Should Athletes Take Supplements?

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Pick up a fitness magazine or read a blog and you’ll likely find a discussion about supplements. Whether it's to enhance your performance or to maintain your health, if you listened to all of the advice, you could end up with a small pharmacy. So how do you know what supplements you should be taking, and should you even take them in the first place?


Common Questions About Supplements


In the following Q&A, UW Health’s sports performance experts help answer some common questions about supplementation for athletes of all abilities.


Are Supplements Only for Elite Athletes?

Before talking about supplements, it's important to note that the foundation of any successful long term sports nutrition plan revolves around a key component – a healthy diet. You have to have the fundamentals in place to start.


That said, many individuals can benefit to some degree from supplements. There is a distinction between "maximum" health and "adequate" health. Even with a perfect food-based diet, it can be extremely challenging to get everything one needs to maximize health and physical performance, so that is where supplementation can be beneficial.


For instance, many individuals living in northern latitudes (such as Wisconsin) likely have vitamin D levels below the recommended 'optimal.' There are few foods that naturally have high levels of vitamin D. And if a person doesn’t like those foods, it can be even more challenging to get sufficient amounts. So that is where a vitamin D supplement may be warranted.


Another supplement with great health and performance benefits which also can be next to impossible to fully obtain from diet alone is creatine monohydrate. Creatine is one of the few supplements that actually lives up to the hype from both from an athletic performance standpoint and health benefits.


What Should People Think About if They’re Considering Adding Supplements to Their Diet?

Two key things to consider include:


1. Expectations


Are yours realistic? Everyone expects a supplement to turn them into a lean, mean, physical machine. However, an effective supplement may only give you a 2-4 percent increase in physical performance. Does the performance benefits of the supplement justify the cost of the supplement?


2. Current Diet


Before buying any supplement, it's important to address your current diet. For instance, often individuals trying to gain weight/lean mass to enhance their athletic performance. They load up on supplements but forget that one of the main factors contributing to weight gain is calories. As a result, they under eat (calorie-wise) and fail to put on weight despite the fact they use a particular protein powder, for example. If someone is trying to increase body weight for their sport, the best thing is a combination of a healthy diet with very specific supplements that target nutritional deficiencies.


Along with diet, you also need to take a look at your lifestyle and keep in mind what you're trying to accomplish and why. For example, caffeine has a lot of solid research supporting its beneficial effects on both aerobic and anaerobic performance. However, it is not intended to make up for poor sleeping habits. So while it may give you a short term boost, you'll just crash in the long run without adequate sleep.


How Can Someone Figure Out What They Actually Should be Taking?

Just like exercise, there is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to supplementation. It is very individualized. When we work with clients, our focus is on supplements whose benefits extend beyond the performance field and will improve overall health. With that said, common supplements recommended for athletes over the age of 18 include protein powders (whey protein concentrate and micellar casein), creatine, taurine and fish oil (if there is a lack of Omega 3s in the person's diet).


To figure out what's right for you, start by doing your research. Talk with a nutritionist who specializes in sports performance and knows the latest research in the field. And of course, be sure that your doctor(s) and nutritionist are on the same page as various supplements can negatively interact with medications leading to less than desirable outcomes. 


One thing you don't want to do is go into a supplement store without having done at least some homework. Those stores can be overwhelming with endless rows of pills, powders and drinks. While sales reps may have the best intent in helping you, quite often recommendations are made based solely off the marketing material given to them by manufacturers which may or may not actually have scientific research in support of them.


What Are Some General Guidelines When Shopping for Supplements?

There are a few general guidelines that I give to people when shopping for supplements, including:


1) Be leery of supplements which market themselves with "testosterone-fueled" language such as 'rage,' 'extreme,' 'jacked,' etc.


2) Stay away from supplements that promise that you'll "gain/lose 'X' pounds in 'Y' days."


3) Watch out for marketing tricks, including the use of words like, 'Award winning' or 'Miracle ingredient,' etc. If something is award winning, this usually just means that it was the most heavily marketed and sold the best – not necessarily that it was the most effective.


If I Take Supplements, Do I Have to Be Careful About Eating Fortified Foods?

Generally speaking, unless someone is taking a mega-dose vitamin or mineral supplements, it's hard to get too much of a particular vitamin or mineral. The bigger issue is when someone relies too heavily on supplements. If the majority of your nutrition comes from supplements (i.e. sports drinks or energy bars), you're likely missing out on many essential components (phytonutrients, etc.) that can only be found in foods. There is yet to be a pill or powder that fully replicates the benefits of eating high quality fruits and vegetables.


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Date Published: 02/09/2016

News tag(s):  wellnesssportssports performancenutritionhealthy bodies

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