Written By: Brett Singer, RD, CSSD, LD with Memorial IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute
Health store shelves are littered from top to bottom with tubs, bottles, and boxes of everything from vitamins and minerals, to protein powders and bars, weight loss potions, endurance gels, and herbs. Clever marketing slogans proclaiming newfound strength and unrivaled energy brilliantly persuade millions of consumers that they NEED these products to be faster, stronger, and better athletes. Truth be told, many sports supplements don’t live up to their hype.
The sports supplement industry targets compounds and nutrients that will aid in providing the extra edge that can lead to enhanced performance. Some supplements have been studied more extensively while others have minimal research to validate their efficacy. Make note that even those most studied have not been thoroughly studied in adolescents. It also is important to keep in mind that most supplements have been tested in isolation to show effectiveness and thus it’s hard to say with confidence that when combined with other ingredients their efficacy remains true. In essence, we are making large assumptions as to how various supplements will work together.
Does the dose change when supplements are combined with one another?
Will one ingredient lead to more or less absorption of another ingredient?
What if a supplement contains ingredients known to be effective but is also combined with ingredients that have not been well researched and may not be effective?
Just because it is legal and on the shelf, don’t throw caution to the wind. It is easy to get swayed by scientific-looking ingredient names, or declarations of “scientific breakthroughs” on the labels, that may at best only be scientific theories.
Theories don’t equate to supported evidence.
The FDA does not review supplements for their effectiveness before they hit the marketplace and only takes action against a product if it is shown to be unsafe. As consumers, part of our job in keeping the supplement industry honest is by educating ourselves. A perfect place to start is by reading through the marketing tactics and looking for third party certification. If it sounds too good to be true chances are it is! Blow the whistle and throw in the red flag for claims such as these…
- “Secret Formula”
- “Scientific Breakthrough”
- “Money Back Guarantee”
- “Proven LEGAL Muscle Builder”
- “Lose 5 Pounds in 3 Days”
- “Build up to 50% MORE Muscle in 30 Days
Past the sensational label claims or user testimonies check for the third-party seal of approval that signifies the product meets content claims. Products with third party certification have undergone testing by an independent organization and laboratory.
USP confirms accuracy of the label and that the product actually contains what is listed. Informed Choice tests for banned substances. NSF reviews label claims and verifies content and purity.
The supplement appears to pass the claims and certification test but does it work?
Caffeine is a powerful and popular stimulant often added to pre-workout stacks. By itself it has been well studied with most research showing effectiveness for increases in energy, alertness, and stamina. Athletes should be aware that caffeine can cause gastrointestinal distress, jittery feelings, nervousness and anxiety, and headaches.
Nitric Oxide, L-Arginine has been touted for improving stamina enhancing anaerobic activity, and providing that “pump” look and feel. Nitric oxide (NO) itself is not in the supplement but rather derived from the amino acid arginine, a common nitrogen donor found in supplements. Most research points to arginine as weak and unreliable at increasing NO activity in healthy adults. Additionally, large doses can lead to bloating, diarrhea, decreased blood flow, and increased sweating all of which can be counterproductive to improved performance.
BCAA (branched chain amino acids- leucine, isoleucine, and valine) are popular for their reported benefits of delayed fatigue, increased recovery, and muscle preservation especially during weight loss. Leucine is the star of the three because it plays an important role in muscle protein synthesis while isoleucine induces glucose uptake into the cells. Enticing reasons to start supplementing however, benefits may only exist in untrained or lightly trained athletes and there is a lack of efficacy for increased recovery or muscle preservation. Supplementing with BCAAs may be unnecessary for people with a sufficiently high protein intake.
Creatine (monohydrate) is one of the most well researched supplements to-date for increases in strength gains and muscle mass as well as increased ability for muscular repair. Conflicting information in regards to a loading phase abounds but evidence does point to the need for a loading phase where absorption rates are high to start and then tappers as muscles stores increase. Research also shows that creatine can be effective in some individuals and ineffective in others. It is important to note that not all forms of creatine are created equal. Many supplements on the market contain forms of creatine that have not demonstrated the same benefits or show evidence to support their efficacy. Athletes should also be aware that some individuals experience gastrointestinal distress that includes bloating and cramping when supplementing with creatine.
Beta-Alanine is one of the building blocks of carnosine which acts to buffer acid in the muscles. Therefore beta-alanine supplementation is marketed to increase performance and training adaptations by buffering lactic acid accumulated during exercise namely in the 60-240-second range. This also eludes to enhanced muscular endurance for training sets of 8-15 reps. Don’t be fooled by tingling sensation felt from large doses as this is a harmless side effect that is not indicative of effectiveness.
Protein powders and bars are a staple in the supplement market for their ability to increase muscle mass. There is no refuting that protein intake is imperative for muscle growth and supplements can be beneficial for aiding in the stimulation of muscle protein synthesis. Protein needs can most often be met through food with the same effectiveness and benefit. Be mindful that some protein supplements can cause gastrointestinal distress.
With all supplements contamination of ingredients not listed is always a concern. Again, be diligent in using only products with third party certification should you choose to use them.
The above is a very short list of a few sports supplements on the market that tend to be most known by young athletes, without mention of dosages, and only addresses each as individual supplements. Keep in mind that most often these are found as one ingredient in formulated mixes, e.g. pre-workouts or muscle builders. Flip the product over and you may see a section on the supplement facts label that reads proprietary blend. This is simply a list of ingredients specific to a product formula in order of weight. Unfortunately, the only regulation with these blends is that the total amount of all ingredients in the product, not the amounts of each individual ingredient, is provided. The reality is that you may or may not be getting the correct dose known to be effective in each or any of those contained within the product. Knowing the effective ingredients and doses of each, and some simple math can quickly validate or invalidate a product.
The take home message: A lack of regulation in supplement industry leaves large variations in concentrations, terminology used, messaging, and combinations of ingredients. Always consider the benefits and risks of consuming a supplement and ask “why do I want to take it” AND “do I need it”. It is important to know that research and testing is conducted on adults; not growing teens. So even supplements marketed as “safe” my not be safe for young athletes. In absence of published research on the benefits of supplement use or confirmation of no long term adverse effects…
Adolescent athletes and their parents need to maintain a sense of caution before using any sports supplements.
Rather than skirt the line for possible performance gains from supplements, the focus should be on adequate nutrition as part of an athlete’s training regimen. A balanced diet and ample calorie intake will ensure that a variety of nutrients are provided to the body. During this time of growth, food should be the first step in obtaining the compounds and nutrients some may seek through supplements. For instance, Protein and BCAAs are found in protein containing foods such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, nuts and seeds, and vegetables. Creatine and alanine (alanine via carnosine) can be consumed by eating a diet containing meat, poultry and fish. Nitric oxide/arginine is found in meat, dairy, nuts, and beets. Caffeine is found in beverages such as coffee and tea or can be found in varying amounts in dark chocolate, cocoa, and cacao.
Finally, food first is recommended though sometimes nutritional supplements can be beneficial to help achieve optimal health when an athlete isn’t able to consume enough or has a medical condition requiring additional support. In this instance, it is important to speak with a dietitian and healthcare team to determine where the additional support is necessary.
Have questions about the proper supplements to take? Please feel free to talk to an Athlete Training and Health Performance Coach or Brett Singer, Sports Dietician, RD, CSSD, LD with the Memorial IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute.