Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for Athletes

Reviewed by Sharon Denny, MS, RDN
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Athletes train hard to reach their peak performance, so dietary supplements that claim to make you faster, stronger, more energized and slimmer can be enticing. But, buyer beware: Effectiveness and safety do not have to be confirmed before supplements hit store shelves. Learn how to spot a fraud and where to find trustworthy information. A sports dietitian can assist you in evaluating sports supplements and ergogenic aids — substances that claims to generate or improve work or capacity to exercise.

Dietary Supplements: Who's Watching?

Dietary supplements are under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) but are regulated differently than conventional foods and drugs. Manufacturers are not required to prove a supplement is safe before it is sold, or even that it works. The FDA can take action to remove or restrict the sale of a supplement only after it has been on the market and been shown to be unsafe.

Fact or Fraud?

To determine if a supplement is safe and useful, well-planned and controlled research is required. But, there are some red flags of junk science to look out for. To help protect your body and your wallet, be wary of any supplement that:

  • Boasts that it is quick and easy.
  • Uses testimonials from "real users" to promote its benefits.
  • Claims it's right for everyone.
  • States it has been used for millions of years.
  • Belittles the medical or scientific community.
  • Has a secret formulation.

Popular Sports Supplements at-a-Glance

Several sports supplements have been the subject of well-controlled research studies and have supporting evidence for their use. However, research has also shown many sport supplement claims to be misleading or false. Use the table below to learn about the evidence to date.

Beta-Alanine: Acts as a buffer in the muscle
Claim: Improve high-intensity exercise performance.
Evidence: Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness.

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA): Leucine, isoleucine and valine
Claim: Delay fatigue; boost the immune system.
Evidence: BCAA can provide fuel for endurance activity, but has not been shown to delay fatigue as a result. Growing research suggests it may play a role in supporting immune function.

Caffeine: Mild central nervous system stimulant
Claim: Helps you burn fat and protect carbohydrate stores; makes you feel energized.
Evidence: Caffeine increases alertness and acts as a central nervous system stimulant. Although caffeine promotes fatty acids release, fat burning does not appear to increase during exercise and carbohydrate stores are not protected. Caffeine is considered a banned substance by the National Collegiate Athletic Association if too high an amount is found in urine. It also helps with mental sharpness and decreases perceived exertion.

Carnitine: Found in muscles and used for energy production
Claim: Helps you burn fat.
Evidence: Does not increase fat burning when taken as a supplement.

Chromium Picolinate: A mineral found in foods that plays a role in glucose utilization
Claim: Weight loss aid; body composition changes.
Evidence: Insufficient support for use in weight loss and body composition changes. May cause oxidative damage; therefore, not recommended.

Creatine: Found in muscles and used for energy production
Claim: Increases lean body mass, increases strength and improves exercise performance, especially for high-intensity workouts.
Evidence: Positive results have been found for increasing total body mass and lean mass, but some athletes have found to be non-responders. Improves short-term intense exercise performance; aids with recovery; increases strength gains with exercise; and, appears to be safe but not effective in some individuals.

Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCT): Fatty acids
Increases endurance; promotes fat burning in long duration exercise.
Does not enhance endurance performance. May increase blood lipid levels; therefore, not recommended.

Pyruvate: End product of carbohydrate metabolism
Claim: Increases endurance and decreases body fat; promotes weight loss.
Evidence: Does not enhance endurance performance and insufficient evidence for weight or fat loss. Side effects may include adverse gastrointestinal effects, such as gas and nausea.

Trusted Resources

While manufacturers may have useful information about their products, it's good to take a balanced approach. Review unbiased sources as well. You can find sound information about dietary supplements from many online resources, including:

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