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Do dietary supplements give athletes the winning edge?

Published by Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD on Sep 1, 2015

Dietary supplements have always played a predominate role in the world of sports. Whether a person is a competitive athlete or a casual exerciser, today’s athlete is always looking for the latest and greatest nutritional supplement that will give them the ultimate performance-enhancing edge. Competition in sports has always been high but nowadays it is more fierce and demanding than ever and this can be one way athletes seek out to improve their skills.


It is difficult to assess just how many athletes routinely use a nutritional or dietary supplement as part of their training or competition but a safe estimate is probably at least 50%. However a study of 310 track and field athletes competing in the World Championships found 83% of males and 89% of females were using one or more supplements.

The supplement industry thrives upon this booming interest of all athletes, competitive or casual, who admit to fueling themselves with various powders, liquids, engineered bars, vitamins, minerals, protein, creatine and “ergogenic” compounds Some of these supplements can be useful in certain circumstances as long as there is no restriction or replacement of food intake. However, many athletes may use these dietary supplements without much knowledge or without getting a professional opinion from a sports dietitian/nutritionist who can evaluate the potential benefits and risks pertaining to their use. If they do this, it will help reinforce their efforts to improve their performance while decreasing any potential harm from a supplement.

What is a dietary or nutritional supplement?

The definition of a dietary supplement comes from the DSHEA Act of 1994 – DSHEA stands for “Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act.” It defines a dietary supplement as the following:

“any product (other than tobacco) intended to supplement the diet that contains one or more of the following ingredients: a vitamin, mineral, herb, or other botanical, an amino acid; or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract; or a combination of any of these ingredients; and is intended to be taken by mouth as a pill, capsule, tablet, or liquid; and is labeled on the front panel as being a dietary supplement; and cannot be represented as a conventional food.”

Reasons why athletes use dietary supplements

Here are some of the more common reasons an athlete makes a decision to use a dietary supplement:

  • To enhance performance
  • To improve physical appearance
  • To prevent or treat injuries
  • To promote immunity and resistance to illness/infection
  • To promote fat loss
  • To enhance energy supply
  • To compensate for a poor diet
  • Are dietary supplements regulated?

    The answer to this is no. Because of the DSHEA Act of 1994, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has little control over the sale of supplements. Unlike drugs and food additives, dietary supplements do not have to undergo clinical studies to test safety, effectiveness, or interactions with other drugs. There has to be proof of a supplement being unsafe before the FDA can remove the product for sale to consumers. Consumers need to be aware of this before using any type of a dietary supplement and to use them with caution.

    Regulation of dietary supplements in different countries can vary widely and if supplements are bought over the Internet, the athlete may not know the origin of them. Be aware that in some supplement facilities, there has been found poor quality control in the manufacture and storage of these substances along with impurities (glass, lead, animal feces, etc.) found in the supplements.

    Popular dietary supplements used by athletes

    Following is a list of common dietary supplements used by athletes for various reasons and that may have potential benefits for athletes due to documentation of research conducted. It’s advisable to seek the guidance of a qualified health professional who works with athletes before using them. Many of them may not be suitable for anyone under the age of 18.


    The supplements listed below have been shown to have little to no evidence to effectiveness in improving or enhancing athletic performance or ability and are not recommended:
    Branched-chain amino acids

  • Carnitine
  • Chromium picolinate
  • Coenzyme Q10
  • Cordyceps
  • Ginseng
  • Inosine
  • Nitrous oxide supplements
  • Oxygen boosters
  • Pyruvate
  • Rhodiola rosea
  • Fish oil
  • Medium-chain triacylglycerols (MCT)
  • Best advice on dietary supplement use

    An athlete’s decision to use a dietary supplement is one not to take lightly. Athlete needs to educate themselves before taking one to decide if this is the right time and for the right reasons. The reality is most athletes are already well-nourished. Competitive athletes generally already eat more food because of their intense workouts. Therefore they are already taking in more calories, vitamins and minerals than the average person making the chance of a nutrient deficiency unlikely.

    Any athlete contemplating the use of a supplement should consult with a registered dietitian or one who is a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics. They can evaluate the athletes’ diet and be able to tell what nutrients are missing and what foods to choose that support the athlete the best. Food should always be used first before resorting to using a dietary supplement. If poor diet is a concern, it’s better to improve the quality of the diet than to try to fix it with the use of supplements.

    This article was originally featured on Dr. Samadi’s website ©. To read more, follow this link.


    Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD

    Cheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City; an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, KS where she teaches Basic Nutrition; and is a freelance writer and blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi, Urologic Oncologist Expert and World Renowned Robotic Surgeon in New York City. Cheryl is also the author of The Nourished Brain, The Latest Science on Food’s Power for Protecting the Brain from Alzheimers and Dementia and The Prediabetes Action Plan and Cookbook, both available on Amazon in Kindle and paperback editions.