To Supplement or Not?

What supplements do you take?

This is a common question that you hear around most gyms and firehouses this time of the year and one that I get a lot via the blog and our FRF Facebook Page, so I wanted to briefly address what some good possible supplement options are.  I also wanted to address whether supplements are even necessary.

My supplement approach is pretty simple.   I do believe that you can get the required nutrients with diet alone, but it is difficult, especially when you're working long, busy shifts, have family obligations and are active.  For most of us (especially in the fire service) supplements may be a useful way to help get the valuable nutrients we need.  The key word here is "HELP."

The one thing you must always keep in mind when considering supplementation is that you cannot supplement for a poor diet.  This is really the "golden rule" for supplementation.  If you think you can eat sweets, not hydrate well, and not watch your portions then take protein shakes, fat-burners and pre-workouts and still make fitness progress, you are sorely mistaken.  First of all, if you are that guy or girl that eats like crap and walks around with a shake bottle all day, please stop!  Second, before you even think about taking any supplement you must get control of, and build, a solid nutritional foundation.

Build a solid nutrition foundation

Focus on eating fruits and vegetables,  reduce your added sugar intake, eat a good protein with every meal and monitor your portions, these are the steps to building a solid nutritional foundation.  Without these initial base steps any amount of supplementation is going to be a waste of time and effort.   After you successfully build some healthy nutritional habits the next point of focus should be to understand macros (carbs, fats and proteins) and adjust them based on your body type and your fitness goals.  For example, if your goal is for performance you must make sure your getting enough carbohydrates for energy, if its for fat-loss you need protein to help build muscle and burn calories.  If general health is your goal, you need to make sure you are eating enough fats for your body to function.  To understand more about macros and how to adjust them you can click here for a great article.

What supplements to take.

Now, if you have your basic nutrition under control, you understand and eat the proper macros, then I think there are some basic supplements that could help you maintain that good level of nutrition and help you fill in any nutritional gaps.

**Please consult your physician or other qualified health care professional on any matter regarding your health or wellbeing, especially before taking any nutritional supplements.  Remember, the reader is responsible for consulting with his or her own health care professional on any matter raised within this blog (just saying).**

Multivitamin or a "green" food supplement

The recommended fruit and vegetable intake is at least five servings per day; however, only 3 percent of men and 7 percent of women meet even these minimums. And that’s where the multivitamin or "greens" supplement can help.  Multivitamin supplements have been endorsed by the most respected medical organizations in the world for their ability to help reduce the risk of nutrient deficiency.  Ideally, the majority of your nutrients should come from a healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables.   A multi or "greens" supplement ensures that you get all the essential vitamins and minerals recommended for each day, keeping your engine running smooth and adding protection against chronic illnesses. These vitamin packed options will insure that you get the vitamins needed to protect against chronic illnesses and inflammation.  Just remember, you cannot help others when you are sick and tired.    When it comes to finding a good vitamin or greens supplement, make sure you do some research and find one that works for your goal and is from a reputable company.

Protein supplement

Proteins have an overall benefit on physical activity and overall health.  Protein supplementation is not entirely necessary if you get enough protein from the foods you eat, like lean meats, chicken and fish. But, since most people are crunched for time, they find themselves eating too little protein. That’s why adding some quick high-quality protein can be really, really helpful, especially after a fire call or workout.  As with any supplement, do some research to find one that tastes good yet does not have a ton of added sweeteners and sugar.

Fish oil supplement

You may have heard a lot about Omega-3’s. And fish oil is the key source. There’s a ton of very positive research on fish oil supplementation, it’s been shown to be great for fat loss, and it’s even been shown to improve mood and motivation.  Fish oil is rich in DHA and EPA, two powerful fats responsible for things like: increased metabolic rate, improved fat burning, and reducing our risk for a host of diseases (cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes). In addition, the minimum recommended EPA and DHA intake is 900 mg per day, but the average North American gets only 300mg per day, 1/3 of what’s necessary for good health.  And that’s where fish oil supplements come in.  There are a lot of these products on the market, do some research and make sure you use one from a reputable source and one that does not give you the "fish" burp.

Sleep Aid Supplement

Recovery begins with healthy sleep and curbing chronic inflammation. It is very difficult to get on consistent sleep pattern as a firefighter, EMT and/or medic.  The late night calls, long shifts, and stress from calls can wreak havoc on sleep.   Poor sleeping habits and inadequate sleep doesn't just lead to lethargy and a lack of energy.  Lack of sleep is a major underlying cause for a host of problems in the fire service.  Thus, it is important to try to get as much sleep and recovery as possible.  Research supports that magnesium, glycine, zinc, vitamin B6, GABA, and melatonin are elements that can help support good quality sleep.  Do some research for yourself before trying any sleep aid.  I personally use one on the days I get off shift to help my sleep quality.

I found a product called NightGainz from Paragon Fitness and Nutrition that was developed for first responders to provide the support needed to get quality sleep (click here for info).

Sports Nutrition Supplements

There is a group of supplements on the market that are in the category of sports nutrition supplements that claim to improve exercise (among other things) performance.  Last I checked there were almost 60,000 products in this category and growing everyday.  And, the claims that these supplements make are in most cases not backed by the FDA nor research.  You must be careful and do your research if you are dabbling in any of these supplements.  Again, I must emphasize that none of these supplements will do you any good if you don't have a good nutritional foundation.

From my research and experience working with athletes in and out of the fire service, I found a couple of sports nutrition supplements that can help boost exercise performance and help with recovery.  These supplements work by providing amino acids, carbohydrates, and/or other ingredients – during the workout itself – to enhance blood flow, to boost oxygen delivery to working muscles, and to kick-start recovery.  Here is a brief summary of these products.


Research can support that continual, low dose, creatine supplementation may be important for good health as well as athletic performance. While creatine has been discussed in the athletic context quite extensively, it has some amazing regenerative effects on all tissues of the body including the brain.  Use caution as some creatine can cause some digestive issues.


BCAAs provide the basis for protein synthesis and energy production.  Because BCAAs are important to muscle tissue, and because they help maintain blood sugar levels, supplementing with them can support and improve workouts.  Consuming a carbohydrate, protein, and amino acid beverage during and after training can induce an insulin response, which helps transport BCAAs into cells.  This BCAA supplementation may lower lactate levels after resistance training and improve muscular oxidation thus aiding in recovery.


Research on caffeine shows that it enhances power output when consumed in high doses (400-500mg) before training, although most folks will do fine with around 100-200 mg (the equivalent of 1 to 1.5 cups of coffee), especially if they’re not regular consumers.

There are other supplements that I could add to the list, maybe I will discuss them on another post.  But, for those wondering if supplements are worth a try, I think there is enough information to steer you in the right direction.  Remember, before you even think about supplementation, you must have a solid nutritional base.  And, if you are going to supplement, make sure you do your homework and research them.

So, next time you see that "guy or girl" walking around the firehouse with their supplements, think of this post...

Let me know if you have any questions and/or comments.

Stay safe and GET FRF (fire rescue fit).

Aaron Zamzow

All FRF programs now include eating guides, recipes, meal plan (overview) and coaching.  And, of course all of the workouts and exercises.  To get started discover the best program for you (click the link below).





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