Your Vitamins Have Steroids, Fish Oil Causes Cancer, and Vitamin D Will Kill You

I get asked about supplements all the time. Which ones I take, which are good, which are bad, which will help you put on muscle, which will help you burn fat…. I’ve probably been asked every supplement related question you can think of.

And my answer is always the same – it depends.

Supplements and Safety

A friend passed this Frontline investigation on nutritional supplements to me the other day after a friend sent it his way. He hadn’t had a chance to watch it yet but figured I’d be interested as his friend said it was eye-opening.

It’s an hour-long investigative report into how ugly the supplement industry can be. This piece states how fish oil does more harm than good, supplements can be tainted with anabolic steroids, and how people can bottle almost anything and sell it as a health product.

Scarry stuff.

It’s easy to believe we’re smarter than average and would never fall for something that doesn’t work, but it happens. And unfortunately, even the most trustworthy sources have been known to embellish or exaggerate scientific studies and research papers to make their blogs posts/books/products look more legitimate.

I have books on my shelves written by experts, people I highly respect and look up to, filled with terrible, sometimes contradictory, sources and references. People write these books and fill them with whatever sources they can find because they know that 99% of their readers aren’t going to look them up. They know that most people will take what they say as fact just because they list references.

As stated in this article by Fitocracy founder Dick Talens, this happens all too often in the fitness industry. Diet books, exercise equipment, nutritional supplements, and even major news outlets all fall victim to this game of making outrageous, hard to prove claims.

No matter how good or bad you’re told something is, you should always hesitate to trust any of it.

Frontline Doesn’t Care About Your Health

How this particular news piece made it’s way to me is important. A friend sent it to me after a friend passed it on to him. His friend believed the information in this report would help people, so he shared it. Not at all uncommon.

But had this report been about how great multivitamins are or how drinking plenty of water is important, we wouldn’t be talking about it at all. That kind of information isn’t exciting or worth sharing. People want to read, see, or listen to something new – something shocking. And the more shocking something is the more likely we are to share it with friends and family.

As noted in The Great Courses’ How Ideas Spread, it’s human nature to want to share these kinds of things. It’s simple, more surprising or shocking pieces of content are more likely to be shared. News media outlets know this and do their best to make their pieces as “shocking” as possible. No matter what the data actually says.

This is a big part of why health and fitness information is so confusing. We encounter articles every day telling us that protein causes kidney disease and cancer, dietary fat gives us heart attacks, and carbohydrates cause diabetes. And while some studies may suggest that in certain cases some of these headlines may hold true, media outlets would rather grab your attention than share the real story.

So instead of “High Protein Diets May Cause Further Damage to Those With Pre-existing Kidney Disorders” we get “Protein Causes Cancer”. One title grabs your attention while you wouldn’t think twice about the other.

Media outlets are interested only in one thing, and it’s not your health.

Scare Tactics

There is some good information in this Frontline report.

I wholeheartedly agree with their messages of being careful with what you put in your body, trying to take shortcuts by using pills is a terrible idea, and that too much of a good thing can harm you.

But, like typical health reports, it also contains a lot of misleading information, exaggeration, and scare tactics put in place to get people talking.

For example, near the midway point of the report, they interview Dr. Paul Offit, Pediatrician and author of “Do You Believe in Magic”. He had this to say in regards to vitamins:

“You need vitamins to live. The question is do you get enough in food, and I think the answer to that question is yes.”

Dr. Offit may think we get enough vitamins from our food, but most studies suggest otherwise.

Even with the prevalence of obesity and overeating in North America, many of us suffer from malnutrition. Take this study, for example, in which a sample of obese youth was checked for deficiency in four vitamins and minerals. Of the 156 individuals with a BMI above the 95th percentile for age and sex, 81% had inadequate amounts of vitamin E, 27% had inadequate amounts of magnesium, 55% were low in calcium and 46% did not get enough vitamin D. These children consumed 124% of their daily need for calories, yet most were deficient in at least two of the tested essential nutrients.

It would appear, then, that many of us don’t get enough vitamins from our diet and may benefit from a multivitamin.

Vitamin D was another big target during the Frontline report. The dangers of over supplementing with vitamin D were discussed at large during a gloomy portion of the report. And it’s true, when over supplemented, vitamin D absolutely will do harm. But that doesn’t change the fact that vitamin D deficiency is now recognized as a pandemic worldwide.

Yes, some people take way too much vitamin D and it is harming them, but the vast majority of people don’t get enough and shouldn’t be afraid to supplement with 1,000 IU per day, especially during the winter months when sun exposure is limited.

Other risks and issues were overblown at times, but my biggest concern with this piece is its portrayal of all supplements as bad and/or dangerous.

Not all supplements are “pills and potions”, as Frontline would have you believe.

Are Supplements Safe?

…it depends.

In the United States the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not test the effectiveness, safety, or purity of nutritional supplements. Instead, the FDA puts the onus on the manufacturer to ensure these things and states on their website that “consumers may contact the manufacturer or a commercial laboratory” with any questions or concerns. They also provide a place for anyone to report an adverse effect to a supplement.

Despite what the aforementioned Frontline report may lead you to believe, it is not the FDA’s job to test safety or effectiveness of dietary supplements. As per their own website, the “FDA is not authorized to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed”.

In Canada, however, things are different. I don’t recall this being mentioned in the Frontline piece, but we have much stricter regulations in place here. In Canada, all products must be cleared by the Natural Health Products Directorate (NHPD) before being produced or marketed. The NHPD ensures each supplement manufacturer has a proper license, follows good manufacturing practices, and that clinical trials support claims and safety of each product. They also ensure thorough adverse event reporting and standard labeling conventions are used.

At the end of the day, supplements sold in Canada are more likely to be safe, effective, and labeled properly. This is good, but doesn’t necessarily give us a green light to pop as many pills as we want. As noted in the investigative report, too much of anything can have negative results.

How to Intelligently Approach Nutritional Supplements

There are three things you need to ask yourself before taking a supplement:

  1. What are the chances that my diet is deficient in the nutrients I’m thinking about supplementing?
  2. Which physiological system do I hope to target with this nutritional supplement and do I need to target that system?
  3. Is there appropriate, peer-reviewed research demonstrating that this supplement does what manufacturers claim it can do, without causing harm?

If you can’t answer any of these questions you should hold off on taking the supplement until you do more research and/or talk to an expert. A good place to start your research is

After going through the initial three steps listed above, if you decide that you want to try using a dietary supplement, I’d strongly recommend buying supplements that fit the following two criteria:

  1. Manufactured by a larger company that’s been doing business for a long time, provides certificates of analysis, and is certified by a third party.
  2. Contains as few ingredients as possible, ideally just one. For example, if want to supplement with creatine, don’t purchase something that has creatine, amino acids, caffeine, dextrose, and sucralose in it – just buy creatine.

Supplements Can Help

Supplements are not all bad and when used intelligently, can help supplement an already healthy diet.

People get into trouble when they take too high of doses, purchase from poor manufacturers, or view them as a shortcut to their health and fitness goals. We see bodybuilders or athletes taking certain things and think that if we take the same products we will look or perform just like them.

But that’s simply not the case.

Supplement | noun | something that is added to something else in order to make it complete

– Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Supplements are a very small piece of the overall health and fitness puzzle. If you aren’t eating right or exercising in a manner that will help you achieve your goals, all the supplements in the world won’t help.

Doubling your protein intake via whey isolate will not turn you into a muscle-bound beast overnight. Taking two multi-vitamins per day is not twice as good as taking one. It just doesn’t work that way.

It’s a confusing world out there. Constant mixed messages and investigative reports like this particular Frontline piece don’t help. From my twenty years of experience in this field, I’ve learned that things are rarely as good, or as bad, as we are lead to believe.

This is why it’s important to question everything, and try things for yourself.

Conviction Clients of the Month – January 2016

Clay WW copy
Clay carrying more than his share of the 897 pounds of food raised during the Winter Warriors Give Back Challenge.

Nick Dalrymple has been with us from the start, and Clay Bakke joined not long after.

We couldn’t be happier to have them both on board!

Whether it’s football, hockey, soccer, dodgeball, or obstacle races, these two are always up for a challenge.

This month we want to recognize both Nick and Clay as they are heading down to Los Angeles for the Spartan Races in Temecula, California. They will be racing in a Super (24 obstacles over 13 km) on Saturday and a Sprint (20 obstacles over 5 km) the next day. Two grueling races in two days – a challenge for even the most experienced athlete.

After competing in their first Spartan Race in August 2014, these two were hooked. Nick went on to run two Spartans the next year while Clay completed the coveted Spartan Trifecta – running a Sprint, Super, and Beast (30 obstacles over 19 km) in just one season.

Not only did Nick and Clay finish a combined five races last year, but they also stepped up their game by challenging themselves to compete in the Elite category for the first time. While racing against some of Canada’s best athletes both Clay (25th) and Nick (13th) were able to finish near the top in their respective age groups. A testament to their hard work and commitment.

Never settling for “good enough”, both of these men have set big goals for themselves this year. And understanding that nothing worth accomplishing ever comes easy, both have been training hard through our Winter Warriors program.

By training together, Nick and Clay have pushed each other to become better athletes and achieve more in life. Whether racing up hills, carrying small boulders, hanging from bars, or focusing on their nutrition, these two attack life with Conviction.

Good luck In Temecula guys, looking forward to seeing those shiny new medals!

Why You Failed in the Past and How to Succeed in the Future

As far as I can tell, there are just two reasons why anyone does anything:

  1. They are motivated to do it.
  2. They are dedicated to doing it.

And there is a huge difference between the two.

Motivation is a feeling. An emotion.

People workout, for example, when they’re motivated to do so. They feel like hitting the gym, so they do.

But once that feeling wears off, once they are no longer motivated to exercise, they stop.

You see this in gyms across the world every January. People set New Years Resolutions to get healthier because the thought of a new year motivates them to do so. But once it becomes too hard or “life happens” they stop going.

The motivation, that feeling of “I should do this”, is long gone.

Not everyone, though, falls into this trap. Some people still exercise and eat right come February, March…. even April.

How do they do it? How are they able to stay motivated for so long?

The truth is, they aren’t.

They might not be motivated to hit the gym in the morning. They may not want to take a salad for lunch. Yet they still manage to do it.

tomato-300x298These people don’t need motivation.

Back when they decided to make a change, to live healthier, they didn’t do it on a whim. They didn’t watch The Biggest Loser and think, “Hey, I should hit the gym tomorrow.”. Something happened inside them and they thought, “ENOUGH! I’m changing my life, no matter what it takes!”.

They dedicated themselves to living healthier and making lasting change.

Dedication is the opposite of motivation.

Dedication means doing things when you don’t want to.

Dedication means fighting your motivations on a daily basis.

Dedication is the difference between someone in great shape and someone that wishes they were.

When you wake up in your warm bed on a cold winter’s morning, you are motivated to stay there. A dedicated person gets up and hits the gym anyways.

When you are starving at work and your boss brings in pizza and donuts, you are motivated to indulge. A dedicated person eats their salad instead.

In “The 4-Hour Body” author Tim Ferriss has a chapter titled “The Harajuku Moment”. In this chapter, Ferriss describes why it’s so hard for people to make lasting change when it comes to their health. He believes that people won’t change until they’ve had their “Harajuku Moment”. He describes this moment as “an epiphany that turns a nice-to-have [e.g. losing 20 pounds] into a must-have”.

In other words, the “Harajuku Moment” is the moment when someone decides to dedicate themselves to change. Becoming healthier and more fit is no longer an option, but rather a necessity. A way of life.

Going to the gym or taking a salad only when they feel like it won’t do anymore. These things become part of their day, like showering and brushing their teeth.

If you’ve failed to make changes in the past, a lack of true dedication was likely the issue. Ask yourself, how dedicated were you to the process?

All diets work. All workout routines will get you results.

The difference between succeeding and failing isn’t which diet you chose, or 3 sets of 10 instead of 5 sets of 5. The difference between succeeding and failing is often your level of commitment.

If you want to change, you can’t just show up when you feel like it.

You need to be dedicated.