FAQ

Supplements in Sport - Why are they so tempting?

The sports world is filled with pills, potions, powders, bars and drinks that promise to give the athlete a winning edge. The claims are emotive - better recovery, improved endurance, increased strength, loss of body fat, an enhanced immune system. If you are striving to be at the top, how can you afford to miss out on these miracles? And can you afford for your competitors to have these advantages if you don't? These are some of the feelings that make athletes an easy target for supplements.

Surely if a supplement or sports food makes a promise to improve performance it must be true?

Most people believe that government laws would prevent supplement companies from making outrageous or untrue claims about their products. In other words, they believe that if a company makes a claim, particularly in writing, it must be correct. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

In Australia, supplements that belong to the pill, potion and powder category fall under the control of the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). Most fall within the 'listable' items category, the most lightly regulated category of the TGA, and are required only to provide proof that they don't contain ingredients that are banned by our custom laws. The TGA has no requirement that a product must have proof of its benefits to be accepted at this level. Sports foods, including bars and drinks, fall under the control of Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ). FSANZ provides regulations about the ingredients and labeling of sports foods, and permits a limited number of claims to be made on the product package.

While the TGA and FSANZ expect manufacturers to avoid making wild claims about their products on labels and packaging, these regulations are not heavily policed. More to the point, it is almost impossible to keep tabs on the prolific flow of articles and advertisements for supplements that appear in sports magazines, brochures, the Internet or other points of communication. The bottom line is that supplements can be marketed with very little control over the claims and messages they provide, and many companies appear to take full advantage of this.

But many famous and successful athletes take supplements. Doesn't this show that they work?

Testimonials from athletes provide a key form of advertising used by manufacturers of supplements and sports foods. The athlete associates their recent success with the use of a product or product range - as part of a sponsorship or paid advertising by the manufacturers, or sometimes simply as 'word of mouth' around the sporting world. Obviously this is a persuasive argument to other athletes.

Sports scientists, however, are sceptical that the association between the supplements and the athlete's performance is anything more than circumstantial. Performance is the result of many factors - including talent, training, equipment, diet and mental attitude. In real life, an athlete will be unable to pinpoint how much each of these factors is contributing. In some cases, when the athlete has lots of these factors working well, the supplement may get all the accolades even when it fails to contribute at all! In other cases, any boost to performance that comes with taking a new product is simply the result of a 'placebo effect'. If the athlete feels that they have received something special, or that they are suddenly receiving more monitoring and attention from their coach or other people, they will be motivated to do better. Thus, better performance can come from a psychological belief rather than a real effect from the new product.

So are supplements all the same? Are they all a waste of money?

The answer to this is definitely not! Some supplements and sports foods are valuable in helping an athlete achieve their nutritional goals and optimal performance. However, there are literally thousands of supplements and special sports foods targeted at athletes, with new products appearing on the market each month. To try to sort out the confusion about supplements, it is useful to divide them into two main categories:

  • sports foods and dietary supplements
  • nutritional ergogenic aids

What are sports foods and dietary supplements?

Sports foods and dietary supplements play a role in providing a practical alternative to food. Examples include:

  • Sports drinks (e.g. Gatorade)
  • Sports gels (e.g. Powergel, GU, CarboShotz)
  • Sports bars (e.g. PowerBar Performance bars) 
  • Liquid meal supplements (e.g. PowerBar Protein Plus powder) 
  • Carbohydrate loaders/high carbohydrate powders (e.g. Gatorlode, Maxim) 
  • Iron supplements, calcium supplements, multivitamin/mineral supplements used under direction of a sports physician or dietitian to prevent or treat a dietary deficiency

How do sports foods and dietary supplements work?

Athletes may find these products valuable in helping them achieve their nutrition goals in a busy day or during an exercise session. Sports nutrition guidelines provide specific goals for intake pre-event, during a prolonged session, or for post-exercise recovery. Products such as sports drinks provide a tailor-made way to look after these nutritional needs. They are an alternative to everyday foods, which might need to be juggled to produce the same nutritional composition, or which might be too impractical to consume directly before or during intense exercise. Sometimes, the convenience factor is the selling point - it is easier to grab a bar or gel to take on a long ride, rather than worry about squashing a sandwich. And these products can sit in a sports bag or car for after training without spoiling or needing special preparation.

Occasionally, when athletes are unable to meet all their nutrient needs from food, a vitamin and/or mineral supplement may be prescribed by a sports dietitian or physician to treat or prevent a nutrient deficiency. These scenarios should be left to the advice of the experts who can put together a total management plan, rather than rely on the pill alone.

The issue with dietary supplements is knowing when and how to use them so that they assist with sports nutrition goals. When used in the right way - the right amount at the right time on the right occasion - they can help an athlete train and compete at their best. In many cases they can be shown to directly enhance performance - for example, there are many studies that show that sports drinks improve performance in prolonged exercise sessions, and more recently, in high-intensity events of about an hour.

Aren't sports foods more expensive than everyday foods? Aren't they just for elite athletes?

Sports foods generally cost more than a similar everyday food. This reflects the specialised marketing, and the research and education program that may support the product. But when used correctly to achieve the nutritional benefit, sports foods are often well worth the expense. Contrary to popular opinion, they aren't just for the elite. An athlete who is playing a long and sweaty game of basketball can expect to play better by drinking a sports drink to replace fluid losses and take in extra fuel. This is as true for someone playing in an under 16 game as it is for a professional player. By meeting nutritional goals, the athlete will be able to meet the true level of their talent - whatever level that is.

Some athletes (and non-athletes) use these supplements outside the conditions in which they are likely to achieve a direct sports nutrition goal. For example, some people eat sports bars as a snack, or have a sports drink with their lunch. In these situations sports foods may simply be a more expensive version of food. Overconsumption of any sports foods (for example, eating sports bars to replace meals on a regular basis) can lead to dietary imbalances as well as an unnecessary burden on the wallet. Sports nutrition education should make the athlete aware of the best uses of these special sports foods.

What are nutritional ergogenic aids?

These products often contain unusual amounts of nutrients or other components of foods. Many of these chemicals are involved in exercise metabolism or recovery pathways, and the products claim that we can supercharge these processes by bumping up our intake of these chemicals. Many of the claims made for ergogenic aids such as creatine, carnitine, coenzyme Q10 and inosine include sophisticated theories of metabolic pathways and biochemistry. Other products such as 'herbals' trade on being ancient compounds whose mystical advantages have been kept secret until recent times.

How credible are these scientific explanations for how a supplement works? They sound convincing!

Scientific theories are important in explaining the mechanism by which a supplement might enhance metabolism and performance. They can also be hyped into persuasive marketing tactics announcing an amazing 'scientific breakthrough'. But a theory is only an idea on paper, until it has been scrutinised through the process of scientific research and publication. Sports scientists are impressed only by the results of scientific studies conducted under a special code of rules, and published only after a review process by other scientists. This process costs time and money. Unfortunately, most supplement companies don't invest in this research - after all, they can successfully sell their products to a public who don't appear to demand real proof of their claims. Furthermore, most of the research that has been undertaken has failed to support the claims of the majority of nutritional ergogenic aids.

The AIS Sports Supplement Program categorises sports foods and supplements according to the level of scientific support that they currently receive. It should be noted that even Group A supplements are supported to enhance performance only for specific types of athletes in specific types of events. And for reasons that are not always understood, some athletes simply don't respond to these supplements, even when used according to directions. In other words, they are not for all athletes, but should be used in well-defined situations.

So where do supplements fit into the total nutrition package for the athlete or exercising person?

Although supplements and sports foods receive most of the glamour and attention in sports nutrition, they really should be thought of as "icing on the cake" rather than substantial fare. The following figure shows that the process of eating well to achieve the nutritional goals of training achieves the most important benefits.
 eating well pyramid

Talent, hard work and time are three extra ingredients in laying this solid foundation. Special sports foods, when used to meet specific goals of workouts and competition can make an important impact - for example, refueling and hydrating with a sports drink might achieve a 5-10% benefit to performance in a prolonged event. At the very top of the pyramid are the small benefits achieved by the Group A ergogenic aids - perhaps a 1-3% improvement in performance. Until everything else has fallen into place, these benefits are unimportant and unnoticeable. Most young and developing athletes should not consider these products until they have made considerable achievements through the foundation layers. As they begin to reach their peak potential, these special aids may provide a noticeable effect.

So what is the problem with athletes trying lots of supplements - surely something will work!

Our experience at the AIS has shown the following problems with the "try anything" approach to supplements:

  • Money, time and interest are all finite resources. Many athletes spend these limited resources on products that don't work, or produce very small benefits for the attention they receive.  
  • Supplements come and go in fashion. Most of the cool sounding supplements are the ones that have no support of their benefits. Athletes get sidetracked on chasing these supplements instead of looking to products and sports foods that can provide more substantial performance benefits.  
  • Athletes use supplements to try to take short cuts. They use them to replace the hard but really valuable factors of effective training, sensible eating, and good recovery techniques. There is no replacement!  
  • The fact that successful athletes are using a supplement lends undeserved credibility to the product and inspires other athletes to try them. And the cycle continues.....  
  • Athletes often follow hearsay about how to use their supplements, and take them in larger doses than needed or sensible, or in protocols that fail to achieve the real benefit.  
  • Some supplements can lead to a positive drug test.

Where can I get more advice about supplements and sports foods?

Refer to the fact sheets for detailed information on individual supplements and sports foods. For individualised advice, consult a sports dietitian, accredited sports scientist or sports physician. The Sports Dietitians Australia website provides details of qualified sports dietitians throughout Australia.

 

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