Supplements- Do you actually need them?
While we’re constantly seeing ads and hearing messages about supplements, it can be confusing as a consumer to know which supplements are truly worth the hype. There are so many out supplements out there, and a lot are not always necessary if you are following a balanced diet. Nutrients are absorbed better when consumed through food, so it is important to have a solid nutrition base before simply trying to fill in the gaps with a supplement (if possible).
As an athlete, there can be a lot of pressure from teammates, coaches, and the internet who may influence you on supplements. Make sure you ALWAYS check to see if the supplement you are looking to take is NSF certified, or else it runs the risk of potentially showing up in a drug test. Here are a few common supplements that I get asked about a lot as a registered dietitian!
*Be sure to talk with your doctor or dietitian before starting any supplements
Vitamin D is one of the few supplements that almost everyone should be taking (in the absence of sunlight). In the United States, 36-57% of adults are deficient in vitamin D. This is because the majority of vitamin D is synthesized by the skin when exposed to sunlight. During the winter months, most people aren’t outside with their skin exposed to the sun long enough to do this.
Although there are some food sources (eggs, fortified dairy, fatty fish like salmon), most do not contain enough for a person to get adequate amounts from food alone. Vitamin D supplementation is associated with:
- Increased cognition
- Immune health
- Bone health
- Reduced risk of cancer and heart disease
- Better overall well-being
- In athletes, reduced risk of injury and better performance
Supplementing with 1000-2000 IU dose of vitamin D is sufficient to meet the needs of most of the population.
Creatine is one of the most common and well-researched supplements for athletes. Although it is naturally produced by the body and can be found in foods (such as meat and fish), supplementation has been shown to help improve physical performance for high intensity activity. Some potential benefits include:
- Increased anaerobic performance
- Increased power output
- Enhanced glycogen synthesis (carb stores in the muscle)
- Enhanced recovery
- Increased strength and training benefits
Track sprints, basketball, hockey, swimming, wrestling, and football are some of the sports that may benefit from creatine supplementation. Creatine supplementation usually starts out with a loading dose of 20 grams/day for the first 5-7 days, followed by 5 grams/day to maintain muscle creatine stores.
It is best to take creatine with 8 ounces of carbohydrate-containing liquid or food! While you may see some weight gain when starting creatine supplementation, it due to water retention. If you take a long break from creatine supplementation, starting with another loading dose is helpful to build muscle creatine stores again.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) refer to three of the essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). These amino acids play an important role in muscle protein synthesis and glucose uptake into cells.
However, BCAAs are found in most animal proteins and supplementation is not necessary for most people. However, there have been some studies showing that BCAAs may reduce central fatigue in long-distance runners, but this may only be applicable to untrained or lightly trained individuals.
Caffeine is a stimulant consumed in many different forms in sports for its ergogenic properties (coffee, energy drinks, pre-workout, etc.). It has been shown to enhance performance when consumed in low to moderate amounts. Caffeine may be beneficial for:
- Decreasing fatigue
- Sustained maximal endurance exercise
- High-intensity exercise
- Team sports/intermittent activity for long duration
- Strength and power performance
More does not necessarily mean better. The dosage recommendation is ~3-6 mg/kg of body weight. For a 150 lb. athlete, this would be around 200-400 mg per day.
However, using caffeine habitually can dull its effects. Caffeine may also have negative effects on some people, such as anxiety, so it is important to test out in a practice setting before using it for a game or race.
Omega 3s are important for reducing oxidative stress and inflammation, reducing delayed onset of muscle soreness, and supporting cardiovascular and brain health. Most athletes do not consume enough omega 3s in their diets.
Before supplementation, athletes can work to increase their omega-3 consumption through foods first. Omega-3 rich foods:
- Chia seeds
If individuals are still unable to consume enough through the diet, supplementation may be needed. Specifically, athletes with low seafood intake and those recovering from an injury may want to consider an omega-3 supplement. Dosing recommendations are between 1-2 grams of DHA + EPA. Talk with your doctor or dietitian on individualized recommendations!
Iron is a mineral needed for carrying oxygen between tissues in the body. While there are no proven benefits of supplementation unless an individual is iron-deficient, it is a very important mineral. Some populations that are more susceptible to iron deficiency that may want to get their levels checked include:
- Young females
- Endurance athletes
- Individuals restricting calories
Fatigue, impaired cognitive function, weakness, headache, pale skin, and brittle nails are all signs of iron deficiency. Talk with your doctor if you fall into the populations categories listed above or if you are having any signs of iron deficiency!