Dietary supplements: an interesting piece of history

I’m sure most of my readers are aware of the ongoing controversy surrounding dietary supplements:  vitamins, minerals, weight gain, weight loss, “energy drinks”, the whole schmear.  I regard all of them with suspicion, given the number of studies that have shown them to have little, if any, positive effect.

Many people aren’t aware that the dietary supplement “fad” began in weightlifting and bodybuilding circles in the 1960’s.  It was unscientific, but promoted by the suppliers of equipment to the sport, as they realized they could make a lot more money out of bodybuilding supplements than they could out of one-off sales of equipment (because barbells, etc. don’t wear out and never need replacement).  A very interesting six-part article by Dr. Ken Leistner recalls the period, and how supplements grew into a multi-million-dollar industry.

If you trained with weights during this era, you also had an interest and a financial investment in any number of nutritional supplements. One of the oft-quoted summaries regarding this came from famed collegiate and NFL strength coach Dan Riley, who in one lecture remarked, “For those of you familiar with the statue on top of the York Barbell Company building, I want you to know that I paid for half of that with all of their supplements that I bought.” I immediately piped up from the audience, “Dan, I believe you because I paid for the other half!”

My own odyssey that wound through the nutritional supplement field was no doubt as typical for the era as it is possible to be. It began with the awareness that my training efforts needed a boost, some sort of push forward that training alone could not and would not provide. At least the muscle magazines told me this. Of course this wasn’t true, as weight training was in the process of taking me from an undersized 120-pound youngster to a 232-pound collegiate athlete. The training was doing its job, but like so many, I read the ads that were aimed at fourteen and fifteen-year-old trainees and fell prey to the purveyors of protein powder, vitamins, minerals, wheat germ oil, and brewer’s yeast. In the early 1960s these were the “standard fare” for anyone involved in weight training who deemed themselves to be “serious about things.” No one was more serious about their training than I was, and I believed the advertising copy, much of which passed for legitimate articles in the various muscle magazines.

Please allow for another reminder, especially for those young readers of the Internet Age: the dissemination of information was extremely limited – often limited to what was printed in the magazines, if one could not actually get themselves to a storefront gym, garage, basement, or warehouse where serious lifters or bodybuilders trained. The “information” in the York publications clearly boosted “the fact” that the featured lifters and bodybuilders used York Hi-Proteen powders, tablets, Energol germ oil, and their other supplements. The Weider magazines, published under an almost dizzying array of titles, focused primarily on bodybuilders, but again the key feature was the intake of the Weider brand of nutritional supplements, many of which mimicked what York was selling.

. . .

A true observation about training with a barbell … was made in 1970 by Arthur Jones in his Nautilus Training Bulletin. He noted that once a trainee purchases a barbell set, he is effectively removed from the marketplace as a consumer unless the barbell itself is defective. Any failure in performance of the barbell set becomes evident and a replacement will be sought. He clearly stated that it is much more difficult to judge the efficacy of a can of protein powder, and once established as a customer, the purveyor of nutritional supplements will have the user as a monthly customer, perhaps for a very lengthy period of time as he replenishes his depleted supplement supply.

This was also the realization of Hoffman, Weider, and a few smaller manufacturers or distributors who jumped onto the supplement bandwagon.

There’s much more at the link, which takes you to the first article in the series.  Links to the other parts are at the foot of the article.

Reading Dr. Leistner’s recollections of supplements in the weightlifting and bodybuilding “industries”, one can see many similarities to how supplements are promoted for general use in TV advertisements and other media today.  The comparison is interesting, and thought-provoking.  Recommended reading if you’re interested in fitness and/or strength training, which is the discipline Miss D. and myself are following.  We’re very happy with the results so far – and no supplements are needed!



  1. Vitamin E (400 IU's a day) lowered my cholesterol by 100 points, when nothing else was changed. SOME things DO help.

  2. Grandson, who is a newly minted pharmacist, told me that fish oils are the only nutritional supplement proven by the FDA to actually do good things.
    He takes a "bunch" (eight years of expensive education medical term) of it.

  3. And even then, if you are at relatively high risk for prostate cancer, fish-oil is contraindicated. (As DadRed discovered, did some research, and stopped taking fish oil).

    I take a low-dose iron supplement and Vitamin D as recommended by my internist. Since I don't do sunlight, the Vitamin D is to help make up for what normal people get by going outside in the sun. Otherwise? Eh, a little additional protein on days that I lift is the only supplement I'd consider.


  4. When diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes 7 years ago I went on a high protein/low carb diet, resumed an exercise program and took prescribed medications: metformin, cholesterol and BP meds.
    Supplements include whey protein (instead of Ovaltine), multivitamin, B complex, and iron, occasionally Vitamin D.
    I lost 20 lbs, A1C, B/P and triglycerides back within normal ranges and have been steady for years.

    So far, so good.


  5. Yeah. It is the truth about dumbbells and barbells. They just don't wear out. Not in my experience of, oh… about 45 years of lifting (with a few years out for good behavior ;->)

    Not much money in a car that never breaks down and never wears out. Same is true of exercise equipment.

    Anonymous: It would be best if you could rid yourself of those BP/diabetes drugs, too. No prescription drug is without side-effects. Many of which are yet to be discovered.

    If you haven't already, read Bernstein's diabetes diet. A Type I diabetic who got his BG level under control with diet, but of course, being Type I still needs insulin. But what a great story! This was back in the day when Diabetics were, essentially, given a death sentence of – 70 years max.

    He was born in 1934. Still alive, and I believe he is still practicing medicine in New York, helping diabetics take control of their condition. What a great guy.

    I am a nutrition junkie and I am firmly convinced that a low-carb diet is critical to the well being of diabetics. I also believe it has huge benefits for the whole population.

    Elevated blood sugar is just plain evil.

    Almost every disease occurs in diabetics at far higher numbers than the 'normal' population. Heart disease, kidney disease, cataracts, thyroid disorders (!!surprise!!), neuropathy, peridontal disease…

    I shut up now.

  6. Another brief comment:

    As we age, our digestive systems do NOT work as well as they did when we were young. You may still be able to build some muscle in your 50's and 60's and if you don't have much muscle to begin with into your 70's and 80's.

    BUT you cannot fix your intestines no matter how many sit-ups you do. They don't absorb as well as they did when you were younger, and in particular B vitamins are difficult to get through diet. There is no evidence than a large dose of B vitamins has any negative side-effects at all. But they DO have lots of health benefits.

    Pills can help. But a B-12 injection from time to time will help amazingly.

    I have always given my older dogs B-12 injections (with an occasional multi-B) and the difference in them is quite extraordinary. Their energy level improves and they are overall much more alert. (I also home-cook for them so they get great nutrition.)

    We call them B-stings, because they do sting. But you ought to talk to your doc about it. Can't hurt, Peter. You are not a spring chicken any more ;->.

    Looking out for you…

    (Don't believe everything you hear from doctors or their guild. Remember their bottom line is what counts to them, they justify their actions as 'caring for their patients'. Well, OK, but why does everyone's gall-bladder have to be removed? Also think: Mammograms, colonoscopies (very dangerous). Used to be that every young woman I knew had a D&C back in the 60's. It seemed to be some kind of right of passage. Sheesh. Sure did build some fine houses and make some substantial boat-payments though, so I guess it wasn't ALL bad, eh?)

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