Creatine has come a wide way and is nowadays one of the best researched and most supplemented substances available. Especially us in the fitness world should know creatine, at least by name.
This is not surprising regarding its well-documented benefits for strength – but also impacts are becoming obvious in matters such as bone health and brain health. These become especially for people not eating creatine-rich foods such as meat or fish – looking at you, vegans. I am certain that creatine is a necessary substance for humans uniquely found in animal foods, like many other highly-important molecules.
But before we get into creatine, nutrition, and how to use it as a supplement, we will talk a bit about its biochemistry1 and head out to bust myths! Unfortunately, there are still many creatine myths around – likewise a lot of other stubbornly marketed substances within our fitness world. I still remember my first contact point with this substance:
A former friend from school started taking it when he started out at the gym around the age of 16. We all thought it would be something like Trenbolon and as illegal as the punk-*** quality of cannabis sold around the school.
Especially regarding his huge successes in getting swole, one could not come around the thought of creatine as very potent!2
That’s where we start this post – diving into the science and the mythological stories told. After this deep plunge into real, as well as bro-science, we’re looking at the nutritional use of creatine and how you should approach it – if you really need it…
Creatine* is simply an amino acid. It is not a hormone as commonly thought. Even more interestingly not only humans use it, but it is found in many vertebrates – meaning that this substance is around for a long time and has significance.
Creatine is built by your liver – a real workaholic within you. Your liver needs the three amino acids arginine, glycine, and methionine for this process and makes around 1g each day. From here it is distributed into your body and gets mostly stored within your muscles, but also your brain, testicles, blood, and other tissues. All of them need around 3g per day of creatine which makes for a rough and very simplified deficit of 1-3g per day.3
After its job is done to create energy within the creatinergic pathway, which we will talk about in the next section, creatine gets transported back to your kidneys, where it is partly recycled.
That’s the life of one creatine molecule. Let’s see where you naturally find creatine before we get into the weeds of how it works!
Creatine in Foods and your Nutrition
Creatine is exclusively found in other animal foods and products, but there is no creatine in plant foods. Most of the creatine is found in pork muscle meat, beef muscle meat and fish, but you also find it in organs and chicken. That makes totally sense, right?
Where to look for a substance primarily used within your muscles? In animal muscles! Contrary to plants animals operate on the same operating system as humans do.4 They also need creatine to quickly synthesise energy for high-intensity outputs. Despite muscles, you also find it in hearts and brain – two other organs with a high energy output. The following list shows the amounts per kg of foods consumed5:
Remember these are all estimates, but you get the gist – eat muscle meats, the locations where creatine is needed in the first place.
Creatine is one of those many many substances vegan diets and plant-based diets lack. Be warned though the list is a lot longer than solely creatine! I am wholeheartedly convinced, that you can get all the nutrients you need either exclusively from other animals as you would on a nose-to-tail carnivore diet or my preference a modified animal-based diet because that’s what’s ancestrally consistent when we look at how humans evolved. But that’s a topic for another long-ass post. Let’s go on with the workings of creatine – brace yourself for some biochemistry!
How does Creatine work?
The Creatinergic Pathway
To get a rough overview, the creatinergic pathway is one of 3 main pathways your body uses energy within the muscle cells. Besides creatine, it can use glucose – the glycolytic pathway – and fats to win ATP.6 The main difference between these 3, despite their source material, is their efficiency.
Your body uses creatine to produce a buffer of quickly available energy on demand. The buffer is stored in the form of creatine phosphate (PCr).
Within your cells, creatine phosphate acts as a donor of phosphate. Simply said your body takes creatines phosphate molecules to rebuild our energy source ATP from ADP. The difference between ATP and ADP is solely one molecule of phosphor.
This molecule is transferred to each other through the enzyme of Creatine Kinase – abbreviated as CK in the image.
Creatine kinase works in both ways it can build up the stores of creatine phosphate and build them also down. And as an interesting fun fact, if you’ve ever got some blood work done many clinicians look at a marker called CK which is our creatine kinase. It then acts as an indicator of muscular damage or kidney issues.7
This mechanism is most important in terms of maximum strength. After around 10-15s your body depletes the buffered stores of creatine phosphate and relies on other mechanisms to win energy – it burns glucose:
First, you will use the energy provides through the creatinergic pathway. This is your maximum strength and you can produce around 80-90% of your maximum strength for ~10s.
After that, the glycolytic pathway will keep the strength output around 60-80% for 30-60s.
The fat-oxidating pathway can work for a much longer time, but its overall output is around 30-60%.
As you can see as their efficiency declines you get weaker. One note aside, all of these numbers are rough estimates, and these processes happen intertwined. Well-trained individuals will score much better in their area of expertise. But it is important to notice that the creatine mechanism is the least trainable.8
Furthermore, when using creatine your body creates H+ Ions that act as a buffer within the cell. This process could be viewed as a secondary performance increasing effect and explain many of the other benefits on non-maximal strength effects like for example better the aerobic capacity, optimized creatine stores help with. As you see creatine has a crucial role to fulfil within each vertebrae’s metabolism. Alright now we got talked about the science upfront – the rest will get more into praxis and come intuitively.
What does Science say to the Benefits of Creatine?
Strength is the area where most improvements related to creatine were discovered, as that’s the primary realm this substance influences. As creatine is mostly used within the first 15s of any activity especially maximum strength focussed sports, as weightlifting, sprinting, jumping and calisthenics can benefit well from it. But that effect is not only important for athletes, also for the aging population to stay strong and muscular, as these two markers are very important longevity factors. Eat your red meat grampa.
Science found a performance gain of around 4-10% by loading one’s creatine stores completely. 9Examine wrote a great and short article about creatine and the benefits it showed in studies. Go check it out for a brief overview.
Besides strength, there is also evidence that creatine can increase your performance as a runner. By that I mean of course in high-intensity runs, but also lower intensity aerobic runs. But it is rather mixed. Some studies show improvements, while others don’t.
One might ask – why does it improve endurance when it primarily enhances the first ~15s of a given activity? Researchers linked this effect to the H+-Buffer and the ongoing use of phosphates even during activities that are considered as low-intensity cardio. 10 Plus, building stronger muscles within general strength training as a runner definitely have a carryover to endurance performance. While we not clearly know what causes the effect, we know that there is an effect.
5% of your overall creatine is stored within your brain. These stores also bulk up while supplementing creatine. And because your brain is a behemoth when it comes to energy use within your body increased cognition could be a real effect of creatine supplementation. 11
I found this correlation very interesting because I would’ve never thought of better brain function by taking a supplement to increase strength. But it is important to note that this effect only occurred in people with deficits in creatine – studies showed this brain performance increasing effect especially in vegans that by definition don’t get a lot of nutritional creatine. A great podcast wrapping creatine and the brain up is this episode of Smart Drugs Smarts by Jessie Lawler.
Another currently hot topic linked to creatine is bone health. Resistance training and overall bone health are already tightly linked together – by being able to lift more weight, keeping and building overall muscle mass, your bones will benefit, too. This gets increasingly interesting within older groups of people as an intervention to keep them overall healthy. By optimizing creatine stores combined with resistance training one can do a lot for many intertwined systems.
Could your grandpa also benefit from good old creatine, like his grandson does while bulking up? Sure he does.
Creatine Myths and Bro-Science
Creatine bloats you up
The thought that creatine * draws water within your muscles is right. Where stuff often gets confused is that creatine pulls the water right into your cells – that’s why after the loading of creatine is completed, one weighs ~1-2kgs more. Nonetheless, you won’t look like the guy the tire-giant Michelin advertises with.
Because the water is within your cells the only thing that happens is that your muscles might look bigger. This is no issue, as long as you’re not dependent on your weight like a boxer for example. Myth busted!
Creatine kills Kidneys
There is a strong belief that creatine might damage your kidneys. It is so far logical as creatine gets eliminated by your kidneys and more creatine might logically place a slightly higher workload on these two buddies. Plus, an important renal health marker is called creatinine – sounds the same, doesn’t it?
That’s because creatinine is a product that gets made when creatine is recycled and eliminated. In sick individuals, one way to point at kidney diseases is to observe rising levels of creatinine. Although this marker is reliable within healthy individuals and can help to make a guess, in some cases it is unreliable and can be manipulated. If you would purely judge on this marker then, it could look like one’s renal function is inhibited while in reality, they’re fine. They only might have more overall muscle mass and creatine and therefore eliminated more. No kidney damage prevalent, only healthy metabolism. That’s why one marker is just one part of the whole. 12
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Taking creatine can tilt this marker upwards – but this isn’t because your kidneys malfunction, rather it is a symptom of more creatine within your body. If you’re concerned about that there is another, much more reliable creatinine equation, that can be measured through cystatin c – the reason it isn’t the first measurement is that it takes a bit more work.
Creatine used cyclic in high doses
Cycling creatine is so 1990. Taking one’s creatine this way feels like taking Tren or undergoing Methadone therapy.
While it is not wrong to cycle creatine, I believe the method of taking it daily has a few more benefits. Especially if you take it daily within your normal nutrition, as consuming creatine in foods is the easiest way. Both methods of course lead to the goal of creating a full storage. But especially the practicability and low-impact on one’s intestines are worth mentioning. We’ll get to these methods more down below!
Should I follow the Hype and supplement Creatine?
Creatine is the most widely consumed, performance increasing supplement right behind caffeine. Especially in gyms, the fitness-world and for strength-focussed athletes the mentoin exists that one should take creatine.
While I think every human, not only athlete should have optimized creatine stores, I believe that taking creatine isn’t necessary and most people could eliminate this supplement.
Why you probably shouldn’t supplement Creatine!
Creatine is found in all kinds of animal meats. And as we know meats not only contain creatine, but also a myriad of other health-promoting substances. I often advise people therefore to eat around 1.5-2.0lb of meat per day from various sources, but preferably grass-fed ruminants cleverly spiced up with seafood and fish.
Solely by eating around 1.5lb/300g of meat a day you get approximately 2-3g of creatine depending on the meat you eat. That is plenty of creatine! Spend your money therefore not on powder and invest the saved bucks in better or more meat. You’ll get a lot more out of natural high-quality meats and organs than from a questionably-produced powder.
When you should supplement Creatine
On the flip side, the only people in need to supplement creatine are the people avoiding meat. While I would never advise doing that, as I believe a meat-free diet runs into a lot of long-term health issues and isn’t sustainable, the moral decision is one everybody individually makes, and I wholeheartedly respect it.
Vegetarians are on the better side, they could eat lots of fish, like herring, cod, or salmon, and get their creatine and many other substances from there. Then their creatine should be in check, although they miss out on other substances like Vitamin K2, Carnosine, or Copper. The most important point to think about then is to avoid predatory fish high in the food chain which accumulate heavy metals like crazy.
Vegans have it much more complicated. They need to supplement creatine externally, as there is no source of creatine in the plant kingdom. Plus, carnosine, plus carnitine, plus taurine, plus K2, plus hemeiron, plus B12, plus a myriad more. I think you get my concerns. Constructing a diet is a difficult art!
How much creatine should I take?
The next two parts are for the people in need of creatine – the people not eating 1.5-2lb of meat a day. And I’d rather advise anyone to fix that than supplementing creatine. But if you’re a vegan or vegetarian these two sections are for you!
There are two common methods to take creatine despite simply eating meat: the fast-creatine-loading-cycle and the-daily-intake.
While the first will ramp up your stores in under a week the second method needs around 4 weeks to achieve the same. The question coming up is – which makes more sense? To cycle or not to cycle? …that is the question – to steal from Hamlet. For many years cycling creatine was the gold standard. I view it as somewhat critical. Cycling and getting down from creatine always sounded to me like taking a shady steroid-like prohormone.
While loading creatine is efficient to fully load your stores within under a week – is it necessary?
Many complain about gastrointestinal issues when consuming huge portions of around 20-25g of creatine per day – moreover, why would you want to ramp up your stores that fast?
The overall difference in loading is around 10 additional mmol if we’d look at the concentration within muscle tissues.
On the other hand, there is the steady-low-doses-method of taking creatine each day. I found this method easier to follow and much friendlier to your intestines. The rule of thumb is to consume ~20g of creatine per week, which is roughly 2g per day. Or 5g every 4 days is fine, too.
If you visit any supplement shop you will find at least 5 different forms of creatine. Creatine monohydrate*, CreaPure, Creatine HCL, Buffered Creatine, and probably many more. One is quickly overwhelmed by this range, while if we look at the data the only difference from one another is in the price tag and lofty product descriptions some marketing geek came up with.
Science strongly suggests that if you need to supplement creatine13taking monohydrate is the way to go. There is no benefit in taking other forms – despite the seller, as these are rare premium forms that come for a premium tag.
Don’t be conned, buy Monohydrate – and spend your saved money better on cookies. Or Programs. Or Meat and ditch the supplementing entirely.
Creatine and Meat – Let’s wrap it up!
To wrap it up I’d always recommend people to get all the nutrients they need within their regular diet. And fortunately getting enough creatine in foods is super easy once one eats an adequate portion of meat a day – especially muscle meat. Don’t get me wrong eating an animal from nose-to-tail has plenty of benefits and organs are in fact real superfood, unlike acai, spirulina, and all the hoax plants.
To get enough creatine eat at least 1lb, better up to 2lb, of meat a day, preferably from grass-fed ruminants, but that also depends on your body composition and weight. I strongly believe that mixing it up with other sources such as fish, seafood, poultry or pork is the way to go. Not only will you get sufficient creatine by doing so but also plenty of other unique substances for human survival only found in animal products…
Other unique Substances in Meat
To get a quick sneak-peak of what other substances are unique to meat and not found in plants in a bioavialable form have a look at this list. And it isn’t by any means etensive, the list goes on and on:
Hemeiron (Iron is not bioavialable in Plants)
Vitamin B12 (Methycobolamin)
Vitamin K2 (Menachinone in MK-3, Mk7, Mk-10, Mk-12 Forms)
CoFactor Q10 (Ubiquinone)
and the list goes on…
As you see eating animals is so much more than just protein and fats. Animals run on our operating system using the same substances we humans do. Plants are similar but so different. Just like Android and iPhones – similar, but your Android apps won’t work on an iPhone. Vegans miss out on a lot of those substances entirely and therefore constructing a healthy plant-based diet in my opinion is an arduous task that requires a lot of supplementation. There is no CoQ10 in plants, no bioavailable Iron, and we haven’t even talked about antinutrients yet, that hinder your body from resorbing the nutrients found in plants – because big news plants don’t want to be eaten. They needed to come up with different kinds of defense mechanisms because running away isn’t an option.
TL;DR Summary – Let’s wrap things up!
When it comes to creatine – you probably won’t need to supplement it. Although supplementing is easy, for the benefit of a lot of other substances rather approach your diet:
Make sure to eat 1lb, better up to 2lb of muscle meat a day from various, high-quality sources.
Supplement the muscle meat with organ meats.
If you need to supplement take 3g per day every day or 5g per day on 4 days per week – it should be around ~20g per week
Simply take creatine monohydrate. There is no benefit in taking other fancy “premium” forms of creatine – only for the one setting the price tag.
As said some times above, Examine does a great job in bringing science closer to the public eye – by wrapping it in short, well-readable text and presenting data in an easy manner. IMO, the number one to check out every supplement at first.
On all things meat, have a look at the Carnivore Code* by Paul Saladino. I borrowed his operating system analogy. He makes a great job in promoting animal-based ideas and showing clearly the scientific benefits of eating meat and therefore ancestrally consistent.
No worries, not too complex, nor a lot. Bear with me, buddy.
Rather these huge successes might be connected with his age – within our teens, we are bathed in a cocktail of anabolic hormones.
Be aware though that this is a simplified statement for the sake of understanding. Burning Glucose and burning fat isn’t simply one process but rather a complex chain of different cycles that need to run in order to create usable energy within the muscle cells’ mitochondria.
Let’s get onto a brief thought experiment: While untrained individuals might score with something like 8s, trained individuals might have a larger buffer of up to 15s – a sole difference of 7s. Not a lot for years of training, right?