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Nine questions every athlete should ask before taking a supplement

Elite sport dietitian examines the benefits of nutritional supplements

Champaign, IL—Nutritional supplements claim to improve athletic performance, but not all supplements are created equal. According to Nutrition Australia life member Glenn Cardwell, athletes vary greatly in their response to training, environmental conditions, psychological barriers, and nutritional supplements, which makes it difficult to assess the value of proposed ergogenic aids. "Improvement is not proof that a supplement works. It may be just a convenient coincidence," says Cardwell, author of the forthcoming new edition of Gold Medal Nutrition (Human Kinetics, 2012). "Proof only comes when the same result can be repeated time and time again."

Before taking a nutritional supplement Cardwell advises assessing its potential value by asking nine vital questions.

  1. Has there been any independent research on the supplement? Many supplements have not been researched in healthy athletes, or the research has been done only in-house and not independently assessed.
  2. If research has been conducted, has it been published in an independent, peer-reviewed scientific journal? The marketing of some supplements relies on articles written about the product. “An article is not the same as research,” Cardwell says.
    “Before an article is published in scientific journals, experts in the field review it to make sure it is up to a high standard and conclusions are valid.”
  3. Is the research relevant to athletes? Many supplement manufacturers cite research articles that are unrelated to the claims for the product. “One food bar claimed to assist body fat loss, yet none of the references cited to support its claim were about weight loss,” Cardwell explains. “If you can’t assess the research yourself, ask a sports dietitian or go to a reputable website for their opinion on the research.”
  4. Is the supplement patented? If a product has been patented, then the patent holders usually do most of the research because they will directly benefit from future sales. “Truly independent research is rarely published in such circumstances,” Cardwell says.
  5. Is the majority of research from one researcher or laboratory? The value of a supplement can be determined only if many researchers from different laboratories work independently to assess it under varying conditions. “This has been done, for example, in the case of creatine and sports drinks,” Cardwell notes.
  6. Has the research been performed on athletes under normal training or competition condition? Just because a product has benefits for people with certain conditions such as heart disease or nutrition deficiency, it doesn’t follow that the same benefits hold for fit and healthy athletes.
  7. Although there may be research suggesting a benefit of a supplement, is there any research showing ‘no effect’ or possible dangerous side effects of using the supplement? “If one research paper shows a positive effect, but 10 others show no effect, then it is disingenuous to mention the positive result and not to say that the balance of evidence is for no effect,” Cardwell says.
  8. Is the product suited to your sport and your level of training? “Taking supplemental creatine can benefit sprint and power athletes, but it is unlikely to benefit marathon runners,” Cardwell explains. “If research shows a positive effect for athletes, will you get the same benefit when training purely for health and fitness?”
  9. Have other independent scientists, sports dietitians, sports institutes or sports medicine groups offered supporting comments about the supplement? Examine what organizations such as the International Society of Sports Nutrition, the National Sports Medicine Institute of the UK, the Australian Institute of Sport or Sports Dietitians Australia have to say about a supplement.

“Based on current knowledge, the best regimen for achieving optimal performance is to avoid excess body fat, drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration, eat enough carbohydrate to fuel your training program, eat adequate protein for muscle growth and repair, and eat for good health,” Cardwell says. “Most nutritional supplements do not enhance sports performance in well-nourished athletes.”

For more information, see Gold Medal Nutrition, 5th Edition.

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Gold Medal Nutrition 5th Edition eBook
Covers the areas that most concern athletes, including what and when to eat and drink—and why. The book explains how to use nutrition to maximize sport performance. It includes information on determining the best supplements to use as well as athlete-specific eating tips.
Gold Medal Nutrition-5th Edition
Covers the areas that most concern athletes, including what and when to eat and drink—and why. The book explains how to use nutrition to maximize sport performance. It includes information on determining the best supplements to use as well as athlete-specific eating tips.

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