My lovely cousin (who is undergoing his very own wellness transformation as we speak) asked me about nootropics, a nutrition term that I’d heard but admittedly had to look up to completely understand.
Nootropics (also called smart drugs or cognitive enhancers) are drugs, supplements, or other substances that improve cognitive function in otherwise healthy individuals. These can range from the completely innocent (caffeine) to the very controversial and in some cases illegal (amphetamines, like the commonly-prescribed Adderall which is outlawed here in Singapore even for those prescribed it in other countries).
Some common nootropics on the market include gingko biloba, fish oil, vitamin B12 shots, none of which have any truly convincing medical evidence for their efficacy. But what I think my cousin, and most of you fine and fit readers out there were really asking about was this:
What supplements, if any, are actually safe and useful for losing weight / gettin’ swole / enhancing sports performance?
Ah, now here’s something I get asked about all the time. I have some clients that take so many pills and powders their grocery list looks like a homeopath’s prescription pad, while I have others that wouldn’t touch a protein powder if I told them it was laced with gold. I have certain trainer friends that rely on a steady diet of bars, supplements and drinks to maintain their physiques while I have others that swear by clean eating and water.
The short answer is this: can supplements help? Yes. Are they essential? No.
Let’s start with the basics. If you are trying to lean out, get stronger, or perform better in sports, you’ll need to take in adequate protein – and doing so from whole food is not always easy. Protein in the form of meat, fish and eggs is sometimes hard to eat and prepare, and if you’re vegetarian or vegan, it may not even be an option for you. There is a great deal of scientific evidence supporting the centrality of protein for everything from muscle repair to sports recovery to body fat loss, and it’s one of the first nutritional changes I work on with many (primarily female, but also males looking to build mass) of my clients who currently overeat carbs and undereat protein and fat.
All that being said, my first honest recommendation is to supplement a whole-foods diet with a high-quality protein powder. I am a big fan of IsoPure Zero Carb Creamy Vanilla, not because I think it’s the greatest thing ever to hit the market; more because I like the taste, it has no sugar, and it’s easily found all over my lovely island. If you need a non-whey or a complete vegan or an organic protein powder, I highly recommend checking out this list. And on a quick summary note – here’s an easy chart to help you figure out your protein needs:
Moving on from the obvious, let’s get a bit more niche. If you work out hard, or are starting to work out harder than you ever have in the past, or if you are determined to put on a heckuva lot more muscle, or if you are training for an ultra endurance event, or if you are looking to get significantly leaner than you are now – these are all good reasons to consider taking 10 grams or more of BCAA each and every day. You can take your pick of how you down your dose (and please note that if you do choose a BCAA powder, it tastes and smells like fresh hell, and you will need SOMETHING to mix it down) and as always, check with your doc first – but I’ve seen a lot of clients get great results from just adding this one simple supplement.
Speaking of results – the types of nootropics you choose to take can vary greatly depending on your goals (gain muscle? lose fat? age better? move without pain?), how you prefer to feel during exercise (supercharged? zen? powerful? in the zone?), and what the rest of your diet looks like (short in salad? grab a green powder. no beef? yes iron.). I am not a huge supplements pusher myself, so for more details on a few of these, you’ll need a more detailed article than what I’m covering here, but one of the most natural supplements that I use and recommend is good ol’ fashioned coffee – the most scientifically-backed way to enhance performance and endurance for most sports.
A final note on any supplements, vitamins, and/or enhancers – be smart and scientific whenever you’re choosing to put a synthetic product into your body. Look at the consumer reports for both the supplement AND its active ingredients, and if it’s something well-covered in scientific literature (such as creatine), weigh the pros and cons accordingly, and consider the difference between short and long-term use.
At the end of the day, there is no supplement that works as well, as safely, and as consistently as regular resistance and cardio training combined with a diverse whole foods plant-and-protein-based diet. End of story.