Supplements and Ergogenic Aids for Athletes

Reviewed by Sarah Klemm, RD, CD
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Athletes face intense training and fierce competition when working to get to the top of their game. With supplements claiming to improve strength, agility, speed and weight, it can be tempting to try something to help improve competitive edge. Unfortunately, not all supplements live up to their claims.

Dietary Supplements: Who's Watching?

Dietary supplements are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, but the process is different than the regulation of conventional foods and drugs.

Manufacturers are responsible for ensuring their products are reasonably safe and not misleading, however, they are not required to prove a supplement works before marketing it, or even that it contains what it says it does. Some organizations test supplements to verify what is inside of them, such as US Pharmacopeia or NSF International, whose label may be found on the container of supplements that have been tested. The FDA is also able to remove or restrict the sale of a supplement, but only after it has been on the market and been shown to be unsafe or mislabeled.

Supplements or Foods?

Another concern with supplements is that evidence often is conflicting or insufficient. They can be costly and if taken in excess, may have negative side effects or even result in an athlete being banned from an event.

An alternative to taking some of these supplements is to get the nutrients they provide in food. Here are some popular nutrients you can include in your routine just by eating a well-balanced diet:

Branched-Chain Amino Acids (BCAA)

Leucine, isoleucine and valine are branched-chain amino acids that are found in protein-rich foods, such as chicken, fish, beef, tofu, eggs and dairy. BCAAs are commonly taken to promote muscle growth, increase fat loss, delay fatigue and boost the immune system. While these amino acids are considered essential, studies have been conflicting on the effectiveness of taking BCAAs as supplements for athletic performance.

Caffeine

Functioning as a mild stimulant, caffeine is a natural component of chocolate, coffee and tea. Caffeine often is taken by athletes to burn fat, protect carbohydrate stores and increase energy levels. Caffeine has been shown to increase alertness and act as a stimulant, however fat burning does not appear to increase and carbohydrate stores are not protected. If found in too high of an amount in the urine, it is considered a banned substance by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, though normal amounts of caffeine from the diet do not usually reach this level.

Chromium Picolinate

A mineral found in foods such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, chromium plays a role in how the body uses glucose. When taken as a supplement by athletes, it’s used as a weight loss aid or to help convert fat to muscle, but there’s insufficient evidence to support these claims. When taken as a supplement, it may cause oxidative damage or interfere with iron in the body. Therefore, chromium supplementation is not recommended.

Creatine

Found in food sources such as meat and fish, creatine also is produced naturally in our muscles for energy production. Creatine supplements claim to improve strength and exercise performance. However, more research is needed as results vary greatly depending on the study and athletic event.

Trusted Resources

If you’re set on supplements, learn how to spot a fraud and where to find trustworthy information. A registered dietitian nutritionist specializing in sports nutrition can assist you in evaluating supplements that claim to improve athletic performance.

While manufacturers may have interesting information about their products, it's good to take a balanced approach and review unbiased sources as well. You can find reliable information about dietary supplements from trusted online resources, such as the National Institute of Health’s Office of Dietary Supplements. For more information, consult a registered dietitian nutritionist that specializes in sports nutrition.

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