Do Student Athletes Need Supplements?

Supplements are a tricky subject; especially for student-athletes. On one hand, as a Registered Dietitian I will always, always, ALWAYS advocate for maximizing your diet first and on the other hand, I am not naive and know many of you will go on to take them anyway without consulting a dietitian. What’s a dietitian to do? Today I bring you both sides of the story: Why your diet matters and what to look for if you are going to choose a supplement. 

Why choose food first?

The name supplement says it all; it is to SUPPLEMENT your diet, not be your diet! Just like you can’t out-train a bad diet,  you cannot out-supplement a bad diet either.  It is true that there are situations where supplements are worth using or even vital to someone’s health however most of the time when I am seeing a “need” for a supplement I am also seeing underfueling. Remember this! : A supplement likely will not work the way you want it to if you are underfueling

I also want to look into food first because many of the benefits that supplements provide can also be found in food sources. Those food sources are not only cost-effective, but they also provide a wide variety of nutrients that meet other nutritional needs such as energy, calcium, iron—- you know, the things athletes tend to lack! 

It’s also important to note that sometimes what you need cannot be captured in a pill or powder. Research has shown that getting antioxidants, vitamins, or minerals in food form offers a more powerful punch as there may be beneficial nutrients or a synergistic effect in the whole food that we haven’t yet discovered how to package in pill/powder form.

Lastly, we spend a lot of our time eating what our parents, coaches, and trainers tell us to eat without really finding our voice in nutrition until much later down the road if we even think about it at all.  Take some time to learn what foods energize you or leave you gassy. What foods help you achieve your goals and which leave you feeling empty. It’s not on a list somewhere floating around the internet; everyone has individual needs, preferences, and tolerances! While I know you are thinking about the “here and now” I can say from experience (myself and with past clients) it will certainly come in handy down the road. 

Analyzing your diet with an RD can help you identify potential needs in food first, and then if your needs cannot be met with food alone THEN you can work together to add in a supplement if needed.  An RD makes sure the supplement is not only needed, we also make sure it makes sense for you so you see the results you are looking for instead of just guessing or picking what a friend swears by. 

That being said, here is…

Questions to ask yourself when choosing a supplement. 

1)Is it safe?

Since supplements are not considered a food product, they are not monitored by the FDA in the same way. Instead, the FDA only investigates and removes a supplement from the market AFTER the harm has been done, so this puts you at risk when you use supplements.

This means that:

  • Any company can decide to sell supplements without prior testing for the safety, purity, or effectiveness of that product. 
  • While the product cannot make claims that it “diagnoses, prevents, mitigates, treats, or cures an illness or issue”, the product can tout benefits on the label that effects “structure or function” of the body or “wellbeing” that may or may not be realistic or even true- because nobody is reviewing or approving these statements prior to selling. 
  • Even if the label claims “100% pure”, “free from banned substances” or “natural” the product may also contain things other than what the label states. It may contain less of the active ingredient listed on the label or can even contain a banned substance not listed due to poor manufacturing practices or intentional adulteration because they know it will make their product work better. This can put you at risk when it comes to general health, wasting your money (with a product that contains a bunch of fillers, not the actual supplement you were looking for), AND ingesting banned substances that can ban you from sport for life. 

Other things to consider when it comes to safety;

  1.  If you are taking prescription medication- supplements may also interact with these medications! You should always ask your prescribing doctor before adding a supplement. 
  2. Another thing to consider is that MORE is not BETTER. Should you decide to take a supplement please also keep in mind that doubling up on supplements will not make it work any better and can have potential side effects. Many supplements have a “sweet spot” where it is effective, and no more or no less will have the same effect. For instance, caffeine works well at 100-300mg dose that is in your typical cup of coffee but with higher doses side effects may increase and therefore decrease your performance (not to mention higher levels are banned in sport! see below).

2) Is it BANNED?

In addition to safety, you want to consider if the supplement you want to take is allowed in your sport. Many substances are BANNED by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) and/or the NCAA. If you are found to be taking banned substances, you can be banned from sport for life, even if your exposure was accidental or unknown.  You can check the status of supplements you are considering by heading to the World Anti-Doping Agency website or the NCAA website. 

3) Is it third-party certified?

To help prevent accidental or unknown exposure to banned supplements, you can select a safer option. What does that mean? Choosing products that conduct third-party testing via Informed Sport or  National Sanitation Foundation (NSF Certified for Sport). These companies test products to ensure what is on the label is actually in the container; which means getting what you paid for AND knowing that it likely doesn’t include a banned substance. IT IS VERY IMPORTANT TO NOTE THAT There are no “risk-free” supplements, only lower-risk supplements. Though third-party testing aims to ensure banned substances are not in your product, there is no guarantee. You still assume the risk of using these products and are therefore still responsible if you test positive even after using NSF or Informed Sport certified products. You can see what supplements meet third-party verification standards by checking out the NSF and Informed Sport websites.

4)Will it work the way you want it to?

It’s important to note that much of the research that has been done on ADULTS, in small groups, using single components of supplements for short periods of time.

This means a few things: 

  • The supplement blends you may use may not have the same effect. There may be too little or too much of that single ingredient that has been examined in the research. The product may not include enough of the active ingredient and may contain additional ingredients which might cause side effects that weren’t noted in research because it wasn’t a part of the research. 
  • An athlete does not fit a single mold! There are differences in age, height, weight, sex, sport, and beyond. The research done on 40-year-old male swimmers may not translate to you or the sport you play. 
  •  We don’t know the long-term effects of many of these supplements and we definitely don’t know how it affects those under 18. Does it improve performance now and cause problems down the road? Not all supplements have been around long enough to know. It’s hard to tell the outcome, especially if your supplement isn’t a complete match to the research or you don’t know what’s in your supplement.  When it comes to research in different age groups, ethics play a role in completing research on those 18 and under and is rarely completed. 

5)Will you be able to keep up with the cost associated with taking a supplement?

Most supplements require that you keep taking them in order to see the benefits. Ask yourself: Will you be able to keep up with the cost associated with taking a supplement? If not, seeking food alternatives might be your best option. Remember, most athletes can get what they need through food alone which not only saves you money but also helps you meet requirements for energy and nutrient intake! The key here is to make sure your diet is a priority instead of worrying about supplements.

Need some swap ideas? Head to my Instagram page! I’ll be posting all month on this topic. While you are waiting, I also love the comparisons on the Truesport site

The bottom line: Find out if supplements are a good fit for you BEFORE you start them! Don’t waste your time, money, eligibility, or health trying to figure it out alone. You may just need a diet tweak, you could be using the wrong product, or there may be a product out there that is suited to your needs in regards to your particular sport or general health.

You can figure out the best fit by having your diet analyzed by a Registered Dietitian.  Analyzing the diet can help a dietitian identify potential needs in food first, and then if it is discovered that your needs cannot be met via food alone, we can begin to experiment and trial a supplement to enhance your performance if warranted.  Reach out to me if this is something you want to know more about! 

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