Have you ever found yourself in that aisle at the grocery or sporting store? You know, the sports supplement aisle. The virtual sea of vitamins, minerals and sports supplements is mesmerizing and overwhelming. Am I right?
Powders, Gels, bars, gummies, and drinks, the list goes on and on. Sports supplements are not new to most of us. Even the most hard-core foodie among us has probably at one time, or another sampled an energy bar, gulped a gel during a race, or swigged a sports drink. But do we need to use them? Are they truly essential for our fitness regimes?
To decide for yourself, you need to consider the facts.
Supplements Are Big Business
Sports supplements are dietary and food supplements. Their purpose is to fuel athletic activity. We use sports supplements because they are easy and portable. We use them as a source of energy and protein. Finally, we use them to enhance performance, because of sponsorships and because of marketing.
Supplement companies create compelling marketing campaigns. Who doesn’t want to lose fat, gain muscle and recover faster? If what separates you from being Joe Schmo and The Rock is a scoop or two of this new magic sports powder then it’s a no-brainer?
Don’t be fooled. Dietary supplements are big business. The global market revenue in sports supplements is expected to reach 37.2 billion USD by 2024 according to Grandview Research Inc.1
It is not surprising then that a 2016 review of supplement use published in Sports Medicine found that 60% of athletes use sports supplements.2 Supplement use is greater in elite athletes than non-elite athletes. Well, if they’re using them, we should use them for sure? Not so fast.
How to Choose a Supplement
First, let’s try and wade through the supplements by grouping them. When selecting a supplement, we need to know if it works, if it is safe and if it is ethical.
Supplements are placed into one of four categories:3
- Those that perform as claimed. Sports drinks, gels, beans and bars fit here. So do vitamins and minerals, caffeine, beta-alanine, beetroot juice, creatine, amino acid supplements and sodium bicarbonate.
- Those that perform as claimed but they need more evidence about their efficacy. In this category, we have tart cherry, glutamine, carnitine, fish oils, glucosamine, curcumin, exotic berries (like goji and acai) and the antioxidants C and E.
- Those that don’t perform as claimed. L-arginine is an example.
- And finally, those that are dangerous, banned or illegal. Ephedra, prohormones and anabolic androgenic steroids, among others, fit here.
Other Issues to Consider
Now even if we stick to supplements confined to the first two categories, there are other issues to consider.
The most obvious issue is the cost. Whole foods are much more economical than supplements. If you’re on a budget or simply want to save your money then using food is a better option.
Another issue is efficacy. There is no evidence that you get superior results from supplements compared to food. Why cart around a huge tub of protein powder when a wholesome veggie and meat wholegrain sandwich will do the trick?
And finally, there is the issue of risk. At present, there is poor regulation of sports supplements. Despite claims to the contrary, there is no guarantee that a product contains what it says it contains. Contamination of supplements does occur. Protein powders have been found to contain substances such as lead, ephedra, and steroids.
If you want to use powders but don’t want nasty additives what can you do? Although not a guarantee, look for third-party testing details on the label. Outside organizations conduct third party testing. They analyze a product for quality and contamination. The National Safety Foundation (NSF) International is an example of one such organization.
There are probably many of you out there thinking “I don’t use powder, what about my bars and gels?”. In moderation, they can fit into a healthy diet. Even so, why not use food when you can.
What About Food Instead of Sports Supplements?
Many athletes use supplements to increase their energy when in reality their diet is low in calories, carbohydrates, and, or protein. If this is the case, you owe it to yourself to sit down and have a look at what you are eating. Where can you fill in the gaps with a little foresight and preparation?
Consider your alternatives. Notwithstanding many of us eat enough protein already, there are foods we can choose to increase dietary protein and other nutrients if required.
Do you want to increase your protein, intake? You can choose a scoop of protein powder which adds roughly 20 g of protein to your diet. Or, you can eat a 3/4 cup of Greek yogurt which nets you 17 g of protein as well as some fantastic probiotics.
Do you want a quick snack? You can opt for an energy bar which gives you about 220-240 calories and all those additives. Or you can eat a small handful of nuts and a banana. If you’re stuck for ideas, a quick one-on-one with a sports dietitian will help.
There are times, of course, when portability and ease are paramount. For decades athletes have used flat colas, diluted juices, bananas, and oranges in races and sporting events. But, if a gel is what gets you through your activity with minimal upheaval then this is okay too. Just be sure to practice your nutrition ahead of the big day.
Do you need a sports supplement to make you run faster, jump higher and build a six-pack? No way! Can commercial sports supplements fit into a healthy diet and exercise plan? They sure can. Can you do as well or better by incorporating well-timed, healthy foods into your regime? Absolutely! Make it your motto to try food instead of supplements first. This way you will know what you are eating and feel healthier as a result.
Getting More Info About Supplements
Still, want to give supplements a shot? Find further information about safely selecting a supplement at the following sites:
- World Anti-Doping Agency
- Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport
- National Collegiate Athletic Association
- Australian Sports Commission
- Informed Choice
- LGC Group
- Dietitians of Canada
- Food and Nutrition Information Center
Nutrition planning is integral to achieve your optimal athletic performance. Gazelle Nutrition Lab delivers one-on-one or group nutrition counselling and consulting to both recreational and high-performance athletes. In addition, the Gazelle Blog is a free resource for healthy recipes and health tips. Have questions? We’d love to hear from you! Get in touch!
- Grandview Research Inc. http://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/dietary-supplements-market
- Knapik JJ, Steelman RA, Hoedebecke SS, Austin KG, Farina EK, Lieberman HR. Prevalence of dietary supplement use by athletes: systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 2016; 46: 103–123.
- Australian Sports Commission. http://www.ausport.gov.au/ais/nutrition/supplements/overview