For better or worse?

Some points to ponder before taking nutrition supplements in sports
By Dr. J. P. Gamage

Sport is all about competition. Every athlete wants to reach his or her maximum performance level during a competition. Undoubtedly, the athlete’s talent and training being crucial, proper nutrition sets the backdrop for performance.

The International Olympic Committee Consensus Conference on Sports Nutrition (Lausanne 1991) states, “Diet significantly influences athletic performance. An adequate diet, in terms of quantity and quality, before, during and after training and competition will maximize performance”. In simple terms, appropriate good food choices in correct amounts taken at the right time affects how well one performs.
Today we look at the use of supplements for sports.

What are the factors athletes and coaches should consider before taking any sports nutrition

There is a wide range of sports nutrition supplements available in the market but little evidence whether these individual supplements, work for athletes or not, and hardly any evidence whether they are safe or not. Therefore, it is important to weigh the risks against benefits for every supplement.

Before you purchase a supplement, consider these questions.

  • Does it suit my purpose?
  • Does it work?
  • Is it safe to use?
  • How reliable is it?
  • Does it contain prohibited
  • How much does it cost?
  • Do I need advice and help?
  • Does it suit my purpose?

Different sports demonstrate unique physiological functions and adaptations in the athlete’s body. Therefore, the requirements are different from sport to sport.  Consequently, supplements are designed accordingly to optimize these specific requirements to target athletic groups.

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For example, some supplements are specifically intended for endurance athletes and unlikely to benefit strength athletes such as weight lifters. Similarly, some supplements are designed to be taken during the competition while some others designed to take several days before the competition during training.

First, you should be well aware of sports-specific requirements in your own sport. Then make sure the supplement you plan to take suits your expected goal specific to your sport. Taking any supplement will not help you.

Does it work?

This is the first question and often the only one that athletes and coaches are interested in. The supplement we use must be effective and must show some health or performance benefit to the athlete.

There are of course some potential benefits with a few having demonstrated effectiveness in laboratory and field conditions. However, most of the available supplements do not show any clear evidence for performance benefit.

Is it safe to use?

Some of these supplements can contain substances that are harmful to health and can cause serious health consequences. Some of them could actually impair performance rather than improve it.

Supplements can have possible adverse effects in short or long-term use or in excessive doses. Most athletes exceed the recommended doses of supplements resulting higher concentrations in the body causing toxic effects. Often we have no information on the health risks related to supplement use.

How reliable is it?

Some products do not contain ingredients listed on the label or contain far less than the amount shown to be effective.  This is particularly the case with expensive ingredients.

In some cases, the recommended dose may be far higher than the maximum effective dose. The information provided in the label sometimes, is inaccurate and athletes use excess amounts of expensive products unnecessarily..

Does it contain prohibited substances?

Some supplements contain drugs and prohibited compounds banned in sports. This will cause an athlete to fail the doping test resulting in adverse consequences. Unsurprisingly, names of these prohibited agents are not declared on the product label. The athlete or the coach can read the product label and assure themselves for safety, but the product may still contain compounds that will cause the doping test to be positive.

What is the cost involved?

The cost of these sports foods must be taken into account when deciding to use them. Some sports nutrition supplement products are very expensive. Most athletes are not capable in purchasing them on regular basis. Therefore, athletes should consider carefully the benefit of good food choices over expensive supplement products.  

Do I need advice and help?

It is strongly recommended all athletes and coaches consult a qualified professional in the field (sports medicine physician/sports doctor) before using any supplement. They will assess whether you actually require a supplement to meet your goals and will do a cost-benefit analysis before recommending it to you. That will help you to gain possible performance benefit for your sport while minimizing the adverse consequences associated with supplement use.

Value of good food choices

Not every athlete needs supplements. Sports nutrition supplements can be useful only for selected athletes in specific situations. Supplements are only a short-term solutions and not a substitute for a good diet or do not compensate for poor food choices and an inadequate diet. Remember, good food choices are the best solution.

“Athletes contemplating the use of supplements and sports foods should consider their efficacy, their cost, the risk to health and performance, and the potential for a positive doping test.”  

IOC Consensus Statement on Sports Nutrition (Lausanne, 2003)

(The writer is a graduate in Sports Nutrition –International Olympic Committee (IOC))

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