Creatine is an amino acid that is found mostly in your muscles. It is also found in your brain. Certain organs, such as the liver, pancreas, and kidneys, can make creatine in the body.
Red meat and seafood are rich in creatine, but it is also available as a dietary supplement in the form of creatine monohydrate. Since creatine is mostly found in animal products, vegetarians and vegans may supplement their diet with vegan-friendly creatine supplements.
Creatine powder is often found in pre-workout supplements that also contain caffeine, sweeteners, flavors and other ingredients. Or it can be purchased as a single-ingredient creatine powder with no other additives.
If you’ve had bloodwork done, you may have seen something called creatinine on the report. Creatinine is not a direct measurement of creatine. Creatinine is made from the breakdown of creatine and phosphocreatine and is a marker of kidney function. This case reported labs that were influenced by creatine supplementation however values returned to normal upon discontinuing supplementation. It is always important to inform your physician about any supplements you may be taking as it may impact certain lab values.
Have you heard of ATP? Adenosine triphosphate (or ATP for short) is a molecule that provides energy for a variety of processes in your body. This includes muscle contraction and nerve signaling. Creatine is used by the muscles to make ATP more available to be used as energy.
Since creatine can support the functioning of the muscles, it has been widely studied as a dietary supplement to help improve athletic performance. Research has shown that creatine may help boost strength in the lower limbs. Taking creatine may also improve muscle performance during resistance training and support muscle mass.
You may have heard that creatine supplements can cause weight gain. This can be a common concern for those who are considering starting a creatine supplement.
Let’s explore what the research really says about creatine and weight gain.
One reason why supplementing with creatine could increase total body weight is that creatine may help increase muscle mass. In fact, research has found that those taking creatine monohydrate long-term “typically gain about twice as much body mass and/or fat free mass” compared to those not taking creatine. This is an extra 2 to 4 pounds of muscle mass during a 4 to 12 week training cycle. If gaining muscle is your goal, then this is great news!
However, an increase in muscle mass will cause an increase in total body weight. But this is not the same as gaining weight as fat. Research has shown that creatine supplementation alone will probably not result in fat gain.
While it’s clear that creatine could cause weight gain in the form of an increase in muscle mass, many people are still concerned about the possibility of gaining water weight from taking creatine.
When creatine is used to increase sports performance or muscle mass, there is often a specific dosing protocol that is followed. There is an initial “loading phase” of taking 0.3 grams of creatine per kilogram of bodyweight per day for 5 to 7 days (so for someone who weighs 150 pounds, that’s about 20 total grams of creatine per day). After the loading phase, the dose is lowered to 3 to 5 grams of creatine per day for maintenance.
Research has found that creatine can cause water retention when the loading phase is used. However, this study found an increase in water retention during both the loading phase and the maintenance phase. To confuse matters even further, this review of the evidence suggests that creatine supplements may cause water retention in the short tem, but not in the long term.
Therefore, more research is needed to determine whether or not creatine supplements actually cause water retention in the long term and if this would even be noticeable on the body. More studies should also be done to find out if skipping the loading phase would have less of an impact on potential water retention.
According to the Mayo Clinic, weight gain occurs when someone takes in more calories than they burn. However, many healthcare professionals are divided on this concept of “a calorie in and a calorie out.”
Since plain creatine supplements contain very few calories, it’s not likely that creatinine can contribute to weight gain directly. Still, as we have already discussed, creatine can help increase muscle mass when used as part of a muscle building exercise program. This would lead to an increase in total body weight.
How can you know for sure if weight gain is due to fat or muscle?
There are ways to measure the percentages of fat, muscle mass, and water in the body. Body composition can be measured using tools like bioelectric impedance analysis (BIA) and dual energy x-ray absorptiometry (DEXA).
Interestingly, there is some research that shows that creatine can actually decrease body weight. This meta-analysis of the research found that creatine and resistance training lowered body fat in adults who were 50 years old and up.
Whether your goal is gaining weight or losing weight, it’s important to discuss this with your healthcare provider and consider working with a registered dietitian for help with your nutrition.
Do you experience occasional water retention? If you have already talked to your healthcare provider to make sure that it’s not being caused by any underlying issues, there are few tips that may help.
Retaining water? Watch your salt! If you have too much sodium in your body, this can cause your body to hold onto water.
We can all agree that salt (or sodium chloride) makes foods taste better! But even if you’re not overly salting your foods, sodium can sneak in from other sources. Many processed foods contain sodium and packaged foods like pasta sauce, soups, and many canned foods can pack a big sodium punch. Reading the nutrition facts label can help you choose lower-sodium options.
You can help balance out the sodium in your diet by getting potassium from sources like fruits, vegetables, potatoes, milk, and certain beans and legumes.
Drinking enough water can also help balance out your sodium intake.
Fluid needs can vary widely from person to person. If you exercise frequently, sweat a lot, or live in a hot climate, you may need more water than other people do.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommends that people aim for 11.5-15.5 cups of fluids per day. This includes fluids from coffee, tea, soups, and other liquid sources.
Fluid retention can be a bit of a push and pull to get the right balance. Exercising can push fluids out of the body, which may help relieve water retention.
After exercising it can be helpful to replenish what was lost with a balance of electrolytes (not just sodium). Electrolyte packets are a portable and convenient way of doing this!
Besides the chance of some water retention (especially during a loading phase), you may be wondering if creatine has any other potential side effects.
While there have been some reports of digestive issues from taking creatine, these issues are likely mostly due to taking too much creatine per day. It is also very possible that the digestive issues were caused by other ingredients added to the creatine supplement, such as artificial sweeteners or caffeine.
There was one rare report of an athlete that experienced breakdown of muscle tissue and kidney issues after a surgical procedure. However, it was suggested that the use of creatine for 6 weeks leading up to their surgery may have increased the risk of muscle injury due to lack of blood flow from a tourniquet used during the procedure. Researchers did not find any evidence that creatine supplements can cause damaged muscle tissue.
According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), there is no scientific evidence of side effects or adverse effects when creatine monohydrate is used appropriately.
It’s always a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider before starting any new supplements and following medical guidelines prior to surgical procedures.
Creatine can be found in many animal foods and is available as a dietary supplement. Research shows that creatine monohydrate supplementation can help improve athletic performance and support muscle gain with resistance training. While there are some concerns for weight gain from creatine, the current evidence shows that this is likely due to increased muscle mass or short-term water retention. Always talk to your doctor about any health related concerns.