The diet of an athlete or active person will have a major impact on their sporting success, but can a supplement really improve or increase performance? Matt Lawson examines the topic of supplements for athletes and recreational sports people
Sport appears to bring opinion and excitement to the forefront like nothing else can. With that comes ever mounting interest towards nutrition and its effects on performance. Arguably, after the natural talent they were born with, the diet of an exerciser has the biggest impact on success. The drive for success is massive and along with that comes the temptation to go beyond training and try out a supplement to gain some advantage. Supplement use in the UK is on the increase, but what is a supplement and are they really any use?
“The prevalence of supplement use amongst UK athletes was found to be 62%„
What is a sports supplement?
As in the name, a supplement is something added to the diet. The term “supplements” describes a broad and diverse category of products that you eat or drink to support good health and supplement the diet.
Whether you’re an elite athlete or a member of the community who heads to the gym after work, supplements are used for a variety of reasons and to help achieve optimum performance. Some may offer real advantages to:
- Meet a known nutritional need e.g. iron, vitamin D deficiency.
- Have a direct performance effect e.g. sports drink, gels, caffeine.
- Simply offer a placebo effect; if you think it’s going to help then it probably does.
It’s important to remember that dietary supplements are not medicines, and for both athletes or any active individual, should not be considered a substitute for food. Sports supplements are a form of ergogenic aid taken because they are believed to improve or increase performance.
The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), world leader in the field of sports nutrition, uses a Sports Supplement Group Classification Scheme which has four categories – A, B, C and D. Group A supplements are supported for use in specific situations in sport and are provided to elite athletes for evidence-based uses.
Supplements – a help or hindrance?
A study commissioned by UK Sport revealed that the prevalence of supplement use amongst UK athletes was 62%. Female athletes were found to use more supplements (75%) than male athletes (55%) and the average supplement use for all athletes was 3.22 supplements per athlete. There were no differences found in age, training volume or type of event reported. A review of studies over a twelve-year period in UK athletes reported the most frequently cited reasons for supplement use were health benefits, illness prevention, enhancing performance, taste, rectifying a perceived poor diet and increasing energy.
Interestingly, the use of supplements in the general public is also on the increase. Hectic consumer lifestyles are generating demand for convenient on-the-go sports nutrition products and in 2017, sports protein products accounted for 72% of total sports nutrition value sales.
All too often, companies may imply their products and shakes are better than real food, but there is almost no evidence to support their use for the vast majority of people. Particularly worrying is when these are marketed at children and young people, whom we know are increasingly targeted. Many people turn to try supplements simply because they believe that every top athlete uses them and they don’t want to miss out!
The use of supplements, however, does not make up for poor food choices and an inadequate diet.
Few of the products used by athletes are supported by a sound research base and some may even be harmful. Even within elite sport, a varied and well-balanced diet is the foundation, with supplements only being used occasionally and when they serve a specific function. It’s generally considered that most people (even if they are going to the gym) don’t need to purchase ‘protein shakes, creatine muscle boosters or fat burners’.
Sports drinks are an example of commonly misused sports supplements. Many sports drinks contain glucose, which for the athlete exercising intensely for more than 45 minutes has a positive effect. For the rest of us, this is a supply of additional calories which we probably don’t require. Overuse of sugary drinks has been linked to weight gain, Type 2 diabetes and dental problems. Just 2% dehydration can affect sports performance however, for most recreational sports people, drinking two to three litres of water a day is likely to be sufficient.
Supplements can have a role in sport, particularly where there is a demonstrated deficiency of an essential vitamin or mineral or an increased intake from food is not possible. There’s limited evidence to support the use of dietary supplements for all athletes or active individuals though. Some supplements, such as sports drinks and gels, caffeine and creatine have been shown to provide a performance benefit when used according to a specific protocol in specific sports.
More than ever before, we have a much better understanding of how nutrients interact with our body and what effects they may have on our health and sports performance. Dietitians advocate a ‘food first’ approach and can help people use food as a positive and motivating factor toward a healthy lifestyle.
The winning Nutrition formula
Ultimately, the winning formula for any athlete or active person involves establishing nutritional goals and then, with the help of a nutritional expert, translating these goals into dietary strategies that are tried and tested during day-to-day training.
- Don’t forget fluids: Ensure you are optimally hydrated by drinking throughout the day as well as before, during and after exercise.
- Mix it up: Eat a varied, well balanced diet that supplies the right amount of energy and essential nutrients.
- Strive for five: Eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day – fresh, frozen, dried, canned all count.
- Cook from scratch: Cooking at home using your own ingredients puts you in control of what you eat.
- Develop your own routine: Work out what you are going to eat and when you are going to eat it.
- Buy a recipe book: See what takes your fancy and try out some new ideas.
- Speak to an expert: Talking to a Registered Sports & Exercise Dietitian/Nutritionist (http://www.senr.org.uk/find/) can help you establish if a supplement is necessary, which would be best and how to take it.
Those of you practising exercise either as part of a team or for your own fitness at the gym, should, ideally take a food first approach to eating for training and performance and only consider the use of supplements when there is genuine need. Anyone considering supplements for sport should seek advice from a sports dietitian.
If you do take a supplement, it’s important to only use those approved by WADA, The World Anti-Doping Agency, which was founded with the aim of bringing consistency to anti-doping policies and regulations within sport organisations and governments right across the world. Read more about WADA and see the list of prohibited substances and methods at https://www.wada-ama.org/.
References available upon request.
Matt Lawson is a Registered Dietitian and has worked around the world with Team GB gold medalists alongside the England women’s national football team. He runs his own consultancy, The Diet Coach, as well as working with eating disorder patients.