Supplements in sports - high expectations for small remedies

Paolo Colombani 4. October 2017

The global market for sports nutrition and supplements, which currently lies at just under 30 billion dollars, is expected to grow 50% by 2022. The number of available supplements is likewise enormous, and it is no longer possible to obtain a clear overview. What should you make of them?

What is sports nutrition?

Sports nutrition specialists have long drawn a dividing line between "sports nutrition" and "supplements". Sports nutrition generally refers to the supply of carbohydrates and protein in a simple and handy form and is intended for situations in which the consumption of conventional food is too cumbersome. Sports drinks, protein shakes, or energy bars are classic examples. As of 1 May 2017, this definition was also integrated into the new Swiss food law.

What are supplements?

Supplements are only available in small quantities as pills, tablets or capsules. They are officially called «food supplements» and are just meant to supplement the diet and not replace it. They must, by definition, have a specific physiological effect, which can vary depending on the supplement. The best-known supplements are mineral and vitamin products, which in sports are classified as medical supplements. What’s more, in sports there is also a category of supplements that are deemed to have performance-enhancing effects. 

The Swiss supplement guide

In order to make it easy to assess supplements, the Swiss Sports Nutrition Society, aided by Antidoping Schweiz, is offering the Swiss supplement guide as a decision-making aid free of charge. The guide categorises supplements in four different groups ranging from A to D. The use of supplements from group A (in specific sport situations) is backed by sufficient scientific evidence. When it comes to the B supplements, there is still not enough research, the C supplements do not provide any notable benefits in sports, and the D supplements are either banned due to doping reasons or carry a high risk of being contaminated with banned substances.

Which supplements keep their promises?

Experts throughout the world agree with the rule by Professor Ron Maughan, one of the leading experts in sports nutrition. This rule states: «If a supplement works, then it is probably banned (i.e. on the doping list) – if it isn’t banned, then it probably doesn’t work. There are exceptions to this rule». 

These exceptions are listed under group A in the supplement guide. Most supplements have no effect (C group), a few are banned or dangerous (D group) and with some, there is still not enough data to make a final assessment (B group). 

Athletes are generally advised only to use A supplements. However, the usage must be individually assessed and always adapted to the existing diet. Uncontrolled or blind supplementation that doesn’t take the diet into consideration can completely fail to achieve the desired effect.

Daily supplements?

The place that sports nutrition holds in the daily dietary regime of athletes is entirely justified. Particularly in endurance sports with intensive training units, in many situations the intake of sports drinks or gels during the physical exertion is a clever measure to take. However, the daily intake of supplements is not sensible. The use of supplements should be targeted and for a limited period of time, e.g. caffeine shortly before and during a competition (but only after you have tested it out beforehand). Unless you have a proven deficiency, the daily use of mineral and vitamin products is also not generally approved.

Where should you buy supplements?

Unfortunately, supplements can be contaminated with doping substances. Rogue manufacturers mix them in to make their products more effective –without declaring the illegal substance, of course. The intake of contaminated supplements can lead to unwanted positive results in a doping test. If you don’t want to take any risks, only buy supplements from major Swiss companies. So far, no contaminants have been found in any of their products. Supplements from other providers should be checked by a sports nutrition specialist before they are used. 

Summed up for use in practice

  • Supplements are not meant to be taken daily, but are meant to supplement the diet in specific situations.
  • Sports nutrition such as sports drinks or gels, however, often make sense  for everyday intensive endurance training.
  • It is inadvisable to take supplements without examining your diet first.
  • Before using supplements, consult the Swiss supplement guide and only use A supplements.
  • To be on the safe side, only buy supplements from major Swiss manufacturers.