current (over) weight.
- Favor leafy green veggies and legumes over meat.
- Favor low-mercury fish like salmon, mackerel, sea bass and halibut over meat.
- Favor omega 3 fats like fish oil, walnuts, avocados, chia/hemp/flax seeds over coconut, palm, canola and palm oils.
- Favor extra virgin, cold pressed olive oil over other oils (except fish oil).
- Favor snacking on nuts rather than chips.
- Include lots of fiber (whole grains, legumes), prebiotic and probiotic foods (sauerkraut, kimchi, keifer, full-fat-no-fruit-yogurt).
Ideally, you should eat these foods during an 8 to 12 hour window that closes by 8:00 PM or earlier. The shorter the feeding window, the greater the opportunity for cellular autophagy, which basically is the process where your cells clean house and get rid of much of what degrades their proper functioning.
The 12-hour feeding window is reasonable. You get up in the morning and eat breakfast by 8:00 AM and chew down your last bite by 8:00 PM.
The 8-hour window gets you into Intermittent Fasting territory.
Intermittent Fasting (“IF”) is the rage these days, and for good reason – when you restrict your feeding window to 8 hours you get healthier, particularly if you stop eating by 8:00 PM or earlier. Those of you interested in this should read:
Now that you a) Might carrying around more fat than is healthy long term, b) Have noted the dangers of excess fat, and c) Gotten a sense for what constitutes better eating and exercise — it’s time to wade into the deep waters of supplementation.
Can supplements help you lose weight and gain lean muscle?
The fast answer is that some of them can, on the margin.
What do I mean by that?
Tis this — if what you’re eating, how much you’re eating and how much you move supports losing body fat and gaining lean muscle, then, yes, some supplements can add additional value.
The hundred+ dollar question per month (depending how many you buy) is, which ones?
To answer that question, we’re going to rely on three sources:
- The National Institute of Health (“NIH”), and
In it’s article on natural appetite suppressant supplements, Healthline’s suggestions are different than those reviewed by the NIH, which focus on supplements for exercise and athletic performance — but between them you’ll get a good sense for what might make sense for you, given what you’re trying to achieve.
Examine.com comes into the picture as a validation test.
As I wrote in Your Supplement Cheat Sheet For Better Health:
“Like a lot of things, supplements suffer from marketing hype. Are yours safe and effective? Is your time and money being well spent? [Examine.com provides] a definitive answer, a resource to help ensure that the supplements you take are doing the job.”
My suggestion is that you double check those supplements of interest to you with with Examine.com.
Here are 10 natural appetite suppressants recommended by Healthline:
Fenugreek is a plant rich in galactomannan fiber. This soluble fiber helps reduce appetite by increasing satiety levels, slowing stomach emptying and delaying carbohydrate and fat absorption.
- Whole seed: Start with 2 grams and move up to 5 grams, as tolerated.
- Capsule: Start with a 0.5-gram dose and increase to 1 gram after a couple of weeks if you do not experience any side effects.
Glucomannan is the most effective fiber for weight loss. This soluble fiber forms a viscous gel, which can suppress appetite and reduce food intake. It also helps fat and carbohydrate absorption, thus reducing total calorie intake.
Dosage: Start at 1 gram three times a day, 15 minutes to 1 hour before a meal.
3. Gymnema sylvestre
Gymnema sylvestre is an herb able to help decrease sugar cravings. Its active compounds can help you eat fewer sugary foods, decrease sugar absorption in the blood and even block the digestion of fats.
- Capsule: 100 mg three to four times daily.
- Powder: Start with 2 grams and move up to 4 grams if no side effects are experienced.
- Tea: Boil leaves for 5 minutes and let steep for 10–15 minutes before drinking.
4. Griffonia simplicifolia
Griffonia simplicifolia is a plant rich in 5-HTP. This compound is converted into serotonin in the brain, which has been shown to decrease appetite and reduce carbohydrate intake.
Dosage: For 5-HTP the range from 300 to 500 mg, taken once a day or in divided doses. It is recommended to take it with meals to increase satiety from foods.
5. Caralluma fimbriata
Caralluma fimbriata is an herb that may help decrease appetite levels. Combined with exercise and a calorie-controlled diet, Caralluma fimbriata has also been shown to promote weight loss.
Dosage: 500 mg twice daily for at least a month.
6. Green tea extract
Green tea extract contains caffeine and catechins, which can boost metabolism, burn fat and help with weight loss. Combining green tea extract with other ingredients may decrease appetite levels and reduce food intake.
Dosage: For green tea with standardized EGCG as its main ingredient, use 250–500 mg per day.
7. Conjugated linoleic acid
Conjugated linoleic acid is a trans fat with appetite suppressant benefits. CLA has been shown to increase fat burn and block fat absorption.
Dosage: Between 3 and 6 grams. It should be taken with meals.
8. Garcinia cambogia
Garcinia cambogia contains hydroxycitric acid (HCA). HCA has been shown to help increase serotonin levels, which may improve satiety levels. However, some studies show no significant effects from this supplement.
Doage: 500 mg of HCA. It should be taken 30 to 60 minutes before meals.
9. Yerba Mate
Yerba mate is a plant known for its energy-boosting properties. It has been shown to help increase glucagon-like peptide 1 (GLP-1) and leptin levels. Both of these compounds may increase satiety levels and decrease appetite.
- Tea: 3 cups (330 ml each) daily.
- Powder: 1 to 1.5 grams per day.
Coffee has been shown to decrease appetite, delay stomach emptying and influence appetite hormones, which can help you eat less. Caffeine has also been proven to increase fat burn and assist with weight loss.
- Note: One cup of regular brewed coffee contains about 95 mg of caffeine.
- 200 mg of caffeine, or about two cups of regular coffee, are usually used for weight loss. Research generally consists of doses of 1.8–2.7 mg per pound (4–6 mg per kg) of body weight.
For more details about each of the above appetite suppressant supplements, check out Healthline’s article.
Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance
The National Institutes of Health has produced a supplement fact sheet covering commonly used supplements for exercise and athletic performance.
Before I present it to you, let’s read Live Science’s introduction.
Live Science makes the point that the National Institutes of Health (“NIH”) was compelled to create an exercise supplement fact sheet due to the false claims made by many manufacturers. The NIH’s aim is to cut through the confusion over supplements by summarizing what is known about the safety and effectiveness of popular supplement ingredients.
Paul Coates, director of the Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) at the NIH, said in a statement:
Dietary supplements marketed for exercise and athletic performance can’t take the place of a healthy diet, but some might have value for certain types of activity. Others don’t seem to work, and some might even be harmful.
And, I might add, some of these supplements work only in specific situations, or for people with specific attributes. Let’s examine the very popular muscle enhancing supplement creatine, for example.
The NIH fact sheet says that creatine might help with short bursts of high-intensity activity like sprinting or weight lifting, but not with endurance exercises like distance running or swimming. On the other hand, antioxidants such as vitamins C and E don’t seem to help improve performance, although they are needed in small amounts for overall health, the NIH said.
For instance, regarding BCAA (Branch Chain Amino Acids) the NIH says:
“There’s not much scientific evidence to support taking BCAA supplements to improve performance, build muscle, or help tired and sore muscles to recover after exercise. Eating foods containing protein automatically increases your intake of BCAAs.”
“An increase in time to exhaustion appears to exist in prolonged endurance exercise, but this benefit may only exist in untrained or lightly trained individuals. Several studies have noted that the anti-fatigue effects and increased time to exhaustion do not really occur in advanced athletes.”
You should keep in mind that many supplements contain more than one ingredient, and these combinations often have not been studied for their safety or effectiveness, the NIH said.
“We encourage people to talk with their health care providers to get advice about dietary supplements and to visit the ODS website to learn valuable information about these products.”
With that as a prelude, check out the exercise and athletic performance supplements reviewed in the NIH fact sheet:
Ingredients in supplements for exercise and athletic performance
DOES IT WORK?
IS IT SAFE?
Antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10)
You breathe in more oxygen when you exercise. As a result, free radicals form and damage muscle cells. Because antioxidants can reduce free-radical damage to muscle, some people think that taking them in a supplement might reduce muscle inflammation, soreness, and fatigue.
Does it work? No. The free radicals that form when you exercise seem to help muscle fibers grow and produce more energy. Antioxidant supplements might actually reduce some of the benefits of exercise, including muscle growth and power output. Also, they have little effect on aerobic fitness and performance in endurance activities like distance running.
Is it safe? Everyone needs adequate amounts of vitamin C and vitamin E for good health. Getting too much of these nutrients can be harmful, but the amounts of vitamin C (about 1,000 milligrams) and vitamin E (about 500 IU) typically used in studies of performance supplements are below safe upper limits. The side effects from coenzyme Q10 can include tiredness, insomnia, headaches, and some gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, but these effects tend to be mild.
Bottom Line: There’s little scientific evidence to support taking supplements containing vitamins C and E or coenzyme Q10 to improve performance if you’re getting adequate amounts of these nutrients from a nutritious diet.
Arginine is an amino acid in foods that contain protein, like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and legumes. A nutritious diet supplies about 4 to 5 grams a day. Supplement sellers claim that taking larger amounts of arginine in supplements improves performance, partly because the body converts it into nitric oxide, which expands blood vessels and increases blood flow. Increased blood flow helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to exercising muscle and speeds up the removal of waste products that cause muscle fatigue.
Does it work? Although the research is limited, arginine supplements seem to have little to no effect on strengthening and muscle-building exercises (like bodybuilding) or aerobic activities (like running and cycling). Studies have used 2 to 20 grams a day of arginine for up to 3 months.
Is it safe? Arginine supplements seem safe when users take up to 9 grams a day for several days or weeks. Taking more can cause GI discomfort and can slightly lower blood pressure.
Bottom Line: There’s little scientific evidence to support taking arginine supplements to increase strength, improve performance, or help tired and sore muscles recover after exercise.
Beetroot or beet juice
Beets and beet juice are among the best food sources of nitrate. Beet juice might improve athletic performance because the body converts some of this nitrate to nitric oxide, which expands blood vessels. This blood vessel expansion increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to exercising muscle. The expanded blood vessels also speed up the removal of waste products that cause muscle fatigue.
Does it work? Many, but not all, studies have found that beet juice can improve performance and endurance in aerobic activities like running, swimming, cycling, and rowing. But whether it helps with strengthening and bodybuilding exercises isn’t known. Beet juice is more likely to improve the performance of recreational exercisers than highly-trained athletes. The usual approach in studies is for participants to drink 2 cups of beet juice about 2.5 to 3 hours before exercise.
Is it safe? Drinking moderate amounts of beet juice is safe, but it can turn your urine pink or red.
Bottom Line: Beet juice might improve aerobic exercise performance if you’re recreationally active. But whether dietary supplements containing beetroot powder have the same effects as beet juice isn’t known.
Beta-alanine is an amino acid in foods such as meat, poultry, and fish. People get up to about 1 gram a day of beta-alanine, depending on their diet. Your body uses beta-alanine to make carnosine in skeletal muscles. When you exercise intensely for several minutes, your muscles produce lactic acid, which reduces muscular force and causes tiredness. Carnosine reduces the buildup of lactic acid. Beta-alanine supplements increase muscle carnosine levels by different amounts, depending on the person.
Does it work? Some, but not all, studies have shown that beta-alanine produces small performance improvements in swimming and team sports, like hockey and football, that require high-intensity, intermittent effort over short periods. Whether beta-alanine helps with endurance activities like cycling isn’t clear. It’s also not clear whether beta-alanine mainly benefits trained athletes or recreational exercisers. In most studies, participants took 1.6 to 6.4 grams a day of beta-alanine for 4 to 8 weeks.
Is it safe? Taking 800 milligrams or more beta-alanine can cause moderate to severe paresthesia, a tingling, prickling, or burning sensation in your face, neck, back of the hands, and upper trunk. This effect can last 60 to 90 minutes but is not considered serious or harmful. Taking divided doses or a sustained-release form of beta-alanine can reduce or eliminate this paresthesia. It isn’t known whether it’s safe to take beta-alanine supplements daily for more than several months.
Bottom Line: Sports-medicine experts disagree on the value of taking beta-alanine supplements to enhance performance in high-intensity, intermittent activities. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that if you are healthy and want to try beta-alanine supplements, take a daily loading dose of 4 to 6 grams per day (in divided doses with meals) for at least 2 weeks to see if it helps.
Your body converts a small amount of leucine, one of the amino acids in foods and protein powders, to HMB. Your liver then converts the HMB into another compound that experts think helps muscle cells restore their structure and function after exercise. HMB also helps build protein in muscle and reduces muscle-protein breakdown.
Does it work? It’s hard to know whether you might benefit from using HMB supplements because the research on these supplements has included adults of very different ages and fitness levels who took widely varying doses for different amounts of time. Overall, HMB seems to speed up recovery from exercise that’s intense enough and long enough to cause muscle damage. Therefore, if you’re a trained athlete, you’ll need to exert yourself more than recreationally active people to cause the muscle damage that HMB might help treat.
Is it safe? Studies haven’t reported any side effects in adults taking 3 grams per day of HMB for up to 8 weeks.
Bottom Line: It’s not clear whether taking HMB supplements will improve athletic performance. The International Society of Sports Nutrition recommends that if you are a healthy adult who wants to try HMB supplements, to take 3 grams per day in three equal servings of 1 gram for at least 2 weeks to see if it helps. HMB comes in two forms: one with calcium and one without. A dose of 3 grams of the type with calcium supplies about 400 milligrams of calcium.
Your body makes betaine, and it is also found in foods such as beets, spinach, and whole-grain bread. You get about 100 to 300 milligrams a day of betaine when you eat a nutritious diet. How betaine supplements might affect or improve your performance isn’t known.
Does it work? Only a few, mostly small, studies have evaluated betaine as a performance supplement. Most of these studies examined the use of betaine supplements to improve strength and power performance in bodybuilders. The studies found either no performance improvements or only modest ones. Participants in these studies took 2 to 5 grams a day of betaine for up to 15 days.
Is it safe? The few studies in which athletes took betaine supplements didn’t find any side effects. But there hasn’t been enough research to know for sure whether it’s really safe.
Bottom Line: There’s little scientific evidence to support taking betaine supplements to improve performance if you eat a nutritious diet.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)
The amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine are known as BCAAs. Animal foods, like meat, fish, and milk, contain BCAAs. Your muscles can use these three amino acids to provide energy during exercise. Leucine might also help build muscle.
Does it work? There’s little evidence that BCAA supplements improve performance in endurance activities like distance running. BCAA supplements might help increase your muscle size and strength together with a weight-training program. But it isn’t clear whether taking BCAA supplements will help you build more muscle than just eating enough high-quality protein foods.
Is it safe? A nutritious diet with enough protein can easily provide 10 to 20 grams a day of the BCAAs. Taking up to another 20 grams a day of BCAAs in supplements seems to be safe.
Bottom Line: There’s not much scientific evidence to support taking BCAA supplements to improve performance, build muscle, or help tired and sore muscles to recover after exercise. Eating foods containing protein automatically increases your intake of BCAAs.
Caffeine is a stimulant in beverages (like coffee, tea, and energy drinks) and in herbs (such as guarana and kola nut). Caffeine is also added to some dietary supplements. Moderate amounts of caffeine might increase your energy levels and reduce fatigue for several hours. Caffeine is a stimulant in beverages (like coffee, tea, and energy drinks) and in herbs (such as guarana and kola nut). Caffeine is also added to some dietary supplements. Moderate amounts of caffeine might increase your energy levels and reduce fatigue for several hours.
Does it work? Caffeine might improve endurance, strength, and power in team sports. It’s most likely to help with endurance activities (such as distance running) and sports that require intense, intermittent effort (like soccer and tennis). Caffeine doesn’t help with short, intense exercise like sprinting or weightlifting. People have different responses to caffeine. It doesn’t boost performance in everyone, or may only slightly boost performance. The usual dose of caffeine to aid performance is 2 to 6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, or about 210 to 420 mg caffeine for a 154-pound person. (By comparison, a cup of coffee has about 85 to 100 milligrams of caffeine.) Taking more probably doesn’t improve performance further and can increase the risk of side effects.
Is it safe? Caffeine intakes of up to 400 to 500 milligrams a day seem safe in adults. Teenagers should limit their caffeine intake to no more than 100 milligrams a day. Taking 500 milligrams or more a day can reduce rather than improve physical performance, disturb sleep, and cause irritability and anxiety. Taking 10,000 milligrams or more in a single dose (one tablespoon of pure caffeine powder) can be fatal.
Bottom Line: Sports-medicine experts agree that caffeine can help you exercise at the same intensity level for longer and reduce feelings of fatigue. They suggest taking 2 to 6 milligrams per kilogram of body weight 15 to 60 minutes before you exercise. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and International Olympic Committee limit the amount of caffeine that athletes can take before a competition.
Citrulline is an amino acid that your body produces; it is also present in some foods. Your kidneys convert most citrulline into another amino acid, arginine. Your body then transforms the arginine into nitric oxide, which expands blood vessels. This expansion increases blood flow and the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to exercising muscles and speeds up the removal of waste products that cause muscle fatigue.
Does it work? The research on citrulline as a performance supplement is limited. The few studies find that citrulline might help improve, hinder, or have no effect on performance. In these studies, participants took up to 9 grams of citrulline for 1 day or 6 grams per day for up to 16 days.
Is it safe? There isn’t enough research on citrulline to know for sure whether it’s safe. Some users have reported that it can cause stomach discomfort.
Bottom Line: There’s not much scientific evidence to support taking citrulline supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance.
Creatine is a compound that is stored in your muscles and supplies them with energy. Your body produces some creatine (about 1 gram a day), and you get some creatine from eating animal-based foods, such as beef and salmon (about 500 milligrams in a 4-ounce serving). But it is only when you take much larger amounts of creatine from dietary supplements that it might improve certain types of performance.
Does it work? Creatine supplements can increase strength, power, and the ability to contract muscles for maximum effort. But the extent of performance improvements from creatine supplements differs among individuals. Use of creatine supplements for several weeks or months can help with training. Overall, creatine enhances performance during repeated short bursts of intense, intermittent activity (lasting up to about 2.5 minutes at a time), such as sprinting and weight lifting. Creatine seems to have little value for endurance activities, such as distance running, cycling, or swimming.
Is it safe? Creatine is safe for healthy adults to take for several weeks or months. It also seems safe for long-term use over several years. Creatine usually causes some weight gain because it increases water retention. Rare individual reactions to creatine include some muscle stiffness and cramps as well as GI distress.
Bottom Line: Sports-medicine experts agree that creatine supplements can improve performance in activities that involve intense effort followed by short recovery periods. It can also be valuable in training for certain athletic competitions. In studies, people often took a loading dose of about 20 grams per day of creatine (in four equal portions) for 5 to 7 days and then 3 to 5 grams a day. Creatine monohydrate is the most widely used and studied form of creatine in supplements.
Deer antler velvet
Deer antler velvet supplements are made from the antlers of deer or elk before the antlers turn into bone. Deer antlers might contain growth factors that could promote muscle growth.
Does it work? There’s been little research on use of deer antler velvet to improve performance in either strength or endurance activities. The few published studies have found no benefit from taking the supplement.
Is it safe? Deer antler velvet hasn’t been studied enough to know whether taking it is safe.
Bottom Line: There’s no scientific evidence to support taking deer antler velvet supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance.
DHEA is a steroid hormone produced by the adrenal glands. Your body converts some DHEA into testosterone, the male hormone that enhances muscle size and strength.
Does it work? There’s been little study of the use of DHEA supplements to improve performance. The few published studies (all in men) have found no benefit from taking the supplement. Muscle size or strength and aerobic capacity didn’t improve, and testosterone levels didn’t rise.
Is it safe? DHEA hasn’t been studied enough to know whether it’s safe to take. Two small studies in men found no side effects. But in women, taking DHEA supplements for months can increase testosterone levels, which can cause acne and facial hair growth.
Bottom Line: There’s no scientific evidence to support taking DHEA to improve exercise or athletic performance. The National Collegiate Athletic Association and the World Anti-Doping Agency prohibit the use of DHEA in athletic competitions.
Ginseng is the root of a plant used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine. Some experts believe that Panax (also known as Chinese, Korean, Japanese, or American) ginseng might improve stamina and vitality. Siberian or Russian ginseng has been used to fight fatigue and strengthen the immune system.
Does it work? Several small studies have examined whether Panax or Siberian ginseng supplements can improve performance. This research provides little evidence that various doses and preparations of these supplements improve performance in athletes or recreational exercisers.
Is it safe? Both Panax and Siberian ginseng seem to be safe. However, ginseng supplements can cause headaches or GI effects and disturb sleep.
Bottom Line: There’s little scientific evidence to support taking ginseng supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance.
Glutamine is an amino acid that your body uses to produce energy. Adults consume about 3 to 6 grams a day from protein-containing foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, and legumes. Your body also makes some glutamine, mainly from BCAAs.
Does it work? Only a few studies have examined the use of glutamine supplements for improving performance in strengthening and muscle-building exercises (like bodybuilding) and for recovering from these exercises (for example, by reducing muscle soreness). Glutamine has either no effect or provides only a small benefit.
Is it safe? Studies haven’t reported any side effects from the use of up to 45 grams a day of glutamine for several weeks in adults.
Bottom Line: There’s little scientific evidence to support taking glutamine supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance.
Iron is a mineral that delivers oxygen to muscles and tissues throughout your body. Cells also need iron to turn food into energy. Iron deficiency, especially with anemia, limits your ability to exercise and be active because it makes you tired and reduces your performance. The recommended amount of iron to get each day is 11 milligrams for teenage boys, 15 milligrams for teenage girls, 8 milligrams for men to age 50, 18 milligrams for women to age 50, and 8 milligrams for older adults of both sexes. Recommended amounts are even higher for athletes, vegetarians, and vegans. Teenage girls and premenopausal women have the greatest risk of not getting enough iron from their diets.
Does it work? For people with iron deficiency anemia, taking an iron supplement will probably improve performance in both strength and endurance activities. But if you get enough iron from your diet, taking extra iron won’t help. It’s not clear whether milder iron deficiency without anemia reduces exercise and athletic performance.
Is it safe? Taking less than 45 milligrams of iron in a supplement is safe for teenagers and adults. Higher doses can cause upset stomach, constipation, nausea, abdominal pain, vomiting, and fainting. However, doctors sometimes prescribe large amounts of iron for a short time to treat iron-deficiency anemia.
Bottom Line: Taking enough iron in supplements to treat iron-deficiency anemia improves exercise capacity. But a healthcare provider should diagnose this condition before you start taking iron supplements. If you want to improve your athletic performance, you should eat a healthy diet containing foods rich in iron, such as lean meats, seafood, poultry, beans, nuts, and raisins. If needed, an iron-containing dietary supplement can help you get the recommended amount of iron.
Protein helps to build, maintain, and repair your muscles. It improves your body’s response to athletic training and helps shorten the time you need to recover after exercise. Protein is made from amino acids. Your body makes some amino acids but needs to get others (known as essential amino acids or EAAs) from food. Animal foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products contain all of the EAAs. Plant foods like grains and legumes contain different EAAs, so eating a diet containing different types of plant-based foods is one way to get all EAAs. Most protein powders and drinks contain whey, a protein in milk that provides all the EAAs.
Does it work? Adequate protein in your diet provides the EAAs necessary for making muscle proteins and reduces the breakdown of proteins in your muscles. Athletes need about 0.5 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of body weight a day (or about 75 to 135 grams for a person weighing 150 pounds). You might need even more for a short time when you’re training intensely or if you reduce your food intake to improve your physique or achieve a competition weight.
Is it safe? High intakes of protein seem to be quite safe, but there is no benefit to consuming more than recommended amounts.
Bottom Line: If you are an athlete, you can probably eat enough foods that contain protein to meet your needs for protein. If needed, protein supplements and protein-fortified food and beverage products can help you get enough protein. Sports-science experts recommend that athletes consume 0.14 grams of protein per pound of body weight (about 20 grams for a person weighing 150 pounds) of high-quality protein (from animal foods and/or a mix of different plant foods) every 3 to 5 hours, including before sleep and within 2 hours after exercising.
Quercetin is a compound found in fruits, vegetables, and some beverages (like tea). Some experts suggest that quercetin supplements increase energy production in muscle and improve blood flow throughout your body. A nutritious diet provides up to about 13 milligrams a day of quercetin
Does it work? There’s limited research on the use of quercetin supplements to improve performance. The studies found that any benefits, when they occur, tend to be small. In these studies, participants took about 1,000 milligrams a day of quercetin for up to 8 weeks.
Is it safe? The studies of quercetin supplements didn’t find any side effects in the athletes who took them. But quercetin hasn’t been studied enough to know whether it’s really safe.
Bottom Line: There’s little scientific evidence to support taking quercetin supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance.
Ribose is a natural sugar your body makes that helps with energy production in muscle. Some scientists believe that ribose supplements help muscles produce more energy.
Does it work? There’s been little study of the use of ribose supplements to improve performance. The few published studies in both trained athletes and occasional exercisers have shown little if any benefit from doses ranging from 625 milligrams to 10,000 milligrams a day for up to 8 weeks.
Is it safe? The studies of athletes taking ribose supplements have found no side effects. But ribose hasn’t been studied enough to know whether it’s really safe when taken in large amounts for several months or more.
Bottom Line: There’s very little scientific evidence to support taking ribose supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance.
Sodium bicarbonate is commonly known as baking soda. Exercising intensely over several minutes causes muscles to produce acids, such as lactic acid, that reduce muscle force and cause tiredness. Sodium bicarbonate can reduce the buildup of these acids.
Does it work? Studies show that athletes who take sodium bicarbonate might improve their performance a little in intense, short-term activities (like sprinting and swimming) and in intermittently intense sports (like tennis and boxing). But different athletes respond differently to sodium bicarbonate. Sodium bicarbonate might actually hinder performance in some people. The usual dose taken is 300 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, or about 4 to 5 teaspoons of baking soda. Some people find this amount of sodium bicarbonate, dissolved in liquid, too salty to drink.
Is it safe? Sodium bicarbonate can cause GI distress, including nausea and vomiting, and weight gain due to water retention. It is also high in sodium (1,260 milligrams per teaspoon).
Bottom Line: Sodium bicarbonate might provide some performance benefit in strenuous exercise that lasts several minutes and in sports that require intermittent, intense activity, especially for trained athletes. However, in some people, sodium bicarbonate provides no performance benefit, and it can even reduce performance.
Tart or sour cherry
Tart or sour cherries of the Montmorency variety contain compounds that might help you recover from strenuous exercise. Specifically, these cherries might help to reduce pain, muscle damage from strength-related activities, and lung trauma from endurance activities that require deep, heavy breathing.
Does it work? There’s limited research on tart cherry as a performance supplement. The studies that have been done suggest that it might help bodybuilders recover their strength faster and feel less muscle soreness after exercising. The supplements could also help runners race faster and be less likely to develop a cold or respiratory problem after a marathon. The typical dose is about 2 cups of juice or 500 milligrams of tart-cherry-skin powder for a week before the exercise and for 2 days afterwards.
Is it safe? Studies of tart-cherry products in athletes have not found any side effects. But the safety of tart-cherry supplements has not been well studied.
Bottom Line: There’s limited scientific evidence to support taking tart-cherry products to improve exercise and athletic performance.
Tribulus terrestris is a plant containing compounds that some sellers claim can improve performance by increasing levels of several hormones, including the male hormone testosterone.
Does it work? There’s limited research on the use of Tribulus terrestris supplements to increase strength or muscle mass. The few studies investigating it did not find that it had any benefit.
Is it safe? Tribulus terrestris hasn’t been studied enough to know whether it’s safe. Studies in animals show that high doses can cause heart, liver, and kidney damage.
Bottom Line: There’s no scientific support for taking Tribulus terrestris supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance. Some sports-medicine experts advise against taking any dietary supplements claimed to boost testosterone.
Choose a sensible approach to improving exercise and athletic performance.
If you are a competitive or recreational athlete, you will perform at your best and recover most quickly when you eat a nutritionally adequate diet, drink enough fluids, are physically fit, and are properly trained. Only a few dietary supplements have enough scientific evidence showing that they can improve certain types of exercise and athletic performance. Athletes might use these supplements, if interested, if they already eat a good diet, train properly, and obtain guidance from a healthcare provider or sports-medicine expert.
The initial question was, “Can supplements help you lose weight and gain lean muscle?”
The answer is “Yes, some can if they’re actually being used to supplement, rather than replace proper nutrition and exercise.”
Along the way to getting to that answer, I showed you:
- Two simple tests to get a good sense for wheter you’re really more overweight than you might have thought;
- That excess body fat is detrimental to good health, and even increases the incidence of cancer;
- That Interval Training can reduce chronic, age-related disease; and
- You can dramatically improve your diet and health by consuming more lefay greens, legumes, omegea 3 fatty acids and nuts — all within a shorter feeding window that ends by 8:00 PM.
Yes, there’s a bunch of information to unpack, so first do what you’re most likely to do consistently, and add from there.