I am frequently asked about creatine and whether it is a supplement that should be considered for those on a plant-based diet. I will preface this by saying that creatine is a supplement I have used over the years and anecdotally have had good results. The main benefit I get when using creatine is feeling delayed fatigue during high load low rep range exercises (i.e I’ll fatigue later in the set). In order to see if my anecdotal experience is backed by any science, I conducted a mini-review of all research into creatine and performance up to August 2018. Where possible I looked at Systematic & Meta-Analysis review publications and steered clear of n=1 type case studies (1 subject).
Creatine is a non-essential nutrient which our body creates itself from the amino acids Glycine and Arginine in the kidney followed by Methionine in the liver (1). In layman’s terms, and the reason it has become popular for athletic performance, creatine improves your bodies ability to recycle ATP from ADP which is the energy currency within the cells in your brain and muscle tissue. So the idea is that by increasing the amount of readily available ATP your cells can produce more energy.
The main forms of creatine are Creatine Monohydrate and Micronized Creatine Monohydrate. There are other forms however the comprehensive scientific literature has tended to only look at the regular & micronised forms of Creatine Monohydrate and given these are the common forms found online or in supplement shops, they are what I am reviewing.
Research has found that during short bursts of intensive exercise the amount of creatine available diminishes (2). So the theory has been that if you can improve your creatine levels during intensive exercise via supplementation, your body will be able to produce more ATP quickly and thus have more energy stores within the muscle tissue allowing you to produce more energy within the exercise you are performing. This is essentially what has led to a plethora of scientific studies being carried out on creatine and its effect on strength, lean muscle mass etc.
Our body can make 1g of Creatine per day and it does this by using the three amino acids mentioned above. Then those that eat a diet that consists of animal products get approximately 1g/day through their diet as well whereas vegetarians/vegans do not get creatine through food and thus have lower creatine concentrations in their blood serum compared to omnivores. As creatine is not essential, this does not pose a health concern for vegetarians/vegans – however, it may not be advantageous when it comes to athletic performance (discussed below).
The reason I am explaining where creatine can be found in food is because it helps explain some of the scientific findings on the benefits of Creatine that different people will get. As I have written about before diets that consist of a lot of red meat and fish (High animal protein diets) are not associated with longevity so I am not suggesting you eat Red Meat or Fish to get your creatine levels up.
There is some really interesting science showing the below types of people to benefit most from Creatine supplementation as they are essentially coming from a position with a higher potential to improve intensive athletic performance:
Some brands will say to take creatine before training and others say to take it after. J Antonio and his team performed an interesting study in 2013 which showed male bodybuilders had better increases in fat-free mass & strength with 5g of creatine supplementation AFTER training compared to before.
Other than a mild increase in water retention and the odd upset stomach (gastrointestinal distress) there doesn’t seem to be any evidence of negative health effects from creatine at the dosages mentioned above (4,8), however typically to properly understand adverse reactions to a supplement you need studies with large subject numbers and many of the creatine studies include 70 or less subjects. In addition a 2017 Meta Analysis on creatine supplementation which included 22 scientific papers and 721 combined subjects did not find one single report of an adverse kidney or liver event. My recommendation would be to introduce it into your diet like any other supplement I recommend “without any other new additions at the same time and to monitor how you are feeling”. Regarding how long you should take if for – the duration of supplementation used by the studies included in this 2017 Meta Analysis on creatine was anywhere from 7-52 weeks, suggesting that creatine is a safe supplement to take ongoing, particularly if you are a vegan or vegetarian as you are going to get more upside from this supplement due to a lower baseline level of serum creatine (9). I personally prefer to do 12 weeks and then have a month off. This allows me to see how my body feels with and without it so I can ensure that I am personally still getting benefit from it.
Most creatine is synthetically created and vegan however it’s always best to go for one that says vegan on the packaging to be sure. My favourite is ATP’s Creatine Monohydrate, which I have absolutely no allegiance to but have personally taken it and seen good results. One of the main reasons I like the ATP Creatine is that it is micronised which gives it a greater surface area to improve absorption and reduce any gastrointestinal upset. In addition, the ATP Creatine is vegan, GMO-Free, Gluten-Free & Sugar-Free.
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