Creatine has quickly become a popular and trendy supplement that seems to promise a long list of benefits. And it’s not just for bodybuilders!
From improved athletic performance to weight loss to enhanced brain function, creatine has been purported to give many areas of your health a boost. But does creatine work for weight loss goals? Is it safe? And where does creatine actually come from?
Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about creatine and your health.
What is Creatine?
Creatine is an amino acid complex made up of arginine, glycine, and methionine. It is made naturally in the kidneys and liver. However, you can also get this nutrient exogenously or from outside sources through your diet and with supplements.
The majority of creatine is found in skeletal muscle (~95 percent). Your body needs to replenish about one to three grams of creatine per day to maintain normal (unsupplemented) creatine stores depending on muscle mass. Luckily, about half of your daily need for creatine is obtained from your diet in foods such as meat and fish.
For example, a pound of uncooked beef or salmon provides about one to two grams of creatine. The remaining amount of creatine is synthesized primarily in the liver and kidneys from precursor amino acids, including arginine, methionine, and glycine. Some people prefer to boost their creatine intake with dietary supplements.
Though there are a few different varieties, the most commonly studied type of creatine supplement is creatine monohydrate. So, why is creatine so important?
Benefits of Creatine
Creatine is one of the most popular ergogenic aids for athletes, especially bodybuilders. This supplement is often used during bulking, or building muscle and eating in a calorie surplus during a set period of time.
This is then followed by a cut, where you seek to burn fat by following a calorie deficit.
Based on the popularity of creatine supplementation, the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN) conducted a review of the existing research on the benefits of creatine for athletic performance.
Here are some potential effects of creatine supplementation:
- Improved exercise performance
- Increased muscle mass & muscle strength adaptations during training
- May prevent and/or reduce the severity of injury
- May enhance rehabilitation from injuries
- Enhanced glycogen synthesis
- Can help athletes tolerate heavy training loads
- Enhanced exercise recovery
- Brain and spinal cord neuroprotection
Other Uses of Creatine
Along with these benefits, there are a few other potential health benefits and clinical uses of creatine that are still being investigated, including:
- Use in neurodegenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Huntington’s, ALS, etc)
- Prophylactic creatine supplementation may be beneficial for patients at risk for myocardial ischemia and/or stroke
- May help prevent sarcopenia and bone loss in older individuals
- May help lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels
- May reduce fat accumulation in the liver
- May reduce homocysteine levels
- May serve as an antioxidant
- May enhance glycemic control
- May slow tumor growth in some types of cancers
- May minimize bone loss
- May improve functional capacity in patients with knee osteoarthritis and fibromyalgia
- May positively influence cognitive function
- May serve as an antidepressant
Creatine and Weight Loss
As you can see, creatine can play an important role in a number of different bodily processes. But what about weight loss?
One review investigating the benefits of creatine when it comes to weight loss showed mixed results. Some research suggests that creatine may be helpful, as it may decrease fat mass while other studies have not found any such benefit.
On a cellular level, however, researchers publishing in the Journal of Nature Metabolism point out that creatine does influence adipocytes, or fat cells, and fat tissue in certain ways. It can also influence triglyceride synthesis in different cell types.
Another study using animal models suggests that creatine supplementation may reduce the accumulation of fat in the body. So why doesn’t this translate to boosted fat loss in people? It may be because there are other factors, such as exercise, that come into play.
Let’s take a look at the effects of pairing creatine supplementation with resistance training for weight loss.
Creatine and Resistance Training for Weight Loss
Research shows that the combination of creatine supplementation and resistance training may help burn fat mass more than resistance training alone. One 2019 meta-analysis in the Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology looked at the potential role creatine plays in reducing fat mass in aging participants.
The study found that those who consumed creatine lost about a pound more fat compared to those who didn’t. The authors also found that those consuming creatine gained a significant amount of lean muscle mass.
Based on this, it seems that combining strength training with creatine can also be beneficial for the aging population, as they may be more prone to sarcopenia or age-related muscle loss. The muscle gain when combining these two lifestyle strategies may also help with age-related weight gain.
Another study looking at the effects of creatine and resistance training in young males also found similar benefits. The authors of this study found that those who consumed creatine and engaged in resistance training experienced a significant increase in muscle mass.
But how exactly does combining creatine supplementation with resistance training lead to reduced fat? One idea is that increased muscle mass can increase your basal metabolic rate. With your body burning more calories at rest (and during exercise as well), fat loss may be more likely.
The exact mechanism causing a decrease in fat is still somewhat unclear, but scientists believe it may involve a mix of metabolic rate changes, energy expenditure, and fat bioenergetics.
Does Creatine Make You Gain Weight?
It’s possible for creatine to support increased lean muscle mass, which may contribute to some weight gain. However, in studies looking at body composition and fat mass with creatine use, they found it does not increase fat mass across a variety of populations.
What about water weight and water retention? Some people may report water retention in the early stages (first several days) of creatine supplementation. However, while there is some evidence to suggest that creatine supplementation increases water retention over the short term, there are several other studies showing it does not alter total body water relative to muscle mass over longer periods of time.
How To Boost Creatine Levels
If you want to reap the benefits of creatine, there are a number of ways to boost your consumption of this amino acid through your diet or with supplements. About half of your daily need for creatine is obtained from the diet. Beef, pork, salmon, and herring tend to be some of the best sources.
So, how much additional creatine should be consumed and what are the best ways to boost your creatine intake? Let’s find out.
Who May Need More Creatine
Based on the research discussed in this article so far, the populations that may benefit from additional creatine supplementation include:
- Aging adults
- Fitness enthusiasts
- Vegans or vegetarians
There are currently no dietary reference intakes for creatine since creatine is not considered to be an essential amino acid. However, some people may have genetic changes that impair the production of creatine and may require more supplementation.
Vegans and vegetarians may have lower intramuscular creatine stores due to not eating meat and may also benefit from supplementation. Larger athletes engaged in intense training may need to consume five to 10 grams of creatine per day to maintain optimal whole body creatine stores.
4 Tips To Help You Benefit From Creatine
Along with boosting your creatine intake, there are a few tips you can try to maximize your body’s absorption of creatine.
If you’re taking a supplement, you’ll want to ensure that your recommendations are from a qualified healthcare professional, including a highly qualified nutritionist. The guidelines discussed here are considered general findings from research and more personalization may be needed.
Tip 1: Focus on Creatine-Rich Meats
If you consume animal products, boosting your animal protein food sources such as beef, pork, herring, and salmon may help. If you are vegan or vegetarian, you may want to talk with your doctor more about supplementation.
Tip 2: Add in Some Carbohydrates
Tip 3: Focus on Smaller, Daily Dosages
Smaller, daily doses of creatine supplementation (three to five grams or 0.1 grams per kilogram of body mass) are effective according to research. Recent studies suggest that a creatine loading phase may not be required to achieve benefit.
A creatine loading phase (taking up to five times as much of the normally recommended dose during your first week) is popular among bodybuilders. This is thought to “load” the muscle tissue with sufficient creatine stores.
However, higher levels of creatine supplementation for longer periods of time may be needed to increase brain concentrations of creatine, offset creatine synthesis deficiencies, or influence disease states.
Tip 4: Take up Resistance Training
Include resistance training in your regular workouts, while making sure your workout is appropriate for your individual health needs and medical concerns). This can help you get the most from your creatine intake in terms of body composition (increased lean muscle mass, decreased fat mass).
Are Creatine Supplements Safe?
When it comes to creatine, long-term studies suggest that anyone taking a dose ranging from 0.3 to 0.8 grams per kilogram of bodyweight per day (up to 30g/day) taken for up to five years may be considered safe, as they show no adverse effects.
Some researchers have suggested caution for those who have kidney disease, however, there is insufficient evidence at this point that creatine consumption will negatively affect kidney function.
Researchers have also found that creatine supplementation does not increase the risk of muscle cramps, gastrointestinal symptoms like bloating, or dehydration for most people. For some people, oral creatine supplements may lead to water retention. However, this is generally a short-term symptom that will improve with time.
As a general supplement safety disclaimer, the FDA is not authorized to approve dietary supplements for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. You may want to make sure you find a reputable brand with third party quality testing.
Before taking creatine, you may want to discuss it with your personal nutritionist or healthcare practitioner. They’ll be better able to determine whether creatine is the right choice for you, and how to best include it in your diet.
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Jordyn has a bachelor’s degree in biology, a graduate degree in Human Nutrition and completed a dietetic internship at the Memphis VA. She's a dietitian at Nutrisense, and has experience working as a clinical dietitian at a VA medical center specializing in oncology and at the Mayo Clinic, working with a wide range of patients ranging from neonates in the NICU to adult ICU.