5 whole food alternatives to workout supplements.

2 weeks ago, I posted an article that promoted a “clean” bulk over a “dirty” bulk, and I want to follow up with a popular nutrition topic for athletes/bodybuilders: supplements. For an athlete who is growing and training, eating for performance is key. As a natural and recreational bodybuilder, I don’t do steroids. And because of my background and experience as a dietitian, I don’t take supplements. It’s simply a preference and many believe that may hinder muscle growth. I respectfully disagree. See above.

Still, supplements are popular because they offer convenience in terms of timing, access, and transportation. A lot of trainees have their “stack” that they mix to maximize their gains. My main concern with taking supplements is that they are unregulated by the FDA. They are severely synthetic and it’s hard to tell which ones are bogus or the real deal. Also, even if these supplements are high in X micro/macronutrient, bioavailability is more important: how much can the body actually absorb?

Instead of supplements, I build my diet around intuitive eating practices and high-quality foods to fuel my training sessions. That is key if you are working out: pick foods and develop habits that help you maximize your performance during each workout. Why? Because the better/harder you work out, the more muscle you can build. So, don’t pick foods that help you “burn fat” or “build muscle”. Choose foods to naturally fuel your performance.

Here are 5 whole food swaps that I make every day to fuel my workouts and help me recover for maximum muscle growth and maintenance:

Ditch #1: Protein powder/drinks.

Pick: a glass of milk (chocolate or plain) or soy milk after a workout.

Here’s why: It’s recommended that protein is consumed within 30-60 minutes post-workout. So, many opt for whey over casein protein because whey is more quickly absorbed than casein.. However, we can only utilize up to 30g of protein at a time so there is no need to so heavily emphasize protein intake afterwards. Remember that protein is important it’s not the end all, be all macronutrient. Carbs are arguably more important. A glass of dairy or the like will suffice to provide post-workout carbs and protein until you can have a balanced meal. (Note: muscle milk is not milk. It’s Irish for “a waste of money”)

Ditch #2: Preworkout powders

Pick: Carb snack OR nothing (yes, nothing).

Here’s why: Preworkout supplements contain caffeine or sugar to give you an energy boost for your upcoming workout. However, caffeine is generally beneficial for long endurance runs to help runners overcome the wall to help them deplete their glycogen even further. Shorter resistance training sessions won’t ever run into that problem simply due to time (the point at which your body stops breaking down glycogen takes HOURS to reach). Hence, preworkout supps are not necessary for the normal 60-90 min workouts.

If you’re starving before a workout, then a handful of fruit or a small glass fruit juice can provide that readily-available sugar in your bloodstream for energy metabolism. Just give yourself about an hour so it has time to be digested and absorbed. If you eat something sooner, it’ll still be in your stomach and you won’t absorb much or any sugar into your bloodstream for energy metabolism (which defeats the purpose of a preworkout snack). If you are working out for roughly an hour or less, you may not need a snack because your body will break down glycogen for energy. Let your stomach be your guide. If you don’t need one, then you don’t need one. A small glass of water may be all you need, if anything at all.

Ditch #3: BCAA supplements

Pick: 6 oz of red meat, chicken or fish (the size of an iPhone 4) or 2-3 eggs.

The idea behind BCAA is to provide the body accessible leucine, isoleucine, and alanine amino acids to help muscle protein synthesis post-workout. It’s generally recommended to be taken before or soon after a workout. Most likely, you’re getting enough from your post-workout meal or snack that includes higher BCAA choices like meat, chicken, fish or eggs (very popular protein options).

However, if you’re looking for earlier protein synthesis: add a small amount of protein to your pre-workout snack (1-1.5 hours before a workout). Muscle protein synthesis occurs during exercise or post-prandially. So if you have some protein with your preworkout snack, you’ve already triggered muscle protein synthesis. Don’t have too much protein before because it takes longer to digest and absorb than a primarily carb snack.

Ditch #4: Creatine

Pick: Oatmeal

Oh creatine! It’s casually known as the steroids of non-steroids supplements. Studies have repeatedly shown no/few negative side effects of creatine intake. Creatine provides quickly accessible phosphate to pair up with ADP to become ATP so you have energy for your workout! What’s difficult is that this Phosphagen energy cycle doesn’t last very long. My suggestion? Have a carb dense meal at least 6 hours in advance to help you build up your glycogen stores. It’ll help you lift longer and harder as your workout continues (the opposite of creatine which may help you got faster and heavier at the beginning and is quickly depleted). Since I lift in the evenings, I make steel-cut oatmeal my mid-morning snack to fuel my workout. Carbs ftw!

Ditch #5 : Fat-burner pills

Pick: Nothing. Nothing nutritional burns fat.

Dr. Oz is a liarface.

Safe lifting, friends!

Thomas Ngo, RD


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