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Nutritional supplements are a must for health? What nutritional supplements help build muscles?

Written by Ms. Sylvia Lam, Full Member of Hong Kong Dietitians Association

Accredited Practicing Dietitian (DAA Australia)

Every time you enter a pharmacy, you will usually see an array of nutritional supplement (also known as “vitamin pills”) placed in the most eye-catching area. Often, there are also salespersons trying to promote you with vitamins that claimed to boost immunity, reduce cold or flu, relieve joint pain or even anti-gaining.  Contrarily, when a dietitian tries to educate people to eat more fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, lean meat, nuts and milk to achieve a well-balanced diet with variety, they still don’t listen.  People would rather “pop in” several pills than eating fresh nutritious foods for health. This is how powerful the marketing of nutritional supplements is nowadays.

According to the 2013 New England Journal of Medicine, in the United States, an average of 23,000 emergencies per year from 2004 to 2013 were associated with the use of nutritional supplements, with 2,100 cases requiring hospitalization each year. 65% of hospitalized patients took herbal supplements (especially supplements that claimed to help weight loss, physical strength and libido) 30% took micronutrient supplements. Most of them experienced palpitations, dizziness, nausea, anxiety and heart-related problems after taking supplements.  Others were admitted to hospital due to allergic reactions or choking when taking pills. Studies also found that many popular nutritional supplements might  contain illicit medical ingredients, which can lead to fetal heart conditions, confusion, liver failure and even death.

The World Cancer Research Fund also warns against taking any nutritional supplements as it increases the risk of certain cancers, especially vitamin A. Although some studies have shown that folic acid and vitamin E supplements can reduce cardiovascular risk, other nutritional supplements including carotene, vitamin D, C, K, selenium, zinc, magnesium, and EPA (a type of fish oil) are not proven to help reduce the risk of illness. There is no large human study for the time being that taking multiple vitamins can prolong life or reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases.

In fact, a healthy well-balanced diet with variety of foods is all you need to achieve health. Special populations who need nutritional supplements include pregnant women, lactating women, vegetarians or vegans, people who are sensitive to certain foods, people who have undergone gastrointestinal surgery, and those who have poor appetite, especially the elderly. If you have questions about nutritional supplements, consult your doctor, pharmacist or registered dietitian before taking any.

What nutritional supplements help build muscles?

In addition to protein powder, there are many nutritional supplements on the market that claim to help increase muscle mass. For example, creatine, beta-hydroxyl b-methyl butyrate (HMB) and branched chain amino acid (BCAA).

Here are the functions of these three nutritional supplements:

  1. Creatine – is an amino acid naturally produced by the body that helps the body to regulate the supply of energy and indirectly helps the body to provide more adenosine triphosphate (ATP – a carrier of energy). It helps increase instant muscle strength, promote muscle growth, accelerate fatigue recovery and increase explosive physical power. In other words, proper use of creatine might help people who weight trained to increase training repetitions due to better muscle strength and speed up recovery; thus, increasing muscle mass. When taking creatine, it is best to take together with carbohydrates such as juice or sweet drinks as sugar can increase the absorption rate of creatine.
  2. Beta-Hydroxy b-methyl butyrate (HMB) is a derivative produced by leucine, an essential amino acid. Some studies showed that HMB might help reduce muscle protein breakdown, increases muscle mass and strength and reduce muscle damage and pain. Studies reported that taking 1.5 to 3 grams of HMB per day might reduce muscle protein breakdown and muscle damage, helping to increase muscle strength and hypertrophy. The main food source of leucine includes meat, especially red meat, chicken, eggs, fish and milk which can be consumed more after exercise to increase muscle recovery and muscle mass.
  3. Branched Chain Amino Acid (BCAA) refers to three branched chain amino acids including leucine, isoleucine and valine. They are all essential amino acids in the body which the body cannot produce and must be obtained from foods. The main functions of BCAA is to promote muscle protein synthesis and reduce muscle breakdown. In recent years, studies showed that BCAA can provide energy to the body and reduce fatigue during exercise. Supplementing BCAA before and during exercise can improve exercise capacity and delay fatigue. Taking BCAA immediately after exercise can also promote muscle recovery.

However, BCAA is also found in natural foods such as meat, especially red meat, chicken, eggs, fish and milk products. Many studies recommended that intake of 2 to 3g of leucine after exercise might help muscle synthesis and slow muscle metabolism. Eating about 4 to 5 ounces (240 to 300g) of meat or drink about 4 to 5 cups (1.25 to 1.5 liters) of milk can provide 2 to 3g of leucine. Therefore, one of the reasons for taking leucine supplements, whether from protein powder or BCAA supplements, is to control calorie intake, which is more suitable for people who are managing their weight and calorie intake.

Up to now, there have been no studies reporting that BCAAs have adverse side effects after taking them. The usual dosage of BCAA supplements is 5 to 15g per dose If you are taking BCAA supplements, it is recommended to take it before and after 30 to 60 minutes of training to promote muscle growth and synthesis.

If you choose to use these nutritional supplements, you must follow the correct dosage and usage in order to maximize their benefits It is best to consult a doctor, coach or registered dietitian before taking any of the above.