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supplements-vitamins

Sports Supplements & Performance

In their effort to enhance energy and optimize performance, many athletes purchase vitamins, herbs, amino acids, and other sports supplements that are reputed to offer a competitive advantage. While a few supplements (beta-alanine, creatine, caffeine, nitrates) might play a small role when added to a well-thought-out fueling plan, no amount of supplements will compensate for a lousy diet. 

Fundamental to every high-performance athlete is an effective sports diet. All athletes should be taught from an early age how to optimize their performance using the food-first approach, so they know how to best fuel-up, fuel during, and refuel after challenging exercise sessions. Once an athlete has finished growing and maturing and has fine-tuned his or her fitness and performance skills, some sports supplements might be appropriately introduced with guidance from a knowledgeable professional.

That said, to the detriment of their wallets, many athletic people look for a glimmer of hope from the multi-billion-dollar supplement industry. Consulting with a registered dietitian (RD) who is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics (CSSD) could easily be a better use of money.

Supplements are popular

A survey of Division-1 college students (89 females, 49 males) at Arizona State Univ. indicated 77% consumed at least one “claimed to be” ergogenic aid (1). Another survey of US Army personnel reports 75% used some type of dietary supplement at least once a week. Protein/amino acids were the most popular, taken by 52% of subjects (2).

Why are so many athletes willing to spend (or is that waste?) a great deal of money to buy sports supplements? The glimmer-of-hope reasons include: to improve physical appearance or physique, increase muscle mass, optimize general health, and help meet physical demands on their bodies. Unfortunately, most supplements don’t work. Before you spend your money, please educate yourself about each supplement you plan to buy.

Where to learn more

For information about (supposedly) performance-enhancing supplements, the US Dept. of Defense website Operation Supplement Safety (www.opss.org) offers abundant information for anyone who is curious to learn more.  The website includes:

  • a list of at least 28 unsafe sports supplements to avoid.
  • a list of questions to help determine if a supplement is safe. (Does the label have a “certified safe” seal from Informed Sport or NSF? Is the label free of the words blend, matrix, proprietary, or complex? Does it make questionable claims?)
  • an A-Z index with info about specific supplements, with all you need to know about Adderall, apple cider vinegar, caffeine, creatine, energy drinks, ephedra, ketone supplements, nitric oxide, omega-3 fats, pre-workouts, pro-hormones, proprietary blends, plus many more.
  • information on unusual reactions and adverse effects (nausea, headaches, shakiness, elevated heat rate, mood change, etc.) and how to report an adverse event to the FDA and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

Another helpful source of information is the Australian Institute for Sport’s ABCD Classification System (www.ais.gov.au/nutrition/supplements). The system ranks sports foods & supplements into 4 groups according to scientific evidence and practical considerations that determine whether a product is safe and if it effectively improves sports performance. 

  • Group A includes specialized products with strong evidence for benefits in specific events, including sports drinks, gels, iron, caffeine, beta-alanine, bicarbonate, beet root/nitrate, and creatine, among others.
  • Group B deserves further research. It includes food compounds with anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties (i.e., tart cherry juice, curcumin), vitamin C, and collagen, to name just a few.
  • Group C lacks scientific evidence to support use. These include (and are not limited to) magnesium, alpha lipoic acid, HMB, BCAAs, leucine, vitamin E–plus more.
  • Group D includes products with a high risk of leading to a positive doping test: ephedrine, DMAA, herbal stimulants, pro-hormones, hormone boosters (such as DHEA, androstenedione, Tribulus terrestris), and others.

What supplements do “work”? 

Sports supplements that do “work” actually improve performance by just a small (but potentially valuable) amount (3), despite carefully crafted advertisements that can lead you to believe otherwise. Case in point, the popular branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs), specifically the BCAA leucine, which is known to activate the muscle-building process. Unfortunately, simply activating the process is not enough to promote muscle growth. 

BCAA research indicates they do not provide any benefits above and beyond the amino acids athletes normally consume when eating protein-rich food at meals and snacks. To see any meaningful muscle-building effect, you actually need to have many other amino acids present (as happens when you eat real food, as opposed to an isolated amino acid), as well as enough calories—and of course, a good strength training program plus adequate sleep. 

Varied responses

Even among supplements that “work,” the response varies greatly from person to person. Case in point, beta-alanine, a supplement used by athletes such as sprinters, rowers, and wrestlers to reduce muscular fatigue and improve endurance during high-intensity exercise that lasts for 1 to 4 minutes. The varied responses can be related to not only genetics and biological factors, but also to the power of the mind, the placebo effect, adequate fuel, and enough sleep. Hence, when a supplement does “work” for some athletes, the response may be due not to the supplement—but rather to the athletes getting serious about taking better care of their bodies, eating wisely and getting enough sleep (4). 

Enhancing sports performance may not need rocket science, after all?


Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Sports Nutrition Guidebook and her online workshop can help you eat a winning sports diet. Visit NancyClarkRD.com for more information.

 

References

  1. Vento KA and FC Wardenaar. Third-party testing nutritional supplement knowledge, attitudes, and use among an NCAA I collegiate student-athlete population. Frontiers in Sports and Active Living. Sept 2020. doi: 10.3389/fspor.2020.00115 
  2. Bukhari A, A DiChiara, E Merrill, et al. Dietary supplement use in US Army personnel: A mixed-methods, survey and focus-group study examining decision making and factors associated with use.  J Acad Nutr Diet 2021; 121(6):1049-1063
  3. Maughan, R, L Burke, J Dvorak et al. IOC Consensus Statement: Dietary Supplements and the High-Performance Athlete. Int’l J Sports Nutr Exerc Metab 2018, 28:104-125
  4. Esteves G, P Swinton, C Dale, et al. Individual participant date meta-analysis provides no evidence of intervention response variation in individuals supplementing with beat-alanine. In’tl J Sp Nutr Exerc Metab 2021; 31(4):305-313
Sweet Letters

Sugar Substitutes: Good, Bad, Ugly?

Today’s athletes are confronted with a plethora of foods and beverages containing low- or no-calorie sweeteners (LNCS): Diet Pepsi, Halo-Top ice cream, Gatorade Zero, Nuun.

Questions arise: 

Are these products a better option than their sugar-containing versions? 

Will they help you lose weight? 

Are they safe? 

Should athletes eat them or avoid them?

The goal of this article is not to recommend for or against LNCS sweeteners such as Equal (aspartame), Sweet ‘n Low (saccharine), and Truvia (stevia), but rather to offer science-based information to help you decide whether or not they are safe to include in your sports diet.

Background Info

The 2020-2025 US Dietary Guidelines for Americans state that we should limit added sugars to less than 10% of our daily calories. The average (i.e., unfit, over-fat) American consumes about 270 calories (17 teaspoons, 13% of total calories) of added sugars a day. Soft drinks, other sweetened beverages, cookies, candy, and desserts are common culprits. For a sedentary person who may require 1,800 calories a day, 10% of calories equates to 180 calories (45 g) of added sugars a day that displace wholesome foods. Given that exercise enhances our ability to metabolize sugar, active people are less likely to end up with health issues (prediabetes, type 2 diabetes) related to sugar consumption. For them, added sugars can be a useful source of muscle fuel. Ideally, the sugar comes surrounded with nutrients, such as a post-exercise recovery chug of chocolate milk.

Today’s competitive athletes often select their foods more wisely than the “average” American. Their hope is to not only enhance performance but also reduce their risk of injury and invest in their longevity. For an athlete eating more than 3,000 calories a day, the guideline of less than 10% of total calories from added sugars equates to 300 calories (75 g) of added sugars a day. That leaves plenty of space for some sugary sports foods and treats, if desired. 

Athletes’ bodies tend to readily use sugars (they appear in the blood as glucose) to replenish depleted muscle glycogen stores. During long, hard workouts, sugar-filled gels and sports drinks can enhance performance. So why would an athlete want to choose a Gatorade-Zero, Nuun, or Propel with LNCS? Well, if weight-conscious, NLCS can help athletes save a few calories (though doing so while exercising can hurt performance). With meals and snacks, swapping a can of sugar-sweetened soda for a diet soda ideally allows the athlete to enjoy 150 more calories of nutrient-dense foods, such as fruits or veggies. (We know what often happens, however. The saved calories go towards cookies. Ha!)

Are foods sweetened with LNCS a way for athletes to have their cake and eat it too? The media has certainly painted a halo of horror on LNCS, leading many to believe they are mysterious chemicals, contribute to obesity, and bolster one’s sweet-tooth. Are they really bad for you? Let’s take a look at what science says. 

Aren’t they nothing but (scary) chemicals?

All foods are made of chemicals: carbon, oxygen, nitrogen. Aspartame (brand names are NutraSweet and Equal) is made of two amino acids that taste 200 times sweeter than table sugar. You need very little of it. The powder in the blue packet is mostly a harmless filler that keeps the few molecules of sweetener from getting lost in the packaging.

Are they safe to consume?

Sugar substitutes are among the most highly studied ingredients out there. The FDA, WHO and other global health organizations have confirmed the safety of these products in doses well above the amounts commonly consumed by humans. Studies that reported a link to cancer were done with animals given absurd amounts of no- or low-cal sweeteners and are not relevant to humans in real-life.

That said, the FDA has established Acceptable Daily Intakes (ADI) for these sweeteners. ADI is the amount of a LNCS a human can consume every day during their life —with a built in 100-fold safety factor below which no adverse effects have been seen. For aspartame, the ADI equates to 107 of those little blue packets a day (19 cans of diet soda every day of your life). So yes, some athletes could overshoot the ADI—but it’s highly unlikely! 

Do low- and no-calorie sweeteners lead to weight loss?

LNCS are one tool in a dieter’s toolbox. They can help dieters lose weight IF they displace calories the dieter does not replace. One athlete told me he lost 30 pounds in a year just by trading in his lunch- and dinner-time can of Pepsi for Diet Pepsi. That one simple change shaved off 300 calories a day that he did not replace. That said, research indicates people can easily compensate for the calories by eating more of other foods

Do low- and no-calorie sweeteners lead to weight gain?

No. People who drink diet soda are more likely to be over-weight, but diet soda did not cause the weight gain. Rather, people who live in large bodies are more likely to use LNCS to save some calories.

Don’t these sweeteners trick the body into thinking it’s getting sugar—and trigger a spike in blood glucose, followed by a crash, and hunger?

Well-controlled, randomized studies indicate the answer is no. Nor do LNCS make people feel hungrier. Some animal studies have shown that LNLCS might increase appetite, but those studies were conducted with large amounts of LNCS that we would never consume. This has not been replicated in humans.

Do no- or low-cal sweeteners have a negative impact on the microbiome?

Questionable research with mice who consumed very large amounts of saccharin suggests it might impact the microbiome of rodents. But no conclusive evidence to date indicates LNCS negatively impact the human gut microbiome. Stay tuned.

The bottom line

We are all born with an innate desire for sweet tastes, starting with breastmilk! We have many options for satisfying that sweet tooth in good health.


Sports Nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston-area (Newton; 617-795-1875). The 6th edition of her Sports Nutrition Guidebook (2020) can help you eat to win. Visit NancyClarkRD.com.

For more information:

pexels-ella-olsson-1640777

Teaming Up with Good Nutrition

If you are a solo athlete, such as a singles rower, figure skater, or runner, the benefits that come from fueling your body wisely benefit you personally. Team athletes, how-ever, commonly participate in group meals that may focus less on nutrition and more on fun foods. (Nachos and beer, anyone?) Coaches may find it hard to enroll all their athletes in responsible fueling. Yet the team that fuels wisely will have an edge over the team that eats a sub-optimal sports diet, particularly when traveling to competitive events.

Rainbow heart

The ABC’s of Sports Nutrition

Believe it or not, eating a good sports diet can be simple. Yet too many athletes have created a complex and confusing eating program with good and bad foods, lots of rules, and plenty of guilt. Let’s get back to the basics and enjoy performance-enhancing fueling with these simple ABC’s for winning nutrition.

healthy-food-and-exercise

Athletes, Injuries & Nutrition

Athletes get injured. It’s part of the deal. Be it a torn ACL, Achilles tendonitis, or a pulled muscle, the questions arise: What can I eat to recover faster? Would more vitamins be helpful? What about collagen supplements? At this year’s virtual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, the nation’s largest group of nutrition professionals), several presentations offered updates on nutrition for injuries.

pexels-anna-shvets-3962285

The Athlete’s Kitchen

“I used to be skinny when I was a runner in college. Look at me now. My BMI says I am “obese.”

“Despite exercising regularly, I’ve gained weight with menopause … frustrating!!!

“I’ve always been able to manage my weight by eating a little less and exercising a little more. Since I turned 50, that’s not working for me anymore.”   

If any of the above comments sound familiar to you—or your parents or friends, keep reading. I counsel too many mid-life athletes who express frustration about undesired weight gain. Women can younger athletes avoid it?  

protein-food-muscle

The Athlete’s Kitchen: Nutrition Tactics for Building Muscles

 Most athletes want to have strong muscles to be more powerful, help prevent injuries, add protection for contact sports such as rugby or (American) football, and yes, to look buff. They wonder: What can I eat for more muscle, strength and power? The standard belief is eat extra protein, but more fundamental than food is doing some form of resistance exercise. Lifting weights is far more powerful for building muscle than is eating extra protein (unless you have been eating a protein-deficient diet). 

chalkboard-gut-health-digestive-system

Intestinal Distress: Gutting It Out

While some athletes have cast iron stomachs and few concerns about what and when they eat before they exercise, others live in fear of pre-exercise fuel contributing to undesired pit stops during their workouts. Be it stomach rumbling, a need to urinate or defecate, reflux, nausea, heartburn, or side stitch, how to prevent intestinal distress is a topic of interest to athletes with finnicky guts. Here are tips to help you fuel well before/during exercise while reducing the risk of gastro-intestinal (GI) distress. For more in-depth information, you might want to read The Athlete’s Gut by Patrick Wilson or listen to this podcast.

  • Stay calm. Being anxious about intestinal issues can exacerbate the problem. Think positive. Trust that your gut is adaptable and trainable. Record what, when, and how much you eat, as well as the duration and intensity of your exercise. Use that data to help you figure out what foods and fluids settle best. Building body trust can reduce anxiety—and that can reduce GI issues. That said, precompetition nerves can affect any athlete, regardless of GI hardiness!
  • Athletes in running sports are more likely to suffer GI issues than, say bicyclists or skiers. With running comes intestinal jostling; the longer the intestines are jostled, the higher the risk of upset. Ultra-runners know this too well…
  • If you experience gut issues every day—even when you are not exercising, you want to talk with a GI doctor. Celiac disease, Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis, and blood in your stool need to get checked out now! They are serious issues and differ from exercise-induced GI problems.
  • The higher the intensity of exercise, the higher the risk of intestinal distress. Add heat and anxiety to intense exercise, and many athletes experience transit trouble. During hard workouts, blood flow diverts away from the gut to transport oxygen and glucose to the working muscles and carry away carbon dioxide and waste products.
  • Low intensity training that can be sustained for more than half an hour is less problematic. The GI tract gets adequate blood flow, can function relatively normally and is able to digest, absorb, and metabolize pre-exercise fuel. Athletes tend to have fewer GI issues on easy training days, given better blood flow to the intestines, lower body temperature and less anxiety.
  • Carbohydrate is the easiest-to-digest fuel before and during exercise. Carbohydrate gets broken down into simple sugars in the stomach, then absorbed into the bloodstream from the small intestine. Specific transporters carry each sugar molecule (such as glucose or fructose) across the intestinal wall. Hence, consuming a variety of carb-based fuels helps minimize a “backlog” if all the transporters for, let’s say, fructose get called into action.
  • With training, the body creates more transporters to alleviate any backlog. That’s one reason why you want to practice event-day fueling during training sessions. Your body gets the chance to activate specific transporters. The foods and fluids you consume before and during training should be the ones you’ll use for the event. Some popular carb-based pre-and during-exercise snacks include fruits (banana, applesauce), vegetables (boiled potato, roasted carrots), and grains (sticky rice balls, pretzels, pita)—as well as commercial sports foods (sport drinks, gels, chomps).
  • Athletes who experience gas and bloat want to familiarize themselves with FODMAPs —Fermentable (i.e., gas-producing) Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides And Polyols. These are sugars and fibers that some people have trouble digesting. Commonly eaten sport foods high in FODMAPs include milk (apart from lactose-free milk), bread, pasta, onions, garlic, beans, lentils, hummus, apples, and honey.
      • By choosing a low FODMAP diet for a few days before an important event, an athlete might be able to reduce, if not avoid, digestive issues. (Of course, first, experiment during training to be sure the low FODMAP foods settle well!) Low FODMAP foods include bananas, grapes, cantaloupe, potato, rice quinoa, cheddar and Parmesan cheeses, and maple syrup.  For more information on FODMAPS, refer to KateScarlata.com.
  • Fatty foods (butter, cheese, nuts) tend to slowly leave the stomach and are metabolized slower than carb-rich foods. If you will be exercising for only one to two hours, think twice before reaching for a handful of nuts or a chunk of cheese for a quick fix before you exercise. A banana or slice of toast will digest quicker and be more available for fuel.
      • Eating fatty foods on a regular basis can speed-up gastric emptying a bit but you won’t burn much pre-exercise dietary fat during your workout unless you are an ultra-athlete who will be exercising for more than three hours. In that case, a bagel with nut butter or cheese will offer long-lasting fuel.
  • Some athletes chronically under-eat during training. This includes dieters trying to lose weight, and athletes with anorexia. Under-eating can impair GI function; the gut slows down with inadequate fuel. Delayed gastric emptying means food stays longer in the stomach and can feel “heavy” during exercise (as well as is less available for fuel). Slowed intestinal motility easily leads to constipation, a common problem among under-eating athletes.
  • Highly active athletes, such as Tour de France cyclists and ultra-runners, need to consume a large volume of food to support performance. If they are eating “healthy” foods before and during endurance exercise, they can easily consume a lot of fiber —and that can easily contribute to rapid transit. Endurance athletes needing a high calorie diet often benefit from eating some so-called less-healthy foods (such as white bread, white rice, cookies, candy) for low-fiber muscle-fuel.
  • Given each athlete is has a unique GI tract, be sure to experiment during training to learn what works best. Eat wisely—and enjoy miles of smiles.

Sports nutritionist Nancy Clark, MS, RD counsels both casual and competitive athletes in the Boston area (Newton; 617-795-1875). Her best-selling Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook (6th edition, 2019) can help you eat to win. For more information, visit NancyClarkRD.com.