Navigating sports nutrition supplements

special thanks to my dietetic intern Kara Peters for assisting in research for this blog post.

“How many of you have ever had a protein shake or taken a supplement?” I ask about mid-way through every sports nutrition presentation I give. Nine times out of ten, over half the hands in a room full of high school athletes goes up. If it’s a room full of only boys, nearly every hand will be raised.

Protein supplements have become an ever present in the world of sports nutrition. And there are new ones coming out all the time! Nearly every presentation I give some student asks me about a supplement I’ve never even heard of. Not joking – I spent an entire presentation thinking that the football team I was speaking to was really into music because they kept mentioning “super beats”…

Turns out they were talking about super beets. Whoops.

Post Half Marathons!

Anyway, there’s a lot of them out there and A LOT of information (and bloggers…sorry for being one of them) who will try to convince you why some specific supplement is amazing and necessary for you to become the best athlete ever. Facts are, if they are truly an ethical Registered Dietitian, they would never tell you any supplement (unless you have another medical condition) is necessary to build muscle. You can get all the protein you need from food!

But let’s back up…what even are supplements?

In simple terms, sports supplements are vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs or other plant substances taken to enhance athletic performance. They can come in the form of a pill, drink, solid food, powder or condensed liquid.

The number one thing to know about supplements is that the FDA (food and drug administration) does not require them to be proven safe before manufacturers can sell them! Therefore, we really don’t know if these supplements are safe, effective or even what they say they are on the label. To be taken off the market, the supplement actually must be proven unsafe.

Below is a breakdown of some of the supplements I get questions about the most. This is certainly not an exhaustive list but it is exemplary. Basically there isn’t enough data for anyone to claim that these supplements are necessary for good performance and there definitely isn’t enough if any data to show that they are safe in the child and teen population. SO please, please always remember food first!

In recent years it seems like every one is obsessed with building muscle mass. I’ll admit, compared to the obsession with thinness I much prefer this, but there are some harmful misconceptions out there about the best way to “get big.”

more protein = more muscle…WRONG!

The idea that more protein equals more muscle mass is the reason why every teenage boy seems to have a giant plastic bottle of mystery powder on top of their dresser. The facts are, however, that the human body can only absorb a certain amount of protein at one time, about 0.25 grams per kilogram of body weight. If you take in more than that, the excess protein will simply be stored as fat. Swapping out your carbohydrate-rich foods for protein-rich foods does not lead to muscle synthesis. Your body’s number one reason for eating food is to get energy and store energy for later times of need – so if you’re only feeding your body protein…surprise, surprise you’ll use the protein for energy and store the extra as fat.

When it comes to athletic performance, there are a lot of factors at play – and taking a supplement is one of the least important. If you’re eating ENOUGH is a huge one. ENOUGH energy (aka carbohydrates like rice, pasta, fruit, potatoes) to allow your body to do what you’re asking of it. Sleep, hydration, genetics, stress level and your training program all come into play. From personal experience (and science) my running is most affected when I don’t get enough sleep. I could have the highest quality food and supplements in the world, and if I didn’t get at least 6 hours of sleep I might as well not even try to lace up my sneakers.

So what’s the conclusion? No supplement is necessary to be a high performing athlete. You don’t need protein supplements, you don’t need piles of meat and you certainly don’t need to pull a Rocky and drink raw eggs. All you need is to eat enough carbohydrate dense foods (like grains, veggies and fruit) to provide energy for your activity and 20-30 grams of protein (in the form of meat, beans or dairy) per meal to build, repair and strengthen your muscles.

Comments, questions or concerns or interested in a more in-depth discussion? That’s what I’m hear for! Email me at werthyourwhilenutrition@gmail.com

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