Dietary Sports Supplements: Fact or Fiction?

By Blaide Woodburn

It is widely accepted that acquiring “proper nutrition” is essential for maximizing muscle growth and athletic performance. Essentially, proper nutrition means consuming the necessary amounts of protein, carbohydrates, and fats to facilitate adequate energy production and muscle recovery. Specifically, it is recommended that the average person consume 0.8 g protein/kg of body weight whereas an endurance and strength trained athlete should consume 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg, with protein consumption increasing as energy expenditure increases. Furthermore, maintaining a proper balance of carbohydrates and fats, with ratios depending on individual energy expenditure, is a dietary principle that is universally employed. It is recommended that the average athlete consume 6-10 g carbohydrates/kg body weight and that fats should comprise 20-35% of total caloric intake, providing sufficient energy for activity. Even so, identifying the proper carb to fat ratio can be difficult, and after reaping the benefits of proper nutrition, athletes still search for opportunities to enhance their performance. So, after one has already mastered the basics, what’s next?

Broadly, dietary supplements, or more specifically, “sports supplements,” are products that are believed to enhance athletic performance and contain nutrients that can come from a variety of sources including foods, natural products, or can even be produced by our bodies naturally.

This article will dive into the sports supplement industry and communicate the latest research findings on some of the most commonly used sports supplements. With this information, hopefully you will have the knowledge to incorporate meaningful supplementation into your regimen, if you so choose.

The Dietary Supplement Industry

In 2016, sports nutrition supplements totaled $5.67 billion in sales. Unfortunately, supplement sales are driven not just by the desire for athletes to perform at higher levels, but also by the inability of the public to know which supplements actually improve sports performance and which do not. Specifically, scientific studies are difficult to access for the general public (we, as scientists, realize this and are currently working to address the issue), and supplement companies rely on this lack of transparency and the spread of misinformation when marketing their products.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the governing body that ensures materials marketed for human consumption are safe. Additionally, the FDA mandates clinical trials for all prescription drugs and medical devices, evaluating both safety and efficacy. Dietary supplements, however, are not regulated as heavily as prescription medication and medical devices. Specifically, the FDA does not routinely regulate dietary supplements for safety or efficacy. For supplement companies, this means that they cannot directly claim to “cure” ailments or guarantee results, but can promote such ideas through their marketing tactics. For the public, this means two things: 1) Most of the ingredients included in the products at GNC, The Vitamin Shoppe, etc. have not been scientifically proven to enhance athletic performance or are not dosed properly to achieve the desired effect.  2) This places the “burden of efficacy” on the consumer, meaning that we must educate ourselves about which ingredients have been shown to work and which have not.  Luckily, this article will help you navigate the scientific literature!

What works?

Of all the nutrients marketed to enhance muscle growth/athletic performance, there are 21 that have been the topic of third-party (non-FDA research labs), double-blinded clinical trials. Yet, much of the data collected on these nutrients is conflicting, i.e. some studies find significant enhancements in athletic performance and some do not. So, of the 21 well-studied nutrients, only 4 demonstrate benefits to athletic performance in numerous clinical trials. The other 17 nutrients, in addition to other “not-studied” nutrients, are often marketed and supplemented based on their proposed mechanisms of action.

Here, the problem lies within the lack of human-based efficacy evidence; even many prescription drugs make it to clinical trials based on their proposed mechanism of action (with supporting data, of course!), but fail when they enter human clinical trials because they just do not work. In fact, most drugs that fail in Phase III of FDA clinical trials do so because they are proven not to work in a large cohort of human subjects. Nonetheless, we do have corroborating evidence that supports the use a few different nutrients as beneficial to athletic performance/muscle growth.

Blaide Picture 2 180306.jpgThese four nutrients are: Protein, Caffeine, Creatine, and Sodium Bicarbonate. Below is a table the outlines important information regarding these nutrients including how they work, recommended dosing, and how to incorporate them into your diet.

How do I use this information?

Ultimately, dietary supplements are not a “get fit quick” solution. Supplements are meant to be used as such…a supplement to an existing regimen that incorporates proper nutrition and training. Consistently hitting macro/micronutrient goals and consistently training with the proper technique are the most important factors in terms of increasing athletic performance/muscle growth.

The incorporation of a few select dietary sports supplements, however, may enable athletes, especially experienced athletes, to break through plateaus and aid in achieving long-term fitness goals. Although many supplements contain a plethora of ingredients that claim to have anabolic effects, science would say otherwise. As we stand, only protein, caffeine, creatine, and sodium bicarbonate have repeatedly stood the test of numerous double-blind, clinical trials, producing similar results each time that support their proposed performance enhancing properties.

Thus, if you’re ever looking to supplement, it may be more efficacious, physiologically and financially, to incorporate The Fab Four.


Peer-edited by Bailey DeBarmore, Kaylee Helfrich, and Laetitia Meyrueix.

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