Sports Performance Supplements and Enhancers: Fact or Fiction?



An educated consumer is a healthier consumer. The way to cut through the hype is to become
aware of the clever marketing behind these products.

There is no doubt that as sports and athletic enthusiasts, we are bombarded and tempted by the wide assortment of sports foods, drinks and supplements on the market today. The industry has bombarded even weekend warriors with advertising of products that claim to optimize energy and performance in our sport or activity. Some ads state that these drinks, foods or pills will increase your alertness and energy and others claim that they will help you build muscle and burn fat. Don’t be fooled. The key to optimum sports performance is not supplementing with drinks, pills or special foods or going on a special diet. In addition to a smart training regimen, it is knowing how to work the right foods into your fitness plan in the right amounts.

Sport supplements and ergogenic aids are products used to enhance athletic performance.
These can be anything from vitamins and minerals, amino acids, herbs or plants. They can come in many forms, including liquid, powder or pill. These products are considered a dietary supplement and are available over the counter without prescription. They are not regulated by the FDA before they come onto the market and so supplement companies do not have to follow the FDAS’s current good manufacturing practices to ensure these guidelines are being met. This can make them suspicious in terms of their content, quality and safety. Additionally, supplement companies are not held accountable until the supplement is put on the market and found to be unsafe. Unfortunately, many supplement manufacturers haven’t done a good job of following
standards prior to distribution nor has the FDA enforced its own regulations on a regular basis. What does this means to the consumer? You might be paying a lot of money for a supplement
that really isn’t what it claims to be. The ingredients may be variable amounts or it may contain ingredients that are not on the label at all, some of which can be dangerous to your health.

These products often come with big claims, and flashy packaging. They are advertised and marketed in a way that makes them almost impossible to put back on the shelf. It is difficult to turn away from the claim that your muscles will be stronger or you will burn body fat or perform better as a result of eating this energy bar or drinking that protein shake. Some manufacturers use clever advertising and cite “research” in their packaging or advertisements. Some use physicians or famous athletes for their testimonials. Unfortunately almost any item that makes this sort of claim is false. Most of these citations are taken out of context or simply not true at all. Need a good rule to follow when you are unsure? If the claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is. No matter what the label or advertisements might say, no energy drink or food bar can make you a better athlete. There is no substitute for hard work, good training, a healthy, well balanced diet and plenty of rest. Don’t let marketing hype lure you into thinking you will need something “extra” to perform your best.

Here are some facts to keep in mind when it comes to supplements, sports drinks and ergogenic aids.
• Many contain hundreds of extra, empty calories in the form of sugar. The extra calories are important for those athletes who compete in cycling or swimming or long distance running and are practicing daily. However, much of this can be obtained from whole foods that are rich in nutrients, not the calories you get from extra sugar and hydrogenated oils.
• Many energy drinks are loaded with caffeine. Remember this is a stimulant and it does not come free of side effects like jitteriness, headaches or upset stomach, not to mention interrupted sleep. If there is an excess of caffeine in you drink, then the side effects may be even more serious including irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure or even seizures. They also have a dehydrating effect so if you are looking to rehydrate, these are not for you. Energy drinks are not the same as sports drinks which are used for rehydration.
• Protein shakes and bars should never be used as meal replacements. No matter how busy you are or tempted you are to skip a meal, do not consider this to take the place of breakfast lunch or dinner. Not only are they inadequate in nutritional content as a meal replacement they don’t offer the psychological satisfaction that sitting down to a well-balanced meal can give you. You will be more apt to overeat that day as you will not feel satisfied or get the nutrition you need.
• Check the ingredients. If you don’t recognize it, don’t buy it. Remember these foods, drinks and pills are not regulated by the FDA and who knows what they contain. Some have not been tested by the FDA such as Guarana, which is a source of caffeine and Taurine, which is an amino acid thought to enhance caffeine’s effect. Scary combination! Some of these supplements also contain herbs that are not regulated by the FDA, such as ginseng. Some of these ingredients can also cause harmful interactions with certain medications. It’s best to stick to whole foods.
• Sports aids are not cheap! Some of the bars and drinks are three to five dollars. You can get a sandwich or cup of chicken noodle soup for less than that in addition to getting all of the nutrition that goes along with eating whole food!
• An educated consumer is a healthier consumer. The way to cut through the hype is to become aware of the clever marketing behind these products. Reading labels can keep you and your bank account healthy.

Don’t waste your money on expensive and maybe even dangerous supplements, foods and drinks. Here are some ideas to get better game:
• Eat a variety of whole foods. You will get more nutrition from eating different foods. Each group gives us a different benefit and they are all important to not only our health but to our performance on the field. Don’t focus on only one food. Carbohydrates, for example are a great source of fuel. But it isn’t the only food we need for optimum performance on or off the field.
• Protein is important but not in excess:
Athletes need more protein than sedentary people but most Americans of all ages get plenty of protein in their diet. There is a lot of hype and popularity in the idea that protein builds bigger, stronger muscles. Muscles grow and become strong with hard work and proper training technique. Too much protein can actually be harmful. It can cause dehydration, calcium loss and
even kidney damage.
• Don’t cut back on carbs, just eat the right ones in the right amounts. Carbohydrates are our body’s best source of energy. Cutting them back will cause us to be tired and ultimately affect our performance in and out of the game.
• Choose carbs such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. In addition to giving us the energy we need to perform, they provide us with vitamins, minerals and fiber. Try and stay away from those that are highly processed, such as white breads and white rice, candy, pastries and sugared beverages, including juices. Most of the nutritive value has been taken away in the processing of these foods.
• Get your vitamins and minerals from whole foods, not pills. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and dairy products will give you what you need for strong bones and energy. There is no need to take extra amounts in pills unless your diet is deficient in some of these nutrients.
• Fat is important. We all need a certain amount of fat in our diet. Athletes need them because their active muscles will burn through carbs and need the fat to act as a long lasting fuel source. Like carbs, there are good fats and bad fats. Choose natural peanut butter, almonds,
coconut and olive oil. It is a good idea to avoid eating these foods a few hours before or after exercising however as it slow digestion and cause stomach discomfort.
• Don’t forget water! It’s as important as food. When you are in the game it’s easy to become dehydrated. Drinking water before, during and after a game will help keep you hydrated. Salted pretzels are sometimes a good post-workout snack to help replace the salt lost through sweat during the game.
• Eat a Combination of protein and carbohydrate foods before and after the game. It helps replace energy stores and speeds recovery. Try not to eat anything for the hour before you compete or have practice as it may cause stomach distress. You can eat a light protein/carb snack about 45 minute to an hour after.
• Get some sleep! You need at least seven to eight hours of sleep for full recovery and health. Try and clear your mind an hour or so before you get into bed. Reading or listening to soothing music can sometimes help your mind slow down so that you can fall into a restful, restorative sleep.

In a nutshell, the best energy enhancers are healthy lifestyle behaviors! People who make healthy food choices, drink water, stay active and rest, will have the energy they need to excel in anything they pursue… naturally! •

Barbara Mintz, MS, RD, Vice President of Healthy Living and Community Engagement for Barnabas Health, New Jersey.