Dietary supplements have been used for hundreds of years by athletes in an attempt to enhance athletic performance. Documents from the time of Roman gladiators state that they consumed the herb dillweed in the belief it gave energy; it doesn't………but it tastes good on salmon. The Greek Olympians used mushrooms to enhance performance. Now, I know some types of mushrooms may make you 'think' you are enhancing your performance, but they don't work either. The Dutch were one of the first to use something with a genuine kick, feeding caffeine to their swimmers in vast quantities as early as 1865. And today athletes are still searching for supplements that will give an extra edge in competition.
These days most athletes, whether competitive or recreational, as well as many non-active people, take a dietary supplement of some kind. The nutrition industry is growing every year, in 2003 estimated to be worth over 7 billion dollars in Australia/New Zealand, of which the supplement market accounts for around 2.5 billion. But is all that money being spent effectively? Just how much, if at all, is performance enhanced by the pills, powders and liquids that you are taking?
First, let's define exactly what a supplement is in the context of this article. A dietary supplement as defined by the USA Dietary Supplement Health + Education Act 1994 includes vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals (except tobacco), amino acids, any dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing total dietary intake, and a concentration, metabolite, constituent, extract or combination of any of the above ingredients. A bit long-winded perhaps; a more simplified way to define a supplement is as anything added to the diet, particularly to correct a deficiency, or as is the intention of many sports-related supplements, to act as an ergogenic aid. The word ergogenic is derived from the Greek 'ergon', meaning work; thus ergogenic translates as increasing work potential.
Nutritional supplements are used by at least 40% of athletes, and in some sports, right up to 100%. Often multiple supplements are taken, and usually in higher than normal doses. The last National Nutritional Survey, conducted in 1997, showed that 50% of New Zealanders take a vitamin/mineral supplement of some form or other, half of the consumers occasionally and half on a regular basis. Of this group, slightly more females (59%) take supplements compared to males (41%) and the most popular is a multivitamin/mineral, with vitamin B and C taking 2nd and 3rd position. Interestingly, sport supplements were relatively low on the table, only consumed by 5%. But based on the information from 2003 mentioned previously, a follow-up survey due to be performed this year will likely show that this sector of the supplement market has boomed.
As I said above, both competitive and recreational athletes take supplements, though sometimes for different reasons. Some take them to prop up a poor quality diet, which may come about from competing overseas in unfamiliar territory…..or perhaps they or their partner have no culinary skills to speak of whatsoever. Others take supplements because they simply feel that a normal diet, even a good one, is unable to provide the necessary nutrient in enough quantity. This is the case for example, with Tour de France riders, who have to cram carbo gels, goos and drinks down their necks to provide the energy necessary for each day. Or perhaps vegetarians, supplementing with calcium, iron, zinc and even creatine, all of which might be consumed in lower quantities than that by meat eaters. Female endurance athletes frequently supplement their diet with extra iron, of which natural losses can be exacerbated by hard training, menses and often a low intake of iron-rich red meat. Nutritionists and dietitians will usually recommend whole food solutions to these and other problems first, but some of them are now starting to accept the use of low dose vitamin and mineral supplements as a way to prevent deficiencies in todays highly processed, nutrient deficient world.
However, it's some of the other supplements out there that the experts aren't so keen on. In the realms of top level competition, we hear numerous stories of athletes objecting that their positive test is a result of contamination somewhere in their food or supplements. And maybe they have good reason to protest. A study of 634 supplements from 13 countries attributed the presence of high concentrations of steroid hormones to 94 of the products (15%) and possible positives in another 10%. These compounds were found not only in obscure bodybuilding supplements, but in protein, creatine and even multivitamin supplements. In another study funded by the International Olympic Committee of the over the counter herbs tribulus terrestris and guarana, it was discovered that they could give subjects norandrosterone (a steroid metabolite) concentrations of up to 360ng/ml. A positive test is only 2ng/ml.
With the above study it's a case of getting a little something extra you weren't expecting. But in some products consumers may be getting less than they pay for. After an independent study in 2001 on 30 different food bars it was found that 18 of the bars made false claims, with only 1 out of 12 protein bars containing the actual amounts of protein, carbohydrate and fat stated on the label. Of the 10 diet bars analysed only 4 passed the test, but 4 out of 5 energy bars were consistent with claims. This makes sense, as protein and diet bars are more expensive and difficult to manufacture than energy bars, leading to dodgy and misleading practices. Luckily for us most of this occurs in the US market, still, when buying products from anywhere, don't just check the nutrient label, but the actual ingredients too. If the list is a mile long and contains ingredients that require a chemistry degree to understand, or has what is supposedly the main ingredient towards the end of the list, then perhaps consider another brand. This is especially important if you are part of a drug-testing pool, as governing bodies will usually steer clear of recommending supplements.
One of the problems with nutritional supplements can be an over reliance on them, letting a pill take the place of a good nights sleep, a healthy diet and a sensible training program.
Remember a supplement should be just that, an additional supplement to an already good nutrition and training regime. Otherwise it's just a crutch……..and you don't win races on crutches.
In the next article I will talk about supplements which have been over-hyped and over-used.
Darren Ellis has a Postgrad Diploma in Exercise Physiology and Nutrition and is currently completing an MSc. His passion is nutrition and strength training for improved performance, health and body composition, which he practices with the University of Auckland Exercise Rehab Clinic, Unisports Center for Sports Performance and as a Sports Nutrition intern with Sport and Exercise Science NZ. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org