Sports Nutrition Supplements:

Do They Work?

If you are an athlete aiming to improve your performance or a non-athlete seeking to maximize the benefits of your fitness routine, you might have questioned the value of sports nutrition supplements. These supplements come in various forms such as powders, pills, drinks, and snack bars and are designed to enhance athletic abilities by promoting muscle growth, boosting energy levels, enhancing endurance, or aiding in weight loss.

Elizabeth Traxler, RD, LD, a Registered Clinical Dietitian at University Hospitals’ Clinical Nutrition Department, shares her perspective on the benefits of popular sports supplements, including protein, creatine, and caffeine supplements, which have been extensively researched and proven effective. Nonetheless, it is important to note that not all sports supplements may deliver the promised benefits as indicated on their labels.

Protein Supplements

Protein supplements, often promoted for muscle building, are derived from milk or plants and are commonly available in powder form. They can be mixed with water, milk, milk alternatives, or other liquids. One notable advantage of protein supplements is their convenience, as consuming a protein shake after exercising is faster and simpler compared to preparing and consuming a nutritious meal with high protein content.

According to Traxler, studies have indicated that protein supplements can be beneficial for resistance training as they can enhance muscle production and reduce muscle soreness and fatigue after a workout. However, it is worth noting that most individuals can acquire sufficient protein from their regular diet. It is advantageous to rely on whole foods such as eggs, fish, chicken, turkey, beans, dairy products, and soy as they are considered preferable sources of protein. Additionally, these foods provide various other nutrients, healthy fats, carbohydrates, and fibre, which contribute to further health advantages.

Milk-Based vs. Plant-Based Protein Powders

Protein powders made from milk, such as whey and casein, are favoured for their abundant essential amino acids that promote muscle growth. However, individuals with milk allergies or those adhering to plant-based diets may find these powders unsuitable. In such instances, protein powders derived from soy or peas are more suitable.

Whey protein contains a significant amount of leucine, which is an essential amino acid necessary for muscle repair. Additionally, it is rapidly digested to assist with muscle recovery following physical activity. Similarly, soy protein is digested quickly and possesses a comprehensive range of amino acids.

According to Traxler, the primary distinction between whey and soy protein is that soy protein contains less leucine. Nevertheless, most previous studies that compare the impacts of consuming either whey or soy protein have not observed any notable disparities in the advantages of enhancing muscle gain or strength, especially for individuals involved in recreational exercise and fitness instead of competitive sports.

Can You Have Too Much Protein Powder?

Protein overconsumption can decrease the variety of beneficial fiber-digesting bacteria in the gut and raise the population of protein-digesting bacteria. This later situation triggers inflammation and heightens the vulnerability to various illnesses such as type 2 diabetes and obesity. Hence, Traxler suggests that protein supplementation must be tailored to individual requirements considering their age, gender, weight, height, physical activity, dietary intake, and additional factors.

Are Protein Powders Regulated?

Protein powders, similar to other dietary supplements, lack regulation from the Food and Drug Administration in terms of safety and quality. Various studies indicate that a significant number of protein powders available in the market consist of excessive amounts of heavy metals, bisphenol-A (BPA), pesticides, and other harmful substances associated with cancer and other health issues.

Studies have indicated that weight gainer protein supplements have higher levels of contaminants. Weight gainers, which are also known as mass gainers, are dietary supplements with high-calorie content that consist of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. Their purpose is to stimulate healthy weight gain. On the other hand, studies have shown that standard whey protein supplements do not contain substantial amounts of contaminants. These supplements are considered safe if consumed in moderation or as per the given instructions.

Traxler advises consumers to conduct thorough research on any protein supplement they consider using to determine if it has undergone scrutiny and evaluation by an independent organization like the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF offers detailed information regarding the safety, purity, and excellence of the components present in these supplements. It is recommended to steer clear of brands that have not undergone third-party testing or have received unsatisfactory test results.

Supplements to Boost Your Athletic Performance

If you are an athlete, a weekend warrior, or simply want to enhance your workouts, there are various supplements available that can enhance your exercise performance and aid in recovery. These supplements are not anabolic steroids or steroid precursors, but rather ergogenic aids that can provide you with a mental or physical edge during exercise or competition.

Before we move forward, it is important to note that there are numerous supplements available claiming to enhance performance or aid in recovery. However, we will only focus on those backed by sufficient scientific evidence that can genuinely bring about a noticeable impact. It is crucial to consult your doctor before attempting any new supplement, particularly if you are currently prescribed medications.

  1. Beetroot juice

Beets contain antioxidants and high levels of nitrates, which can be converted to nitric oxide to dilate blood vessels. This can potentially enhance blood pressure and blood flow in the body, including the muscles, brain, and heart. Studies have revealed that consuming beetroot juice before exercising can reduce muscle fatigue typically experienced during high-intensity workouts.

  1. Green tea extract

We have a preference for consuming green tea, particularly before engaging in physical exercise. A research study that lasted for 10 weeks and involved the use of green tea extract observed that it has advantageous effects on enhancing endurance capacity through its ability to increase the utilization of body fat as a source of energy. The quantity of green tea extract employed in the study is comparable to consuming approximately four cups of green tea each day.

  1. Medium chain triglycerides (MCTs)

Athletes seeking to boost energy and enhance endurance during intense exercise have shown interest in MCTs. MCTs can also act as an alternative energy source for athletes following high-protein, low-carb diets by inducing nutritional ketosis. Moreover, in the recovery phase after exercising, MCTs can quickly be utilized to rebuild muscles and prevent muscle breakdown. For optimal results, a dose of approximately 1/4 teaspoon of pure caprylic acid MCT oil, also known as C8, should be taken several times daily. However, it is important to note that MCTs may lead to nausea and discomfort in the stomach, thus it is advised to start with a low dose and gradually increase it based on tolerance levels.

  1. Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)

BCAAs, which are leucine, isoleucine, and valine, are three amino acids that have been researched for their potential to enhance strength, power, and endurance. The most reliable evidence supports the use of BCAAs for endurance exercises, like consuming BCAA-infused water before and during lengthy workout sessions. Consuming 5 to 20 grams of BCAAs per day, split into multiple doses, appears to be a safe practice.

  1. Whey protein

Consuming protein after exercising can aid in muscle repair and recovery by supplying vital amino acids needed for optimal protein synthesis. Research indicates that supplementing with whey protein results in greater muscle mass gains, greater reductions in fat mass, and improvements in strength compared to casein or soy protein. Whey protein is considered safe for individuals without liver or kidney disease. However, surpassing 2.5g of protein per kilogram of body weight can heighten the risk of dehydration.

  1. Caffeine

Caffeine, which can be found in coffee, espresso, tea, and energy drinks, has been proven to enhance exercise performance by decreasing the feeling of tiredness. It is also associated with triggering adrenaline, promoting the release of fat, and boosting muscle contraction. Despite having a mild diuretic impact, drinking enough water and maintaining electrolyte levels will counterbalance any such effect. The individual tolerance for caffeine varies greatly, but consuming excessive amounts can result in elevated heart rate and nervousness. It is advisable to begin with a small quantity and opt for coffee or tea instead of energy drinks.

  1. Creatine

If you were to ask any weightlifter about their preferred supplement for improving performance, they would likely mention creatine. Various studies have demonstrated that creatine is especially beneficial for resistance and strength training, as well as high-intensity interval training. Utilizing creatine as a supplement during strength or resistance training can have positive effects on muscle mass, strength, and overall power. The usual recommended routine involves two phases: an initial loading phase and a subsequent maintenance phase, each with different recommended dosages. In the loading phase, it is suggested that the athlete consumes 20 grams of creatine daily for a period of four to five days. During the maintenance phase, the athlete is advised to consume 1 to 2 grams of creatine daily.

Other Sports Nutrition Supplements

Currently, there is a wide range of sports nutrition supplements to choose from, such as multivitamins, leucine (branched-chain amino acids), omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine, glutamine, beta-alanine, beetroot, and green tea extract. Each supplement is believed to provide various performance advantages. Yet, the amount of research conducted on the effectiveness of these supplements remains limited.

Do Athletes Need to Take Sports Nutrition Supplements?

Before starting to take dietary supplements, Traxler recommends that both athletes and non-athletes carefully assess their diets and eating habits.

It is usually preferable to obtain your protein, carbohydrates, healthy fats, vitamins, and minerals from food sources. Additionally, individuals can often enhance their athletic performance by adjusting the timing of their meals to better match their athletic activity or exercise timing.


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