The Scoop on Supplements
By Liz Fusco, MS, RDN • April 5, 2017
Kicking off our series on supplements and their impact on rowers is an overview of the industry.
What is a Supplement?
Supplements are defined as a pill, capsule, tablet, powder, liquid or other food form intended to supplement a whole food diet by providing any combination of vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, and botanicals. Although nothing will ever replace or be more beneficial than food, supplements can be used to correct a diagnosed nutritional deficiency (e.g. anemia) or provide an ergogenic (e.g. performance) benefit. This can be achieved through enhancing nutrient intake, lean mass, energy levels, or recovery.
Although some supplements provide safe and legal benefits, it’s critical to understand they are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, which has proliferated the $61 billion industry with poor quality and sometimes dangerous products. The FDA can only investigate a product after documentation of being unsafe or tainted, called “adverse events reporting.” In other words, people need to test positive, get sick, or in the most extreme cases, die, before an investigation begins. Some of the most common offenders are fat burners, pre-workouts, and weight gainers. We consider all supplements without third party testing to be risky.
It is all too common for an athlete to test positive because of unlisted ingredients. This can be accidental (e.g. contaminated in manufacturing) or intentional (e.g. spiking weight gainers with anabolic steroids). When an athlete tests positive, they are solely responsible. This is why we must choose supplements from reputable brands whose products have undergone third party testing. The National Safety Foundation (NSF) is the most stringent third party testing agency.
Does Everyone Need Supplements?
There is a place and time for certain supplements, but a recommendation for one athlete does not equate to a recommendation for all athletes. Before taking a supplement, ask yourself these questions:
- How is my overall health and injury prevention plan?
- Is my strength and endurance being maintained or increasing with my training?
- Am I eating enough at the right times to maximize my training?
- Am I recovering from training sessions appropriately?
- Am I getting enough sleep?
It is extremely important to take an individualized approach when deciding the most effective course of supplementation due to varied needs, fitness, and expertise. If the dosing is too complicated, no benefits are observed, or there are negative side effects, don’t take it. Select which supplements are most appropriate for you under the guidance of a sports dietitian (RD) or physician. As a coach or parent, be sure you fully understand the application, risk, and benefit of a product before recommending or providing it to athletes.
The Evidence Base
The information in this series comes from two main sources: the Australian Institute for Sport (AIS) supplement framework, and an August 2016 review article on nutrition and supplements specific to elite openweight rowing . The AIS framework ranks supplements in Groups A through D: Group A is described as “supported for use in specific situations in sport using evidence-based protocols”. Group B is “deserving of further research,” Group C (where most supplements fall) is “having little meaningful proof of beneficial effects,” and Group D is either banned or high-risk products.