#222 Food, Drugs & Supps

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Let thy food be thy medicine
and thy medicine be thy food.

Hippocrates (460-377 B.C.)

Nutrition 911, Part IX: Food, Drugs, and Supplements—What's the Difference?

By Steve Edwards

In the wake of all the doping scandals in sports, it's become clear to me that most people have no idea what sports doping actually is. For that matter, it seems that what we eat, the supplements we take, and the drugs we take have been completely separated in the minds of many when, in fact, they all affect our body very similarly. So let's go over some of the very basic differences between food, drugs, and supplements. I think many of you will be surprised at the relationship food has with the others.

Since this is a 911 class, I'll try and keep this simple, which isn't easy with all the science behind not only our drug industry, but also our food and supplement industry. But we're just concerned with the very basics for our purposes, so let's begin with a quick analysis of how much "doping" for a sport actually helps.

Could you take drugs and win the Tour de France?

I'm convinced that sports doping has been blown out of proportion by the media to the point that most people think it will turn someone into the 6 Million Dollar Man. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view), this is far from the case. The highest performance boost anyone can obtain from using medical science is along the lines of 3 percent—nowhere close to what diet and exercise can do.

While this can make a huge difference between two similarly talented athletes, it's still only a small piece of the 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. Not to say they don't have to put in massive amounts of work. They do, especially in this day and age of scientific knowledge where you can run a few tests on an eight-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. Kind of boring, but true.

So now that we know that taking drugs can't completely change your physical makeup (we'll touch on mental later), let's talk about just what drugs are.

The anatomy of a drug

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, 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 would lead scientists to try and improve 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.

This is the first clue to how our lines on this stuff 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 not. A good example of this is 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 but the latter condition is caused by a direct result of poor dietary habits.

Another example is 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. Therefore a well-funded racer can have a doctor ensure that they have almost perfect recovery by injecting these substances, leaving little to chance.

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, 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. These were used for centuries but became less popular as Western (and now Eastern) medicine found ways to synthesize these compounds and find other, generally more aggressive, pathways in which 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 and are called "food supplements."

The food supplement industry has grown beyond this as well. Our modern diets, now filled with junk foods, alcohol, and the like, have left us very short on the nutrients we need to live a healthy lifestyle. Now many supplements are more than just plants with medicinal qualities but condensed food nutrients, or high concentrations of nutrient-rich foods, like spirulina. 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.

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.

It's interesting to note that this has followed, almost exactly (if not by leading the way), our trend of modern medicine. Most were traditionally plants, with the "high" or altered mental state coming 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 shown positive effects for certain conditions. But make no mistake, these are drugs, and even though they're natural, cause changes to your natural state and should be used with restraint and an acknowledgement of this fact. Most of these substances have some degree of addictive quality and all, even coffee and tea, should be eliminated for periods of time in order 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. Doctors are under a lot of pressure from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe a lot of medication. Many do so without administering the caution that they've been taught to use. It won't hurt you to question your doctor about what you're putting in your body. It's your right to know and you should utilize it.

Even though they work along similar pathways, these laboratory (or bathtub-made) substances can greatly change the way your natural body reacts to its world. If this sounds scary, it is. Prescription medication is powerful stuff and should always be used with great caution. It can do amazing things if used only as necessary, but our current society needs to show some restraint in the way we dish this stuff out. We—the users—are the only ones who can change that.


I haven't mentioned the importance of exercise with regards to all this but thought I should toss you a bone, since it is my MO in life. Exercise creates tissue breakdown, which stimulates hormone action, which helps 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.

I mention this here because exercise also causes the release of 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 at your 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 get arrested for having too much in your system.

The power of food

As you may have noticed, the things we eat are linked somehow with all of the effects of drugs and supplements. Food changes our bodies just like supplements and even like drugs. It just does it in a much more subtle way. And it does it at both ends of the spectrum. If you eat well, then you are likely to need a lot fewer supplements and drugs and if you're ill and in need of prescription medication, eating better will lessen your reliance on these substances. This is a pretty powerful testament for eating well.

Food vs. Drugs: Which is the better performance enhancer?

Everyone who's turned on a TV, radio, or read about any newspaper in the world over the last few years has heard of the baseball player Barry Bonds. Most have weighed in on whether they think his incredible records should be counted in the sport's history. And the reason, of course, is that he used performance-enhancing drugs in order to get stronger, which led to him hitting more home runs than he would have otherwise.

In order for these substances to help, Bonds was required to work out religiously, rest, and eat well. While they help performance, they require extra effort. If you aren't pushing your body to its limit, most "steroids" (a colloquial term for performance-enhancing drugs) are not performance enhancing. 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 when he was smaller and more supple. In essence, a lot of hard work helped Bonds hit more home runs, aided by what amounts to a science diet.

On the other hand, what hasn't been discussed, at least that I've seen, 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 seven and reportedly smoked 12 cigars a day. His late night carousing was a thing of legend. Only when he remarried towards the end of his career did he pay any attention at all to his diet. His career was rife with health problems.

Obviously, the Babe should still hold the record. And not because Bonds' records should be deleted. Steroids, after all, were not banned from baseball when Bonds took 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. Two, even three or four in a career that could have lasted another five years. Because when it comes to performance, the biggest variable of all is still what you eat.

Visit the Newsletter Archive for Steve's other Nutrition 911 articles:
Part I addresses the terms organic, grass-fed, free-range, and farm-raised.
Part II analyzes the ever-popular "fat-free" and trendy "low-carb" slogans.
Part III takes the CliffNotes approach to reading food labels.
Part IV tackles dessert.
Part V concerns what to eat.
Part VI tackles soda pop, the worst food on the planet.
Part VII takes a look at the so-called "best" foods on the planet.
Part VIII evaluates the health benefits of coffee.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

Check out Steve's responses to your comments in Steve Edwards' Mailbag on the Message Boards. And if you'd like to know more about Steve's views on fitness, nutrition, and outdoor sports, read his blog, The Straight Dope.

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7 Tips for Trimmer Tots

By Jude Buglewicz

Even newborns are fatter these days. The number of overweight babies jumped 74 percent over a 22-year period, according to a recent study by Harvard Medical School researchers. And since there's a strong correlation between being overweight early in life and being obese later, this is not good news. Not for expectant mothers, new moms and dads, or the children coming into this world. Not unless you know what to do to increase a child's chances of growing up healthy. Read on to find out.

Why baby is fat

First of all, it's not clear what being "overweight" means for very young children, so there's some controversy about how these claims are determined. Babies grow in accelerated spurts, so they can look chubby or not, depending on their height. The researchers in the study cited above examined kids under the age of 6 over a period of 22 years, and, using data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for reference, considered that children at or above the 95th percentile on growth charts nationally for their age and gender (based on body mass index, or weight-to-height ratios) were overweight. They believe babies are overweight mainly because of:

  • Overweight moms. More and more women are overweight when they become pregnant, or gain excessive weight during pregnancy. Studies show that babies of obese mothers consume more calories than babies of healthy-weight moms.

  • Overfeeding. This is especially detrimental in the first two years of a child's life. More than 20 studies from around the world confirm that if babies gain too much weight rapidly during this period, they have a greater risk of being obese later in life.

Health risks/costs of chubbier kids

Childhood obesity has tripled in the past 20 years, resulting in increased health risks for children as well as economic costs for their families and for the children themselves as they move into adulthood:

  • More expensive. Obese children cost the health system three times more than average normal-weight insured children.

  • More hospital stays. Obese children are two to three times more likely to be hospitalized than healthy-weight children.

  • More diseases/ailments. Obesity-related diseases and conditions include type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, asthma, sleep apnea, hypertension, osteoporosis, increased LDL ("bad") cholesterol, liver and gallbladder diseases, and some cancers. They account for up to 7.8 percent of all health care expenditures.

  • More money spent on health care in adulthood. If a child is obese at four years old, he or she is 20 percent more likely to be an obese adult; the probability of an obese adolescent developing into an obese adult is between 40 and 80 percent. Obese adults spend 77 percent more than healthy-weight people on medications and 36 percent more on inpatient and outpatient care.

  • Lower income. Researchers at Stanford University investigating health care insurance costs found that obese women earn less than healthier women: "We find that a substantial part of the lower wages among obese women attributed to labor market discrimination can be explained by the higher health insurance premiums required to cover them."

7 tips for healthy tots

If you as a parent are overweight, then it is imperative that you learn and adopt healthy eating habits so you can teach them to your children. No parent wants to jeopardize their child's future health and well-being. Here are some things you can do to ensure your baby or child maintains a healthy weight:

  1. Breastfeed your baby. Numerous studies have shown that breastfeeding reduces the risk of obesity, compared with formula feeding. Breastfeeding for more than six months has a beneficial long-term effect on the child's health. (It's unusual for breastfed babies to overfeed.)

  2. Feed children slowly. Don't train them to gulp down food quickly. Remember, you're establishing lifelong patterns.

  3. Avoid overfeeding. Train your baby to leave a little formula in the bottle and your kids a little food on the plate, and to stop eating before they're full.

  4. Small portions, often. This goes for babies and children. Babies are tiny; their stomachs are tiny (about the size of their tiny fist), so rather than trying to give your baby a whole bottle, make the feedings shorter and more frequent. With older kids, give smaller portions at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and healthy, low-calorie (sugarless) snacks between meals. And NO soda pop! (See why it's the "worst food on the planet.")

  5. Take the sippy cup away. If you allow your toddler to hold on to a cup or bottle all day long, they'll learn to associate food with comfort. (Food should be associated with hunger and that's it!)

  6. Don't use food as a reward. Instead, give your child affection and praise when they've been good.

  7. Get kids moving. Get down on the floor and play with your baby. Crawl around, move, and get those little muscles working. Be sure tots and older kids get lots of exercise, too (instead of plopping down in front of the TV for hours). Tony Horton's fun and lively workout for children is great for those times when they can't get outside to play.

For excellent suggestions on what to feed (and not feed) your kids, be sure to read Joe Wilkes' article "9 Foods Not to Give Your Kids." And if you're interested in the high cost of adult obesity, check out Denis Faye's article in our archives.

Bhattacharya, Jay, and Bundorf, M. Kate. "The Incidence of the Healthcare Costs of Obesity." Stanford University, April 2005, Abstract.
Owen, Christopher G., Ph.D., et al. "Effect of Infant Feeding on the Risk of Obesity Across the Life Course: A Quantitative Review of Published Evidence." Pediatrics. (2005), 115 (5): 1367-1377.
Peterson, K. E, et al. "Trends in overweight from 1980 through 2001 among preschool-aged children enrolled in a health maintenance organization." Obesity. (2006), 14 (7):1107-12.

If you'd like to ask a question or comment on this newsletter article, just email us at mailbag@beachbody.com.

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