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Watch TV or read magazines and you can fast become convinced that there are at least 20 supplements that are essential to perform well at your sport. Listen to teammates and other athletes talk about their supplements and you’ll think you’ll wonder how you ever survived this long. Little wonder, then, that dietary supplements continue to confuse people. Fortunately, there are some good sources of information out there to help.
It’s not really about finding out which supplements are the best. The truth is, sports nutrition is a young science and today’s popular beliefs about certain supplements could be completely disproved and even reversed in a few years (or less). What we can do is help you to take the right precautions and source independent, up-to-date information before you make your ‘supplementation’ decisions.
The single biggest problem when it comes to researching information on supplements is that most of the information is biased and/or compromised. This is especially true on the internet, where supplement companies sponsor writers and even set up websites where supplements are favorably reviewed. Supplement information on the internet also comes from clubs, shops, and fitness and diet consultants who are all distributors of supplements. So the first question you need to ask when weighing up any claims about a supplement ingredient or a product is, ‘Does the person or organization behind the claim have an interest in selling this supplement?’
You believe the claims of such people at your own risk. In the USA, dietary supplements are not approved by the government for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. There is also no legal requirement for a supplement’s active ingredient(s) to be standardized. One precaution you can take is to look out for products that have been voluntarily submitted to the USP (U.S. Pharmacopeial Convention) Dietary Supplement Verification Program and successfully passed the stringent testing and auditing process.
Here are some other questions you should ask before you throw your hard-earned cash at a supplement.
Many supplements contain active ingredients that can have strong biological effects in the body, potentially making them unsafe in some situations. Your first step should be to check if the active ingredients of a supplement will interfere with a health condition or a medication you take (this is referred to as a “drug interaction”). If it’s not clear, ask your doctor, but a couple great medical websites also provide this information and more. Mayo Clinic and WebMD provide overviews for a huge list of supplement and vitamin active ingredients, along with descriptions of their side effects and drug interactions.
Never substitute supplements for prescription medications and don’t be lured into the mentality of ‘if some is good, then more must be better – hey, it’s just a supplement, right?’ Even some vitamins and minerals – e.g. vitamin A, vitamin D and iron – can be toxic if consumed in excess.
The answer to this is always, ‘No, not really,’ since there is no standardization of ingredients required.
A troubling issue with supplements is that several have been claimed or found to contain pharmaceuticals or substances banned by WADA (which is especially important to drug-tested athletes). In some territories – notably Mexico, China and some European nations – supplements or their core ingredients (i.e. the product may still end up labelled “made in USA”) are frequently produced in the same factories as pharmaceuticals, and so the end product may be tainted with these pharmaceuticals. In fact, there have been several cases of athletes who have returned positive tests due to tainted supplements ordered from other countries or made in foreign laboratories. This can be unintentional or deliberate, e.g. putting Oxilofrine – an amphetamine and stimulant drug used to treat orthostatic hypotension – in ‘natural’ pre-workout drinks to ensure they have the desired effect.
Another red flag are the words ‘proprietary blend’ when used in place of listing some of the actual ingredients. Other times a brand will simply make up the name of a substance. Always look for products that list the amounts of their active ingredients. According to the FDA, all ingredients should be listed. Ingredients not listed on the “Supplement Facts” panel must be listed in the “other ingredient” statement beneath the panel.
It’s difficult – even with proper scientific testing, you may find one study contradicts another. Over time, after many studies on the same active ingredient, we may then see a majority of studies pointing in the same direction, which helps to draw some conclusion.
You can learn more about the active ingredients found in many products at websites such as RxList and Natural Standard (requires membership), which both give good overviews of hundreds of substances. Examine.com goes further, including citations to scientific papers on all itssupplement pages, plus A to D ratings for the supplement’s different effects on the body and various activity types, and list substances that each supplement complements and those it inhibits or counteracts.
Often brands will have an ‘all-in-one’ type of product (e.g. for recovery, muscle gain, fat loss). The list of ingredients will be a little shorter than the Constitution, a collection of ingredients that the marketing alleges are not just vital to your performance, but together they are the package deal of the century. Often, however, the individual amounts of these active ingredients are not enough to have a significant effect (when you take a recommended dose), or you simply don’t need them. In many cases, it’s better to identify products that only have the actual active ingredient you’ve decided you want. Taking supplements in single form may also help avoid taking substances containing or tainted with substances banned by WADA or ingredients which may cause an adverse reaction in your body.
You can see products reviewed by unbiased sources at websites such as LabDoor, an organization that buys supplements and sends them to an FDA-registered laboratory for a detailed chemical analysis. ConsumerLab also has a great site, with comparison tests on brand supplements and it warnings on fraudulent, tainted or dangerous products.
Always remember – supplement your nutrition based on credible information, not rumors and marketing claims.