SPORTS MEDICINE
March 1, 2016

Not for Athletes Only

The sports nutrition market including supplements posted sales of $6.3 billion in 2014. The question is, do supplements help?

Elite athletes work hard to reach their goals. Not only do they follow rigorous training programs, they often have a nutrition plan designed to give them a competitive edge. These plans frequently include taking sports supplements. But do those pills, powders and sports drinks offer athletes any real advantages?

The answer appears to be, probably not, according to a report on the science behind dietary supplements by the American Chemical Society. It found that while energy bars can give long distance runners and cyclists the energy they need to get through their races, and antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids can provide some anti-inflammatory benefits, particularly for older athletes, most athletes should focus more on the food they eat than the supplements they take.

A Big Business With Many Unknowns

The sports nutrition market posted sales of $6.3 billion in 2014. There is no shortage of products to choose from: protein powders, energy boosters, performance enhancers, and recovery and repair supplements.

Each of these products promises enhanced athletic performance or physical health and are typically a varying blend of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, specialty carbohydrates and plant extracts. With all these options, how do athletes choose what to use? How do they know what they are buying? And how do they verify the claims for these products?

Some studies focus on biochemical measurements like blood or urine biomarkers, but they don’t measure whether a product actually improves performance.

Unfortunately, there are few resources available to help athletes evaluate the scientific evidence by themselves, especially in the absence of controlled studies. So review articles are the best sources of information. From there, athletes must make their own decisions about whether to put a product in their bodies.

“A Clinical Study Found… ”
With so many products on the market, manufacturers look for ways to differentiate their products from the others. Having new or specialized ingredients is one way to do that. These ingredients are often billed as “proven effective in clinical trials.”

These sorts of clinical trials are often paid for and done by companies with a vested interest in the outcome of the study. They frequently include too few people to be able to make solid, generalizable, conclusions.

“That is often the major criticism of the studies,” Edward P. Weiss, associate professor of nutrition and dietetics at Saint Louis University, said in the article. But such a small sample could still be satisfactory. “One of the strengths, in a sense, is if the effect is powerful enough then you only need a few subjects to make fairly definitive conclusions.”

The results of studies can vary from athlete to athlete, depending on variables like age, gender and level of conditioning. Some researchers focus on biochemical measurements like blood or urine biomarkers, but they don’t measure whether a product actually improves performance.

There may be some sports nutrition supplements that are worth trying, but a healthy, well-balanced diet and adequate hydration — appropriate to the athlete and their sport — is the best advantage athletes can give themselves.

If nutritional supplements for athletic performance weren't so expensive, the questions about their effectiveness would be less serious. But athletes can spend as much as $85 a month for a product that may be nothing more than a waste of money.

Even more concerning is the safety of performance supplements, especially for those containing new or uncommon ingredients that may not have a proven track record. This is what happened in 2004 when the FDA banned the stimulant ephedra from dietary supplements because it was shown to raise blood pressure. A new herbal supplement on the market, p-synephrine, is made from the bitter orange fruit and has a structure similar to ephedra.

Food should be the first place athletes go for that competitive edge. There may be some sports nutrition supplements that are worth trying, but a healthy, well-balanced diet and adequate hydration — appropriate to the athlete and their sport — is the best advantage athletes can give themselves.

The report is published in Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly magazine of the American Chemical Society.

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