There are supplements out there that are changing people’s lives. There are also some that are wasting people’s hard-earned money. And the media, trainers, nutritionists, and even scientists are often unable to tell which is which. We spoke to Kamal Patel, director of Examine.com, an independent encyclopedia on supplements and nutrition, to get the straight dope on how to find supplements that really work.
Men's Fitness: Why is there so much misinformation about supplements?
Kamal Patel: There are definitely some pretty flawed studies, but there is also a common misconception about faulty studies due to media misinterpretation of study findings and details. Scientific studies are done according to a very incremental process. Each study basically answers a very specific question. For example, if a supplement seems promising in rats, a small pilot study in humans may be done before a larger controlled trial.
The problem is that some people are too quick to pounce on a single study, blow it out of proportion, and hold it as gospel. Not everything is so black and white. In fact, there are so many shades of gray that even very clever researchers can disagree on what a particular study means.
What supplement do you think is the most misunderstood or falsely reported on?
The most popular false report at the moment is green coffee bean extract, which was touted by Dr. Oz as a miracle fat burner. It did in fact have one study showing it was extremely potent—until that study was pulled for having fraudulent data!
In terms of bodybuilding supplements, creatine is one of the most widely misunderstood by the general public. Many people still think it's bad for your kidneys (it's not), that it's a steroid (not even close), that it needs to be cycled (nope), among other unfounded claims. Creatine is found in everyday food. It's basically a source of energy. Compared to other products found in the wild west of supplement sales, it's about as safe as safe gets.
Why do you think journalists and media in general are misinterpreting studies, and how have you worked to prevent that?
To be honest, reading and understanding studies is an art form. Experience and knowledge plays a big part. So when you combine a lack of experience with a rushing deadline—as most journalists have—things get lost in translation. It takes some time to even understand the basic language of studies: p-values, intention-to-treat analysis, etc.
If someone understands some of those terms and reads an abstract, it's natural to overestimate one's understanding of the topic at hand. But biomedical research is a complex combination of biostatistics, epidemiology, physiology, and a ton of other interesting but intricate fields. We're solving this problem by taking our time, and by having a panel of experts—PhDs, pharmDs, MDs, RDs, and more—that all chip in with their advice. When you take the collective knowledge of our panel, you get knowledge bombs.
What supplements should Men’s Fitness readers be aware of—with regard to building muscle/burning fat—that they may not be already?
We take the no-nonsense approach at examine.com. Get enough protein, take some creatine, and make sure you get enough sleep. It absolutely boggles my mind how often people get only five hours of sleep a night and then ask us "What supplements should I take?"
Once in a while, having some caffeine before a big workout can help maximize performance. Other supplements may definitely have a chance of providing some incremental boost, but muscle is forged in the kitchen and built while you're asleep. Fat is primarily cut by changing highly-conditioned eating habits, not by hyped supplements.
What should we look for when reading studies that can help us determine whether they're trustworthy or not?
If you're new to research, dive into some papers you're interested in and look up terms you don't understand. Keep in mind that judging study quality is a full time job for some researchers, using methods such as the Cochrane Risk of Bias tool, and this kind of understanding takes time and effort.
Examine.com has launched a new subscription journal that summarizes the best findings of many new studies published every month. Who should be reading it?
The Examine.com Research Digest (ERD) is not for everyone—it's for the serious enthusiast or professional who wants to know the cutting edge of nutrition research. We have a private ERD discussion forum where curiosity and rational dialogue abounds. That kind of discussion can be hard to find with anonymous people slinging opinions around in other parts of the web.
Best of all, you know you're getting knowledge from people in the field, not just academics. For example, one of our researchers is Trevor Kashey. In his recent strongman competition, he pulled a 700-pound axle deadlift and got a 345-pound log clean and press as a middleweight. If you're serious about professional development and being kept abreast with the latest nutrition research, then ERD is a must-have.