Do fitness enthusiasts really need supplements?


Toned arms, a defined six-pack and obliques, tree trunk-size quads and stone-like calf muscles – we’ve seen plenty of images of people like this on the front of jugs of protein powder.

These images help boost sales in an industry that already brings in more than $30 billion annually and could see a further increase as people focus on improving their fitness during a pandemic that has raised awareness of health and mortality.

In addition, athletes across the globe are pushing themselves to achieve new levels of strength and speed, as well as a physique to make them Instagram worthy. Health and nutrition influencers can be found easily across all channels of social media pushing supplements through paid partnerships.

However, Dr. Dana Ellis Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD a clinical inpatient dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center and adjunct assistant professor in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, believes people can achieve their desired goals by ditching the supplements and committing to a nutritionally sound diet with real food. In her new book, “Recipe for Survival,” Dr. Hunnes addresses how we can improve our health while being better consumers.

“In general, most athletes do not need supplements of any kind and are best off to get all their calories, healthy proteins, and other vitamins and minerals from real foods,” said Dr. Hunnes, who is also an amateur athlete. “I personally get all my nutrients from a healthy, well-balanced, plant-based diet that relies on whole grains, fruits, vegetables, plant-based proteins from nuts, legumes and seeds – and do not have any known deficiencies.”


“While there are studies indicating that certain nutrients are beneficial at certain times after training, in general, my experience has shown me as long as you get the right balance of nutrients from whole foods, plenty of calories and hydration, there is no need for any kind of supplement at all," she said.

The International Society of Sports Nutrition says for those who exercise regularly, consuming 1.4-2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is sufficient for building muscle mass. This is slightly higher than The Institute of Medicine’s recommended daily allowance (RDA) of 0.8 grams of protein per kg of bodyweight. For instance, a 150-pound man should be looking to consume 54 grams of healthy protein daily. Far less than he is most likely actually eating.

What protein-packed foods should I eat to gain muscle?

Given how lucrative the industry is, we shouldn’t anticipate supplement retailers to go out of business anytime soon. However, for those choosing to go the more holistic route, following is a list of foods that can help sculpt your body with lean muscle mass.

Foods high in protein that help build lean muscle:

  • Soy/Soybeans
  • All beans and legumes
  • Chia/Quinoa Seeds
  • Split Peas/Lentils
  • Peanuts and Tree nuts
  • Eggs
  • Greek yogurt
  • Tuna
  • Chicken breast
  • Salmon
  • Shrimp
  • Lean beef
  • Cottage cheese
  • Turkey breast

Protein, from all sources, is important for building muscle because it contains amino acids, which help repair muscle tissue. Carbohydrates are also crucial in helping muscles repair as glucose provides the energy substrate (aka glucose) to feed the cells’ metabolism. When athletes lift heavy weights, the muscles tear slightly. Both proteins and carbohydrates help the muscles recover.

Weight gain supplements containing ingredients such as whey protein and chromium picolinate can be effective but, Dr. Hunnes explains, the body can only process a certain amount of protein at any given time.

In other words, by eating a good source of healthy protein and carbohydrates (found in whole grains, veggies, and fruits), you can build the same muscle mass as you would using a protein powder.

If a person takes in more than 30-50 grams of protein by eating a balanced meal, adding a shake with 40 grams of protein per serving is not going to increase muscle mass any further, the body simply treats it as more calories.

According to a study published by the National Institutes of Health, a meal with 30 grams of protein increased muscle-building activity by almost 50% in one study group. In another group, subjects consumed 90 grams of protein in a meal and measured the same in muscle synthesis as the first group. The conclusion was that increasing protein intake beyond 30 grams at a time does not help to increase muscle mass.

“Your body can only process about 30 grams of protein in one sitting,” Dr. Hunnes said. “There is a common misconception out there where people think they need protein shakes to build muscle. However, you don’t need to worry about mixing and matching supplements if you’re getting all your essential nutrients in every meal from your food.”

What if I want to lose weight?

If you’re looking to trim the waist line and shrink the gut, you don’t need to buy $50 worth of weight-loss products. Try eating more nutrient-dense veggies, which will help you decrease your calorie intake while improving your nutrition at the same time.

Veggies low in calories

  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Carrots
  • Collard greens
  • Kale
  • Spinach

Understanding nutrition is key to accomplishing fitness goals

“People don’t understand nutrition anymore, nor do they understand how to eat for health. I really do think there is a gap in the knowledge,” Dr. Hunnes says. “We have to start informing people how to get back to the basics. Understanding how the digestive system works is really important.”

According to Dr. Hunnes, athletes who focus on eating balanced meals as opposed to taking supplements are going to have healthier systems, whether the goal is to add muscle, tone up, or drop pounds.

On the same note, athletes who load up on supplements could actually do more damage to their bodies than good, she says. Overloading on supplements can cause cramping, elevated blood pressure, irregular heartbeat, nausea and severe problems with the digestive system or kidneys.

“If the science is there, then we have to trust the science,” Dr. Hunnes says. “The science thus far says that too much of anything, even if it’s considered healthy, doesn’t do a body good.”