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Supplement "Science" (or BS101)

posted Jun 30, 2014, 8:27 AM by Ben Jane   [ updated Aug 14, 2014, 5:46 AM ]
The selling and taking of supplements seems to be increasing among those interested in fitness and much of it is supposedly built on sound evidence. Now I am always prepared to engage with quality research and I spend many hours trying to give students the skills to interpret research findings and give evidence based health and fitness advice. 
I believe that for a small section of the population supplements may offer a small advantage to performance or health, people such as elite athletes or those with specific nutritional requirements that are unable to reach optimal nutritional intake with food alone.
The problem is that there is an extrapolation fallacy in existence where people believe that if something is good in small amounts, then taking excess amounts of it will elicit even better results. There is also a situation where more normal, regular members of the public think that they are somehow elite athletes by virtue of the fact that they are training four times a week.

Average gym users, and I include many experienced, qualified exercise professionals in this, have a long way to go before they are exercising enough or have optimised their diets enough to require any type of supplementation. Most users of supplements tend to invest money in products at a time where training is being increased at the same time as the supplements are being taken and while many will argue that it is the supplements that are allowing the increased workload to be completed, I would argue that in most cases, the supplements are playing the role of a placebo in this situation.

The ability of users to cite "science" as a solid rationale has always interested me and today I received this email in my inbox and I thought it was worth sharing as an example of some of the methods that are encouraged in the selling of nutritional aids. Methods that are more indicative of a pyramid selling scheme rather than a scientific appraisal.
The email offers suggestions to trainers that are selling supplements as to how they can engage with more sceptical clients in the pursuit of changing their minds and therefore increasing sales.
This is an extract...
"7 Ways To Removing Skepticism...
2. Undeniable Proof - Backing up your protocols with hard proof is essential. Testimonials from CLIENTS are ideal. Avoid using just your before and after results. It's kinda lame really. Plus they already think that you are superhuman and not like them at all, so YOUR results are irrelevant to them.?
3.Teach Them Something New - This positions you more clearly as the expert. Learn a FACT about one of the ingredients and how it can improve a common ailment.? "
This is just a taste of the advice but to suggest that a testimonial from a client is "hard proof" is, to use a phrase from the email "...kinda lame". Firstly, there is very little in science that offers "hard proof" but the best type of evidence is drawn from a peer-reviewed, primary research where a product is tested in a controlled, randomised environment where participants are blinded to the product that they are taking. Even this type of evidence can be bettered as ideally, a number of these type of studies should really be pooled together to form a systematic review where only the studies of the highest quality are cited and compared.
I thought the second point was also worth commenting on due to both the tone and the content of the recommendation. Firstly, setting oneself up as an expert based on knowing one FACT about a product is, once again, rather lame. Furthermore, it is all very well knowing about one ingredient and how it might improve a common ailment but this may only be a theoretical link, it may not be related to dosage or the individual in question or any other medication or supplements that they are taking and it will probably not be a FACT related to the delivery of this ingredient via the specific supplement in question.
If you would like to expand your understanding of how science works I would recommend spending some of your hard earned cash, not on supplements, but books such as Ben Goldacre's Bad Pharma or Singh and Ernst's Trick or Treatment . These titles are not directly about supplements but they do review the pharmaceutical industry and the holistic therapy industries respectively. The former industry is highly regulated but when you understand how the companies work in and around the rules for both medicine and holistic therapy you might think twice about how very similar companies work in the far less regulated environment of supplements.
Readers of this article might be entitled to point out that the email I received was just an extreme example but we should also accept that most health and fitness magazines are almost entirely funded by the supplement adverts that are placed between the covers and if you have ever known any competitive body builders you will be very familiar with the story of how they will take interest in sponsoring anyone that is already quite good, just so they can be associated with the gains that the individual has made, long before being associated with the product in question.
Marketing is the key to understanding how supplements are sold and just as more established pharmaceutical companies will be keen to shout about their R&D budgets, they will tend to be less forthcoming in the fact that they spend twice as much on marketing. I suspect the gap between these two costs is even greater in the supplements industry.

I've managed to reach the grand old age of 40 and found myself feeling as fit as ever with the same 31" waist and 11-12% body fat as I have always had. I have managed this without taking any supplements, and without being influenced by the social pressures of the gym or the scientific sounding explanations of the ads in the fitness press. My story is only one persons take on it, and everyone is different...but then this is the line touted by all the supplement companies so why not believe mine as much as anyone else's?
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