Nutritonal Supplements for Athletes

Successful performance in the athletic arena is the culmination of several factors, including diet, talent, psychological performance, genetics and a dedication to daily physical routine. Obtaining the correct balance of nutrients for enhanced performance is the goal of every individual who is physically active.

However, many athletes seek success beyond the aforementioned criteria for success by using dietary supplements. This could lead the athlete to think it was the dietary supplement that caused their success, when in reality it may have only been the placebo effect.

As such, many individuals are beguiled by the creative advertising of some products that promise higher energy levels, bigger muscles and greater weight loss. Dietary supplements such as energy bars, multivitamins, powders and liquids are part of an $11 billion business.

Athletes are often quick to try a new dietary product hoping it will improve their performance. However, they are slow to realize the importance of proper nutrition and its subsequent effect on performance.

So, how do athletes know when nutritional supplements are best and when traditional food provides the best solution? In many cases, some dietary supplements and sports foods can help athletes realize their nutritional goals and thus achieve a favorable performance.

For example, sports drinks and sports bars can be a portable and convenient method to ingest carbohydrates during training and improve performance during prolonged exercise sessions or high-intensity events. Multivitamins can prevent or treat a deficiency once the deficiency is identified by a physician. Sports drinks, besides containing carbohydrates, also contain minerals (electrolytes) that maintain fluid balance during training.

Why then is there a concern when athletes reach for a quick fix for their nutritional need? When athletes depend merely on the dietary supplement and forgo the "food first" maxim, their performance, diet and health status could be compromised.

The issue is compounded should the dietary supplement consumed be of inferior quality, or contain hidden ingredients banned by numerous sports governing boards' rulings on dietary supplements.

'How Fast Will I See Results?'

Many dietary supplements promise a "quick" response when ingested. For instance, to give you that boost of energy in the afternoon, drink a small bottle filled with 8,333 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin B12 and 2,000 percent of the Daily Value for vitamin B6 (The recommended intake of vitamins for one day is 100 percent).

Coupled with caffeine and sugar, this product promises quick energy. If the macronutrients known as carbohydrates, fats and protein are the only nutrients that provide energy, how can vitamins in this high amount accomplish that task? They cannot.

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B-vitamins act as co-enzymes to indirectly release energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. Intake of large amounts of B vitamins does not speed up the release of energy from foods. So where is the energy? There is an ingredient known as citicoline (also known as "Smart Drug") contained in this product, which stimulates nerves (keeps you alert). Therefore the ad should read: Take this product to stimulate your sensory awareness! It has nothing to do with energy.

Another method to obtain energy is from the vast array of high-carbohydrate bars-are they the new "fast food"? Most active individuals who skip a meal think it's OK to have a protein or energy bar. It's quite common for athletes to grab an energy bar or protein bar instead of cereal for breakfast and a sandwich for lunch. They think the bar is a healthy choice as well as quick, portable and less expensive.

Remember that the bar is a supplement to the diet-not a meal replacement. If you would like to have the bar, always try to include food in the same sitting, such as fruit, to increase the variety of nutrients.

Calories can also play a role in your decision to consume a bar. For example, most bars contain 250 to 340 calories per bar. If your energy expenditure (how many calories you burn in a workout) is less than the calories in the bar, you may store the extra calories.

Be cautious when consuming multiple bars in a day. This could cause you to intake vitamins and minerals well above the recommended upper limit, and is compounded when you also include a multivitamin and fortified foods.

This in turn could inhibit the absorption of some vitamins and may even weaken the immune system. In addition, most energy bars contain complex carbohydrates-thus, for every bar consumed, two cups of water should be consumed (refer to the label on many bars).

Some bars may contain high amounts of sugar and may cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels followed by a sharp decrease, which is the same effect a candy bar may provide. It might be best to grab a quick snack such as graham crackers or fruit as a pre-event meal, which would offset the rollercoaster blood sugar levels.

All registered dietitians agree that the bars are convenient; however, don't let them crowd whole foods out of your diet. One individual stated that grabbing one or two bars instead of a meal was more out of habit rather than hunger. When selecting a bar, look for one with whole foods (rolled oats, fruit and nuts) and when possible, eat at least another whole food such as a fruit or yogurt to add the needed variety of nutrients. Be sure it has less than 5 grams of fat and 15 grams of fiber, and is fortified with about 35 percent of the RDA for vitamins and minerals.

The Body's Balance

We should strive to guide athletes away from the "quick fix" way of thinking, and in its place help them realize that change emerges slowly when it comes to our body's response to nutrients. Our body stays in a natural state of balance. It adjusts to ingested nutrients in many ways.

If too little is ingested, a deficiency can occur. For example, remove vitamin C from the diet and it takes four weeks for blood vitamin C to decrease to zero. However, any signs and symptoms do not appear at four weeks. The body waits for healthy cells to be replaced with unhealthy cells, and that takes about 12 weeks.

As nutrients in foods are ingested and absorbed, the body attempts to reach balance and excretes any excess. Conversely, if we take in an overload of nutrients in the form of dietary supplements, toxicity and imbalance can occur. High iron intake can impede the absorption of copper, which is critical for energy production.

Unless there is a medical issue, taking supplements can upset this balance. For that matter, consumers view vitamins and minerals as a way to enhance a poor diet in which skipping breakfast and having a protein or energy bar for lunch is the norm. Vitamins can actually cause an imbalance when taken in large amounts (the "if one is good, 10 is better" philosophy). Self-diagnosis of a vitamin or mineral deficiency is not advisable.

For example, a runner feels tired and experiences a poor performance in a race. The runner thinks he might have anemia from overtraining, and purchases an over-the-counter (OTC) iron pill. Six weeks pass by, and the runner still feels fatigue, and decides to meet with his physician. Blood work reveals iron levels are within normal limits. Is the result due to a true lab result, or could it be a false/negative due to the OTC iron pill?

Research has clearly demonstrated that a competitor's performance will not improve with additional vitamin/mineral intake. However, if the runner is iron-deficient, reversing that deficiency could improve their performance.

Supplement Quality

The bigger issue regarding supplements for athletes is the actual quality of the dietary supplement. Supplements do not have the strict regulations that food items must undertake for approval to market. In fact, many companies would rather market a product as a supplement knowing it would not pass the high standards of a food.

Physiologically, the brain cannot discern between natural nutrients vs. a synthetic nutrient. Accordingly, if the quality of the supplement is poor, then an inferior quality nutrient could be absorbed and not function in the same manner as a natural nutrient. If an individual is depending on the supplement to prevent a certain condition or enhance their performance, that may not be accomplished with a poor quality supplement.

For competitive athletes subjected to drug testing, inferior quality of supplements is not the only reason they should use supplements with caution. In some isolated cases, supplements have trace amounts of a banned substance and negatively affect the test results for those athletes subjected to regular doping tests.

The Concept of 'Food First'

Libbi, a 36-year-old self-taught marathoner and five-time qualifier for the Boston Marathon, views sports nutrition with this philosophy: "I run to eat, and eat to run." She admits to trying many products and formulas to get that quick fix to improve her running early in her career, but finally realized individualized nutrition is the key. What might have worked for her running companions (energy bars and energy drinks) did not work for her.

Trial and error taught Libbi her current pre-, during and post-nutrition dietary habits (i.e., chicken and artichoke hearts two days before the marathon). Food rather than dietary supplements is the norm for this marathoner.

A healthy diet includes a variety of foods, portion control and adequate hydration. Athletes need to prepare nutritionally for current exercise regimens and competition training, but should look beyond their competitive years as healthy individuals.

Research has repeatedly demonstrated the benefits of a healthy diet coupled with daily exercise. Outcomes include positive mental status, less fatigue, an enhanced immune system, less inflammation and a healthy body weight.

Research demonstrates with the right food choices, physical activity and not smoking, we could prevent about 80 percent of heart disease, about 90 percent of diabetes and 70 percent of strokes. Can a single dietary supplement or even a combination of dietary supplements provide these benefits?

If you're wondering what the recommended amounts of each nutrient should be for you as an individual, accessing www.myplate.gov is the first step to be sure you're getting enough nutrients for a healthy diet. This interactive tool allows the athlete to input their individual information for dietary and exercise recommendations. Consultation with a board certified sports dietitian (CSSD) who is a registered dietitian credentialed by the American Dietetic Association is the ideal.

Nutrition information that is common public knowledge can be provided by certified athletic trainers and other health professionals. The National Athletic Trainers' Association has several position statement papers related to diet and exercise offering information that delves into these issues in greater detail. 


1. WebMD. (2011). www.webmd.com/food-recipes/features/nutrition-bars-healthy-hype?page=1 Accessed Sept. 26, 2011.

2. Bieler, K.W. (2011). Runner's Diet Mistakes. www.2011howtobefit.com. Accessed Sept. 26, 2011.

3. Center for Science in the Public Interest. (2011). Nutrition Action Health Letter. "Eat Real, America."

4. University of Loughborough (2011). Dietary supplements could make athletes unwitting drug cheats. Science Daily. Retrieved Sept. 28, 2011, from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/09/110919113634.htm.

This article was produced in cooperation with the National Athletic Trainers' Association (NATA), the professional membership association for certified athletic trainers and those who support the athletic training profession. For more information visit www.nata.org

Kathleen M. Laquale, PhD, ATC, LAT, LDN, is professor of nutrition and athletic training at Bridgewater State University in Bridgewater, MA.


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