Dietary Sports Supplements: Fact or Fiction?

Hundreds of sports supplement vendors gather to promote their products at the Arnold Classic Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, highlighting their prominence in the health and fitness industry. Photo Credit: @arnoldsports

Hundreds of sports supplement vendors gather to promote their products at the Arnold Classic Sports Festival in Columbus, Ohio, highlighting their prominence in the health and fitness industry. Photo Credit: @arnoldsports

It is widely accepted that acquiring the proper nutrition is essential for maximizing muscle growth and athletic performance. For example, consuming enough protein to promote muscle recovery (1.2-2.0 g/kg of body weight) and maintaining a proper balance of carbohydrates and fats, depending on individual energy expenditure and dietary preference, are two dietary principles that are universally employed and have been shown to increase muscle synthesis and reduce fat accumulation, respectively. Even so, athletes are always searching for opportunities to enhance their performance, so after one has already mastered the basics (proper technique and nutrition), what’s next?

Broadly, dietary supplements, or more specifically, “sports supplements,” are nutrients that can come from a variety of sources including foods, natural products, or can even be produced by our bodies naturally, and are believed to enhance athletic performance in some capacity.  Dietary supplements can be beneficial in enhancing athletic performance, if used properly. This article will delve into the sports supplement industry and communicate the latest research findings on some of the most commonly used sports supplements. With this information, hopefully you will be able to incorporate meaningful supplementation into your regimen.

The Sports Supplement Industry

In 2016, sports nutrition supplements totaled $5.67 billion in sales. Unfortunately, supplement sales are driven by the omnipresent desire for athletes to perform at higher levels, but also the inability of the public to know what improves sports performance and what does not.

Unlike prescribed medications, sports supplements are not regulated for effectiveness by the Food and Drug Administration (the governing body that ensures that all prescription drugs are safe and do what they are supposed to do!). For the public, this means two things: 1) Most of the ingredients included in the products at GNC, The Vitamin Shoppe, etc. have not been scientifically proven to enhance athletic performance 2) This places the “burden of efficacy” on the consumer, meaning that we must find out ourselves what has been proven to work and what has not.  Luckily, this article will help you navigate the scientific literature!

What works?

Of all the nutrients marketed to enhance muscle growth/athletic performance, there are ~21 that have been well-studied. Yet, much of the data collected on the nutrients is conflicting i.e. some studies find significant enhancements in athletic performances and some do not. So, of the 21 well-studied nutrients, only four consistently demonstrate benefits to athletic performance in clinical trials. The other 17 well-studied nutrients, in addition to other “not-studied” nutrients, are often marketed and supplemented based on their proposed mechanisms of action. Here, the problem lies within the lack of human-based efficacy evidence; even many prescription drugs make it to clinical trials based on their proposed mechanism of action (with supporting data, of course!), but fail when they enter human clinical trials because they just do not work. In fact, most drugs that fail in Phase III of FDA clinical trials do so because they are proven not to work in a large cohort of human subjects. Nonetheless, we do have corroborating evidence that supports the use a few different nutrients as beneficial to athletic performance/muscle growth. These four nutrients are: Protein, Caffeine, Creatine, and Sodium Bicarbonate. Figure 1 is a table the outlines important information regarding these nutrients including how they work, recommended dosing, and how to effectively incorporate them into your diet.

Sports Supplements Figure.png

How do I use this information?

Ultimately, dietary supplements are not “get fit quick” solutions. Supplements are meant to be used as such…a supplement to an already existing regimen that incorporates proper nutrition and training. Consistently hitting macro/micronutrient goals and consistently training with the proper technique and high intensity are the most important factors in terms of increasing athletic performance/muscle growth. The incorporation of a few select dietary sports supplements, however, may enable athletes, especially experienced athletes, to break through plateaus and aid in achieving long-term fitness goals. Although many pre-workout supplements contain a plethora of ingredients that claim to have anabolic effects, science would say otherwise. As we stand, only protein, caffeine, creatine, and sodium bicarbonate have repeatedly stood the test of numerous double-blind, clinical trials, producing similar results each time that support their proposed performance enhancing properties.

Thus, if you’re ever looking to supplement, it may be more efficacious, physiologically and financially, to incorporate The Fab Four.



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