The Truth About Supplements

The dietary supplement industry is BOOMING while offering thousands of vitamins, minerals, weight loss pills, protein powders, and more. It can be so confusing what will actually benefit you, what brands to trust, and more importantly what is safe. Many athletes believe they truly need these supplements in order to make them better when, in reality, their food choices and meal patterns could be why they aren’t meeting their performance goals. Some may believe they can just take a supplement rather than eating the actual food but bottom line — you can’t out-supplement a bad diet. Also, just because you are taking more of a supplement does not mean you will see the gains desired. The reality of the situation is that consuming above the recommended dosage or taking a supplement that is not safe could lead to negative side effects like increased heart rate, liver failure, and much more.

If only we could avoid all those problems! …BOOM! Lead by the food-first approach. If eating a meal or snack every 3-4 hours and consuming appropriate portions for all your major food groups — fruits, vegetables, dairy, grains, meats/plant-based protein, you’re likely getting the nutrients you need and don’t need to resort to using supplements.    

Dietary supplements are intended to address periodic gaps in the diet or to support a specific need related to a medical condition. If you do decide to take a dietary supplement, search out these specs for the safest choice: 

  • Lists individual ingredients on the label 
  • Doses are based on scientific research 
  • Are tested for banned substances 
  • Uses branded ingredients
  • Manufactured in an NSF facility that carries both the cGMP and Athletic Banned Substances certifications

Even the most beneficial and safest supplements can come with potential risks. See what some of the safe sports supplements are below and the pros/cons of using them. 

  • Beta Alanine 
    • Pros: May buffer muscle acid by increasing muscle carnosine levels, enhancing muscular endurance.
    • Cons: Parathesia (or tingling of the skin) if taken in higher dosages
  • Beetroot
    • Pros: Increases nitrates and could improve aerobic endurance performance
    • Cons: May lead to reddish colored urine or stool and kidney stones due to the high nitrate content 
  • Creatine
    • Pros: May increase lean mass, strength, sprint performance, anaerobic power
    • Cons: May lead to nausea, diarrhea, and cramping 
  • Omega-3 Fatty Acids/Fish Oils
    • Pros: May reduce inflammation, muscle soreness, body composition, exercise-induced asthma, joint soreness, and enhance brain health.
    • Cons: If taken in dosages higher than 5-6 grams per day, may increase risk of bleeding, hypoglycemia, low blood pressure, loose stools, nausea, fishy breath. Many brands are low quality and don’t provide enough EPA & DHA.
  • Caffeine
    • Pros: May improve endurance & high-intensity exercise >20 min, stimulate central nervous system.
    • Cons: Risk of jitters, nausea, rapid heart rate, anxiety, poor sleep etc. from overdosing; possible diuretic effect if not well-hydrated over long-term.

Keep in mind — everyone responds differently to supplements. Talk to a sports RD before taking supplements as they can help you figure out what is best and oversee any issues with them. Understand that the brand does matter. It is essential to make sure the supplement brand is reputable, tested, and one that your sports dietitian supports.