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Supplements can be confusing for athletes. If you read around and listen to enough people, you can quickly convince yourself that there are about 25 supplements you MUST take – in fact, you’ll wonder how you stayed alive all this time. Fortunately, there are some good sources of information available.
This article isn’t going to tell you which supplements you need or which are the best. The truth is, sports nutrition is a young science and there’s still a lot we’re not certain of. In fact, popular theories about some nutrients and supplements might radically change in a handful of years from now. What I want to do instead is help you assess supplements information so that you do the right thing by your body and your wallet.
It pays to be wary of information you read about supplements, especially on the internet – the problem is that most of it biased and/or compromised. On the internet, supplement information often comes through fitness and diet consultants, clubs and shops that are all distributors of supplements. Even review sites can be dodgy – supplement companies will sponsor writers and even set up websites where supplements are favourably reviewed. Whenever you see any claims about a supplement ingredient or a product, you have to ask yourself, “Does the person or body behind the claim have an interest in selling this supplement?”
If you believe in unicorns and pixies, then you may l want to believe the claims of such people, too. In the USA, there’s no legal requirement for a supplement’s active ingredients to be standardised, and dietary supplements are not approved by the government for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed. It’s worth remembering this when buying American supplements.
In Australia, there are often big misconceptions about the powers and influence of the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration), but the fact is that most supplements fall within the ‘listable’ items category, the most lightly regulated category of the TGA. Their only requirement is to provide proof that they don’t contain ingredients that are banned by custom laws. There is no requirement for proof of a product’s claimed benefits.
Here are some other questions you should ask before you splash you throw money at a supplement.
Many supplements can be unsafe in some situations because they contain active ingredients that can have strong biological effects in the body. First up, check if a supplement’s active ingredients will interfere with a health condition or a medication you take. This is best discussed with your doctor, but you can also look up this information on a couple great medical websites, WebMD and Mayo Clinic. Both provide info on a huge list of vitamins and the active ingredients in supplements, including their side effects and drug interactions.
Never substitute supplements for prescription medicines and don’t be tempted 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 when taken in excess.
No, not really, since supplements aren’t subject to the same level of standardisation as drugs. Australians can protect themselves to some extent by buying goods in Australia, where they at least have the protection of the TGA to ensure it does not contain pharmaceuticals or banned substances (especially important to drug-tested athletes). Supplements (or their active ingredients) are frequently produced in the same factories as pharmaceuticals, notably in China, some European nations and Mexico (where some ‘Made in USA’ products some from). This can be a problem for drug-tested athletes – there have been several cases of athletes who have returned positive tests due to tainted supplements ordered from overseas. This can be unintentional or deliberate, e.g. putting Oxilofrine – an amphetamine and stimulant drug banned by ASADA – in ‘natural’ pre-workout drinks or foods to make sure you’re buzzing.
Be suspicious of any product bandying the term ‘proprietary blend’ on the label in place of listing some of the actual ingredients. Other times a brand will simply make up the name of a substance. Stick to brands that list measures of their active ingredients.
It’s hard – even if you look up scientific studies, for some substances you may find one study contradicts another. It’s only when we start to see a majority of studies pointing in the same direction that we can really know is something “works” or not. The Australian Institute of Sport publish their ABCD Classification System, which ranks sports foods and supplement ingredients into four groups based on scientific evidence and other practical considerations that determine whether a product is safe, legal and effective in improving sports performance.
Websites such as RxList and Natural Standard (requires membership), also give good overviews of hundreds of the active ingredients you’ll find in supplements. Examine.com goes a step further, as all itssupplement pages are backed with citations to scientific papers, A to D ratings for different effects on the body and various activity types, and list substances that each supplement complements and those it counteracts or inhibits.
Often when brands have ‘all-in-one’ types of products (e.g. for muscle gain, recovery, fat loss) with a list of ingredients as long as your leg, they’ll tell you that they’re not just crucial to your performance, but they’re the package deal of the century. The catch is that often the amounts the some ingredients used are too small to have a significant effect – or you simply don’t need them. In many cases, it’s better to just use products that have the active ingredient you’ve decided you need.
Websites such as LabDoor have unbiased reviews – LabDoor is an organisation that buys supplements and sends them to an FDA-registered laboratory for a detailed chemical analysis. Consumer Lab is another great site with comparison tests on brand supplements and it also issues warnings on tainted, dangerous or fraudulent products.
Just remember, it’s your body – don’t fill up on rumours and marketing claims.