Tag Archives: sports supplements

Supplements shouldn’t replace food for athletes, either.

Earlier this week I wrote about dietary supplements and whether using supplements means you don’t have to eat healthy food. When it comes to promoting good health, the answer is no!

But what about supplements for athletes or people who exercise to improve fitness or body composition? While many athletes use dietary supplements to help meet their exercise goals, most don’t actually need to. Even if there is a need for additional nutrients, in most cases those demands can be met through actual food rather than supplements.

Sports drink

Dietary supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry with many products marketed specifically to people who exercise. In fact, you may use these supplements already—sports drinks like Gatorade and post-workout protein shakes or smoothies are common in most gyms.

While many sports supplements are effective and even necessary for some athletes, many people who use supplements really don’t need them. This could be because the type of exercise they do doesn’t require them or because they get enough of that nutrient through their diet. And there are some people who might benefit from supplements but don’t use them because of the cost.

This raises the question, can you replace sports supplements with food? One of my former students, Kyle Sprow, examined this question while he was an undergraduate USC Aiken. The supplements he included in his analysis are both widely used and have research to show that they are effective. This is an important point since most sports supplements have no research to support their use. Here I will focus on two supplements commonly used by athletes engaged in strength training: protein and creatine.

Protein supplements are often recommended for people who exercise. The protein requirements for athletes who are attempting to build muscle mass and strength are well above the general recommendation for good health. For example, someone who weighs 200 pounds needs a minimum of 72 grams of protein per day. To put this in perspective, 4 ounces of meat contains about 30 grams of protein. But that same person who is engaged in strenuous resistance training may need twice as much protein!

Many athletes turn to protein supplements to meet this requirement. However, since most athletes eat more total food, this leads to a protein intake that meets this need. And those who do need more protein can get it from food. A can of tuna contains as much protein as a serving of a typical whey protein supplement at a much lower cost.

The timing of protein intake is also important. Research shows that protein consumed immediately after exercise leads to greater muscle growth, especially if it is combined with some carbohydrates. This is why you might have seen a sign in the locker room at the gym reminding you that “your workout isn’t complete” without a special recovery beverage from the juice bar.

But almost any food or drink that contains a mixture of carbohydrates and protein will work.  Research also shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for promoting muscle protein synthesis following exercise. It turns out that the mix of carbohydrate and protein in chocolate milk closely matches that in many supplements and is more affordable.

Another popular supplement for boosting muscle mass is creatine monohydrate. This supplement boosts muscle levels of creatine, an important fuel for heavy resistance training. This leads to greater gains in muscle mass and strength, something that is well-supported by research. Unlike protein, it would be very difficult to get enough creatine from food. Most supplements contain about 5 grams of creatine. By comparison, you would need to eat a kilogram (that’s over 2 pounds) of beef to get the same amount!

In most cases, the nutrients in sports supplements can be provided by food at a lower cost. I focused on protein here, but the same is true for carbohydrates, omega-3 fats, and most vitamins and minerals. The exception is creatine for athletes who are doing intense strength training.

Keep in mind that the benefits of protein and creatine supplements are greatest for athletes who do intense training. The type of workouts that most people do to lose weight or improve their fitness do not require supplements at all. In fact, people who exercise to lose weight may find that using certain dietary supplements can interfere with their weight loss goals…and may even lead to weight gain!


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Skip the smoothie, have a burger? Fast food for exercise recovery.

Many athletes use specialized supplements before, during, and after exercise to improve performance and enhance strength and endurance gains from training. Many non-athletes also use similar supplements, even though they may not need them. And a recent study suggests that fast food, literally meals from McDonald’s, can work as well as more expensive sports supplements for promoting muscle recovery following intense exercise. I try to make sense of all of this in my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.



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After exercise, many athletes consume specialized beverages and foods that supply nutrients to help their muscles recover. These recovery drinks generally contain some combination of carbohydrates (sugar) and protein and come in liquid, shake, or smoothie form. There are also energy bars specifically formulated for use after exercise. Research shows that these carbohydrate-protein recovery drinks and foods enhance muscle recovery and adaptations to training in some athletes. Even if you aren’t an athlete, you may consume these products after you work out. Let’s explore when and for whom these recovery products might be useful.

Intense endurance exercise—think of a distance runner, cyclist, or triathlete—uses muscle glycogen as a fuel. Muscle glycogen is a storage form of glucose, sugar that the muscle converts into energy. During prolonged exercise sessions that last at least 60–90 minutes, muscle glycogen levels can be severely depleted. Resynthesizing that muscle glycogen is a priority following exercise.

Athletes who are engaging in intense resistance training to build muscle and strength may also benefit from a recovery drink. Weight training stimulates protein synthesis in the muscle, so it makes sense that consuming additional protein would be beneficial. As new muscle protein is formed, both strength and muscle size are increased.

It has also been shown that combining the carbohydrates with protein results in more rapid muscle glycogen replenishment and increases muscle protein synthesis. This is why many specialized recovery drinks and foods include a combination of carbohydrates and protein. The best time to consume carbohydrates to restore muscle glycogen levels is immediately following exercise. Similarly, the muscle is most responsive to extra protein immediately after a resistance training session.

Perhaps these recovery drinks, bars, and shakes aren’t even necessary. Sports nutritionists have long recommended conventional foods and beverages for athletes after exercise. Research shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for replenishing muscle glycogen and promoting muscle protein synthesis. Remarkably, according to a study published last week, fast food may work just as well!

In this study cyclists were fed either commercial recovery aids or food from McDonald’s including pancakes, sausage, juice, a burger, fries, and soda after they completed an intense exercise session. Importantly, the meals contained equal amount of calories and nutrients. It turns out that there was no significant difference in how quickly muscle glycogen was replenished or in performance in a subsequent exercise bout between the two conditions. While the authors don’t recommend eating more fast food, this study suggests that foods not typically thought of as sports nutrition products can be effective for muscle recovery following vigorous exercise.

But what about people who engage in regular exercise to improve fitness or lose weight? The benefits of recovery drinks in athletes exist because the intense training causes changes in the muscle that allow the extra carbohydrates and protein to have a positive effect. Training at a lower intensity is unlikely to create this stimulus in the muscle, so these nutrients would not have a significant benefit. Simply put, most people don’t train hard enough to need a recovery drink.

The bottom line is that these recovery aids are not always necessary and you can get the same benefits from regular food. Something else to keep in mind is that these supplements, especially in shake or smoothie form, can be high in calories. It is entirely possible to consume more calories in a recovery beverage than you burn during exercise. This could diminish the effect of exercise on weight loss and may actually lead to weight gain. For most of us, a sensible diet with regular exercise is the key to meeting fitness and weight loss goals.