By Steve Edwards

Sorry, not much rock and roll, but two out of three's not bad. Today, our Nutrition 911 class moves into its final chapter: supplements. They are the final link in the nutrition chain, but one that is very much misunderstood. Supplements can be a great dietary aid. The supplement industry, however, has distorted their usefulness by comparing them to pharmaceutical drugs. So much that we probably read as much about bogus supplements as we do about ones that work. To assess this situation, it's important to understand just what food supplements are and how they differ from food and pharmaceutical drugs. So for part one of our supplement lesson, we'll begin by analyzing the big-picture differences between drugs, supplements, and food.


According to Wikipedia: A drug is any substance containing a chemical which binds with a receptor in a cell membrane or an enzyme which produces some biological effect by altering the cellular functions as a result of that binding. It is usually synthesized outside of an organism, but introduced into an organism to produce its action. That is, when taken into the organism's body, it will produce some effects or alter some bodily functions (such as relieving symptoms, curing diseases or used as preventive medicine or any other purposes).

So it's a little scientific for 911 class, but what did you expect? Medical drugs can do some amazing things, but they still work with basic physiological principles of the body. Most drugs were created because something was found in the natural world that caused a reaction that led scientists to try improving upon it. For example, check out the next paragraph:

Note that natural endogenous biochemicals (such as hormones) can bind to the same receptor in the cell, producing the same effect as a drug. Thus, "drug" is merely an artificial definition that distinguishes whether that molecule is synthesized within an organism or outside an organism. For instance, insulin is a hormone that is synthesized in the body; it is considered a hormone when it is synthesized by the pancreas inside the body, but if it is introduced into the body from outside, it is considered a drug.

I promise to stop with all the scientific mumbo-jumbo shortly, but bear with me for a sec. This is the first clue to how our lines on this topic have become blurred. What we eat affects our natural insulin levels, but insulin can also be a drug. So can't we just eat better and not need to inject insulin? Sometimes we can. Other times we can't. For a good example of this, let's look at type 1 and type 2 diabetes; where the former is a condition that requires injections of the drug form of insulin to keep the patient alive, the latter condition is a direct result of poor dietary habits.

For another example, let's look at a Tour de France bicycle rider. Each day, the grueling race breaks down his body's tissues, sapping his natural hormone stores that are needed to promote recovery for the next day's race. Eating, rest, and recuperative strategies like massage help this process greatly. But now, through medical science, we also have the ability to synthesize these substances of recovery. Therefore, a well-funded racer can have a doctor ensure that the rider has an almost perfect recovery by injecting these substances, leaving little to chance.

Okay, so that last paragraph sounded pretty cool. What's the catch? The downside is that drugs always have side effects—any time the body gets an unnatural amount of a substance that it makes naturally, it reacts by triggering or suppressing another process. Hence, side effects. These vary in severity, from potentially dangerous to life threatening. When using drugs, you're altering your body's chemistry in an unnatural way. Carefully guided, drugs can do amazing things. Experimenting with them is risky at best.

Food supplements

The third paragraph of Wikipedia's definition of the word "drug" sheds much more light on the relationship between food and drugs, and it essentially defines what we now call supplements.

It is a substance which is not food, and which, when ingested, affects the functioning of the mind, or the body, or both. However, under the philosophy of Chinese medicine, food is also considered a drug as it affects particular parts of the body and cures some diseases. Thus, food does satisfy the above definition of drug so long as ingestion of it would alter some bodily functions.

The Chinese and other indigenous cultures were the first to make "supplements," as we now call almost all of their natural remedies. Ancient doctors saw how eating different foods affected the body differently, especially herbs and plants. All plants have some type of defense mechanism that allows them to survive within the dog-eat-dog world of natural selection in which they live. Some have thorns. Some eat animals. But most rely on something called a secondary defense compound, which is usually something poisonous to one of its predators. While some remain poisonous to humans, others have medicinal qualities.

Through use of these compounds, we created the world's first "drugs," which were actually supplements. These were used for centuries, but they became less popular as Western (and now Eastern) medicine found ways to synthesize these compounds and discovered other generally more aggressive pathways to attack ailments. But many are still used by naturopathic doctors and other traditional healers worldwide. Most of these old-school drugs can now be purchased over the counter as "food supplements."

The food supplement industry has grown into a whole new scope. Our modern diets, now filled with junk foods, alcohol, and the like, have left us very deprived of the daily nutrients we need to live a healthy lifestyle. Many supplements are now condensed food nutrients, or high concentrations of nutrient-rich "superfoods." These supplements are actually more food than supplement, but we've blurred the line here as well, mainly because the word food doesn't have the healthy connotation it once did, so most of us feel the need to supplement our diets.

Because they go to work through natural pathways and are basically just food, it's very rare when supplements have side effects. Most that do are illegal, placing them in the recreational drug category (more below). Legal-supplement side effects are annoying at worst, and don't affect everyone the same way. Supplements are almost never dangerous. Well-publicized deaths from supplements were all a result of some type of abuse. You can kill yourself by abusing plain old food, too, by the way. And thus the reason for our Nutrition 911 course!

Recreational drugs

Since most of you must know that these are not the cornerstones of a healthy lifestyle, I'm not going to spend much time on them. This is probably by far the most popular way we consume drugs, and hopefully, you'll use some common sense and restraint in this area. They are a topic today because they can help you understand the differences between drugs, supplements, and food. It's interesting to note that this has followed, almost exactly (probably by leading the way), our trend of modern medicine. Most recreational drugs were traditionally plants. Consuming them resulted in an altered mental state from a reaction to a secondary defense compound—most often probably from being slightly poisoned. Now many are made by chemists.

Not all of them are bad for you. Two popular mind-altering substances from natural sources, caffeine and marijuana, have been shown to have positive effects for certain conditions. Most of these substances have some degree of an addictive quality, and all, even coffee and tea, should be eliminated for periods of time to allow your body to cleanse itself and revert to a state of homeostasis, or internal balance.

Medical drugs should also be used with care and a healthy dose of skepticism—not just recreational drugs but even those prescribed to you by your doctor. No matter what the official stance is, doctors are under pressure from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe medication. Always question your doctor, and then do your own research on what you're putting into your body.


Okay, so exercise wasn't a topic of today's discussion. But since we discussed recreational drugs, it's also worth a mention. Exercise causes tissue breakdown, which stimulates a hormone reaction to help you recover. What it also does is signal your brain to crave the types of foods it needs to repair itself. This is your best ally in the fight against aging, obesity, and drug dependence.

But it also releases a hormone that acts like a drug, what you've heard called endorphins. These are essentially mind-altering, recreational-type drugs similar to the kind some procure from shady characters in the bathroom of the local club. The only difference is that they're never laced with meth, chlorine, amyl nitrate, or baby powder, and all their side effects are good for you. Okay, so you'll have to stimulate their production yourself and they're addicting. But it's the healthiest addiction you'll ever have. It's also free. Plus, you're guaranteed to never to lose your job for having too much in your system.

This is my drug of choice. I recommend that you try some.


Food pretty much does all of the above, only slower. As an example, let's look at refined sugar because it's very easy to understand. Sugar isn't natural, exactly. In its natural state, it is surrounded by fiber (in fruit, etc.) or it is predigested (in honey). Refined, such as table sugar, it is essentially a drug. It creates a rather violent hormonal reaction that your body responds to by feeling good, then crashing, and then craving more. Most of us know this feeling. But we respond along similar lines to all foods, just not as obviously. A balanced diet works subtly. You may not feel anything different, but if you're eating well, your body will respond to what you ask it to do. Foods stimulate bodily responses that help us think, run, lift weights, recover from exercise, sleep, and everything else we do. The better we eat, the less we need to rely on drugs and supplements.

Can drugs help your performance?

Obviously, drugs can be helpful when you have an illness. That's their main function. But we've begun to rely on them more and more for everyday things. We take drugs to sleep, wake up, have sex, and sit around the house watching television. Certainly, they can help, but at what cost? Since our topic is nutrition, let's analyze drugs that enhance your athletic performance because that's what we try doing with our diets.

Doping in sports has been blown out of proportion by the media to the point that many of us probably think we can make athletes from scratch. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), this is far from the case. Gene manipulation is getting to the point where this could happen in the future, but current practices are limited to a few percentage points of improvement above the talent you're born with. While this is the difference between winning and losing for two similarly talented athletes who've put in the same amount of work, it's still only a small piece of their fitness puzzle. And for someone like you or me, it won't get us much nearer to an Olympic medal than we are now.

As un-Horatio Alger as it sounds, world-class athletes are born, not made. This isn't to say that athletes don't have to put in massive amounts of work. They do, especially in this day and age of scientific knowledge when you can run a few tests on an 8-year-old and pinpoint their athletic potential. But the bottom line is that if you didn't cream everyone in your school the first time you ran around the perimeter, you're not going to win the Olympic marathon, no matter how hard you train or what kind of dope you can get your hands on.

But drugs can, and do, help the layman athlete, which some of you may have witnessed back in school when the class 90-pound weakling disappeared for the summer and showed up in the fall as Charles Atlas with acne and a bad attitude. He probably credited pumping iron and trips to the local smorgasbord for his change, but it was likely spurred more by abusing dianobol. While you can completely change your physique without drugs, massive changes in a short amount of time are often the result of drugs, especially when side effects (like acne or aggressiveness) are noticeable. Thing is, Charley could have gotten big and ripped without the juice, and it probably would have resulted in more dates and less fights. We can create the same responses with diet and supplements. It would have taken longer, but it would have happened without throwing the body's hormonal releases out of whack, which would have saved him from the side effects. So let's take a closer look at how this works.

Food vs. drugs: The performance-enhancing battle

For the sake of argument, let's lump food and supplements together and stack them up against performance-enhancing drugs to shed some light on which is more important. Now let's look at a couple of famous cases involving baseball players.

A few years back, Barry Bonds famously hit the juice and shattered a bunch of home run records. While his 'roid use got all the press, let's try to assess how much it helped him. For these substances to help, Bonds was required to work out religiously, rest, and eat well. While "steroids" (a colloquial term for performance-enhancing drugs) help performance, they require extra effort. If you aren't pushing your body to its limit, they won't help. His drugs functioned to speed up Bonds' recovery, but he still needed to do the work. And because he reshaped his body by adding bulk, more time must have been spent to keep the skills of his game on par with his bulk. In essence, a lot of hard work helped Bonds hit more home runs, aided by what amounts to a science diet. Certainly, he hit more home runs because of his added strength, but with the same amount of work and no juice, he would have come very close anyway.

On the other hand, what I haven't really heard discussed is how many more home runs Babe Ruth would have hit had he not existed on a diet primarily consisting of alcohol, tobacco, and hot dogs. Ruth began using tobacco at age 7 and reportedly smoked 12 cigars a day. His late-night carousing was a thing of legend. Only when he remarried, toward the end of his career, did he pay any attention at all to his diet. His career was rife with health problems.

However, Bonds' records should not be deleted. Steroids, after all, were not banned from baseball when Bonds used them. Most experts attribute a handful of home runs per year to "doping" during Bonds' big years. But who knows how many more home runs Ruth would have hit had he paid any sort of attention to his diet. A hundred? With ease, it could have been two or even three or four hundred in a career that could have lasted another 5 years. Because when it comes to performance, the biggest variable of all is still what you eat.

Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the relationship between food and supplements. Next time, we'll take a look at the different categories of supplements and what you can expect to gain from using them.