Written By: Greg Farris
In this day and age it’s difficult to imagine a world without dietary supplements. It’s nearly impossible to watch television, go to a supermarket or even a gym without being bombarded with pills and powders. For most athletes this results in massive confusion that leads to trying the “best new thing”, but rarely produces the results promised.
Supplements are not the most important aspect of nutrition. It is supplementary, taking a back seat to your whole food nutrition and training routine. Taking supplements without first having a solid nutrition plan is the epitome of putting the cart before the horse. This pyramid illustrates just that.
While going through each section of this pyramid is beyond the scope of this article, I hope it provides some reference to how important (or how not important) supplements are. It’s not that they won’t help athletes, it’s that their effectiveness is much less than everything else below it. Once you have the first three levels of nutrition figured out, then you can start experimenting with supplements, but first build a foundation. When building a house you don’t start with the wallpaper, you start with the concrete and other essentials. Your nutrition plan should be no different.
All athletes need to understand that supplements are big business. Most owners of supplement companies care about their revenue, not your 40 time or college scholarship. This means their marketing approaches will be aggressive, most often promising big results with little scientific evidence to support the claims. Trigger words like “anabolic”, “skin tearing pumps”, “anti-catabolic”, “rapid protein synthesis” are aimed to grab your attention. Another common marketing scheme involves companies hiring professional athletes to market their product. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “this guy takes X supplement and is really fast, therefor if I take the same thing I will be really fast too.” Maybe the athlete actually does take the supplement and maybe it is slightly beneficial, but it’s not what makes them great. As most objective athletes will always say, it is there hard work and dedication to training and nutrition that makes the most difference. Don’t fall for marketing ploys. Instead, use ingredients that have been shown by science to be effective.
Yet another dirty secret about supplements is their lack of regulation.  This is huge for competitive athletes who are drug tested on a regular basis, and regardless, everyone should know what they’re actually putting into their body. Many companies hide behind “proprietary blends”, which means they’ll list out all of the ingredients that are in the product, but not how much of each. This is important, because often times an effective ingredient may be in the product, but not at the required dose to show a performance benefit. On top of this, many products have additional compounds that are not listed on the label; this has ranged from rat feces (from poor manufacturing practices) to illegal substances from cross-contamination. ,.
Protein powders and pre-workout mixes aren’t the only supplements that need to be watched; energy drinks also need to be considered. Athletes need to understand that caffeine and other stimulants found in popular energy drinks are very powerful and can result in dire consequences if abused. There have been numerous reports of athletes consuming multiple energy drinks prior to athletic events that resulted in hospitalization. They’ve lead to neurological and heart problems, exacerbating pre-existing conditions and in some cases even death.  Moreover, the American Academy of Pediatrics believe that no child or adolescent should drink any form of energy drink but rely more on water and if necessary a sports drink. 
It’s unfortunate that the supplement business can be misleading, but here’s how to avoid confusion. If possible, contact a sports RD, these are professionals that are not only qualified as dietitians, but more importantly specialize in the relationship between nutrition and athletic performance. Sports RD’s are employed by collegiate athletic departments, professional sport teams or even work with Olympic athletes. They will be able to provide you the best resources for setting up a healthy diet, proper recovery methods and a non-bias outlook on supplements. For more information about sports RD’s visit www.sportsrd.org
If you don’t have access to a sports RD, here are a few tips to avoid supplement disasters. First, only buy products that list out all ingredients and their quantities. This means no proprietary blends. Second, buy from companies that produce in a GMP certified facility, as they high quality control standards. And third, look for the NSF Certified For Sport sticker on your product; this will verify their label claims, check for contaminants and any banned substances. You can also use this database to search supplements for NSF certification. (www.nsfsport.com/listings/certified_products.asp) If ever in doubt, all athletes have coaches, trainers and athletic directors that may be able to clear up supplement questions or at least may know a sports RD they can ask.
It’s great to always be striving for that little edge to become a better athlete, but never forget the basics. This relates to training, nutrition and recovery. Is your performance suffering? Have you been sleeping well? How many servings of vegetables do you get per day? What is your protein intake? These are the questions I always ask athletes first before recommending supplements. When everything else is in place, there may be supplements that could perhaps boost performance, but they will never make an average athlete into an Olympian. The industry loves to promote supplements as a must, but this is comical knowing that some of the greatest athletes in the world (Kenyan runners) rely solely on whole food. It’s a shame when an athlete puts in years of hard work, only to get disqualified from competition because of some stimulant in a product bought over the counter. I can promise you that the NCAA will never ban a whole food diet, hard work and consistency.
is currently a senior undergraduate student at Emporia State University. He works part-time as a personal trainer and health columnist. Owner of MyoBrain, an online nutrition and training coaching service for physique and competitive athletes. Prospective nutrition & dietetics graduate student. Will be interning with Texas Tech University sports nutrition beginning in 2014.
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