Supplements come in many forms, ranging from capsules and tablets to powders, drops, and beverages. They include vitamin and mineral supplements, herbs and botanicals, protein powders, and more.
In contrast to food, supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
While there are some protective measures in place to keep consumers safe, the FDA does not regulate supplement safety, effectiveness, or whether the supplement manufacturer has truthfully reported the ingredients on the label.
Despite the risks, supplements can offer great benefits to athletes — when used knowledgeably, safely, and for the right reasons.
Supplements have a time and place. However, it’s important to consider whether you can obtain what you’re after with real food first.
Food offers many benefits over supplements. For starters, it is a safer route to get your nutrients. While you can easily consume too much of a vitamin, mineral, or other nutrient when it’s in supplemental form, the risk of a nutrient toxicity is virtually zero when consumed in the form of food.
Additionally, food — and particularly plant-based foods — contain certain compounds such as antioxidants that are highly beneficial for your health. This is one of the key reasons why you can’t simply take a multivitamin and expect to reap the same benefits of eating a healthy, well-balanced diet. The supplement industry has yet to be able to mimic the benefits of fresh, wholesome food.
As mentioned above, always consider real food first. However, there are certain scenarios that warrant supplementation. These include:
Nutrient deficiencies. If a dietitian or physician has determined that you are deficient in a particular nutrient — or at risk of becoming deficient — they may recommend you take a supplement to help correct or prevent a deficiency.
Special diets. If you are following a specific dietary pattern, such as vegan or vegetarian, you may need to take a supplement. Whenever you are eliminating entire food groups from your diet, it makes it more difficult to obtain all the essential nutrients from the food you eat.
Your lifestyle. Many athletes are on-the-go and certain supplements — such as protein powders — can be a convenient way to obtain much needed nutrients.
You may be considering taking a supplement to enhance athletic performance. If this is the case for you, keep in mind that only a handful of supplements have scientific evidence backing their performance claims.
There are an endless number of supplements to choose from on the market today. Not all are created equally. Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing a supplement:
Safety. A supplement is not safe simply because it’s on the market. Supplements can have negative side effects and can interact with medications. Additionally, more is not always better — supplements increase the risk of vitamin and mineral toxicities.
Effectiveness. The supplement industry often makes big claims about the benefits of their products. Unfortunately, very few are backed by scientific evidence. Beware of any companies promising quick, unrealistic results.
Purity. Due to the way supplements are regulated, products containing potentially harmful contaminants can make it on store shelves. Additionally, some have been found to contain banned substances — a major problem for competitive athletes.
To ensure purity, look for brands that have a third-party certification. A third-party certification indicates that the supplement has been tested, and it is free of contaminants and banned substances.
Some trusted third-party certifications to look for include:
If you are considering a supplement, it’s essential to be mindful of safety, effectiveness, and purity. It's always best to consult with a trusted dietitian or physician to confirm whether a supplement is right for you.
Makayla Meixner is a performance dietitian and founder of Own It Nutrition. She specializes in fueling strategies for winter athletes and offers individual and group nutrition coaching services.