Should Athletes Take Dietary Supplements?

  • author name McKenna Welshans, MBA, RD, LDN, ACSM-EP

Before taking any dietary supplements, athletes need to know that good nutrition and hydration are the best ways to achieve optimal athletic performance. While some supplements may slightly enhance performance, this is only when they add to, not substitute for, a nutrient-dense diet.

Nutrient-dense foods have a lot of vitamins and minerals per calorie. Many of the processed foods people consume are loaded with sugar, making them very high in calories, but low in nutrients. Whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, protein, and dairy are always an athlete’s best choice.

What Are Dietary Supplements and Are They Safe?

Dietary supplements are products taken by mouth that contain vitamins, minerals, amino acids, herbs, botanicals, or other substances. This could be in the form of tablets, capsules, powders, energy bars, or liquids.

While the FDA strictly regulates food, dietary supplements do not need to be registered with the FDA nor obtain pre-market approval. This means the FDA provides no assurance of purity, safety or effectiveness.

Many performance dietary supplements contain multiple ingredients (especially those marketed for muscle growth and strength). However, most research has focused only on single ingredients, so the effects of combinations are not known.

In addition, when taken in large amounts or at the wrong time, dietary supplements can actually hinder performance, can have adverse health effects, and may result in a positive test for banned substances.

When Are Supplements Useful?

Some supplements are useful in providing extra calories for athletes who have eliminated a food group due to a food allergy or other medical-related issue. Supplements can also benefit athletes who need to gain weight or address a known nutrient deficiency. Some common supplements function as ergogenic aids that enhance energy production and recovery. The most heavily researched ones include protein, creatine, caffeine, bicarbonate, and beta-alanine.

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, supplements are no substitute for a healthy diet and should never be taken “just in case” you feel they are needed.

To determine if your diet is adequate, or if you need any dietary supplements and in what quantities, always talk to your health-care provider or a sports nutritionist. These experts can help develop an individualized and safe plan for you.

author name

McKenna Welshans, MBA, RD, LDN, ACSM-EP

McKenna Welshans, MBA, RD, LDN, ACSM-EP is a sports nutritionist with LG Health Physicians Sports Medicine. She completed her undergraduate and graduate degrees and a dietetic internship at Messiah College, double majoring in nutrition and exercise science. She ran collegiate track before transitioning into ultra-endurance triathlon competitions. She is passionate about personalized nutrition for both performance maximization and health.

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The LG Health Hub features breaking medical news and straightforward advice to help individuals of all ages make healthy choices and reach their wellness goals. The blog puts articles by trusted Lancaster General Health clinical experts, good 'n healthy recipes, videos, patient stories, and health risk assessments at your fingertips.


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