Supplements are one of the most discussed aspects of nutrition for those who are physically active. However, whilst many athletes do supplement their diet, supplements are only a small part of a nutrition programme for training. Athletes are advised to follow a ‘food first’ approach to avoid using supplements that aren’t needed or could result in nutrient intakes that are too high. For most people who are active, a balanced diet can provide all the energy and nutrients the body needs without the need for supplements.
Sports supplements can include micronutrients, macronutrients or other substances that may have been associated with a performance benefit, such as creatine, sodium bicarbonate or nitrate. The main reasons people take supplements are to correct or prevent nutrient deficiencies that may impair health or performance; for convenient energy and nutrient intake around an exercise session; or to achieve a direct performance benefit. Whilst adequate amounts of protein and carbohydrate are both essential in maximising performance and promoting recovery, most people should be able to get all the nutrients they need by eating a healthy, varied diet and, therefore, supplements are generally unnecessary.
For athletes, supplementing the diet may be beneficial, possibly on performance, on general health or for reducing injury and illness risk. However, there is not much research on many of the commonly used supplements, and there are only a small number supplements where there is good evidence for a direct benefit on performance, including caffeine, creatine (in the form of creatine monohydrate), nitrate and sodium bicarbonate. Even in these cases, the benefits on performance vary greatly depending on the individual and there is only evidence for a benefit in specific scenarios. This means that any athletes considering supplementation will need to weigh the potential benefits with the possible negative impacts, such as negative effects on general health or performance, risk of accidental doping or risks of consuming toxic levels of substances (such as caffeine). The advice to consider supplementation for a performance benefit is for high performance athletes and should be carried out alongside expert advice from qualified sports nutritionists or dietitians.
Do I need to supplement protein to build muscle?
It is a common myth that consuming lots of excess protein gives people bigger muscles. Quite often, people taking part in exercise focus on eating lots of protein, and consequently may not get enough carbohydrate, which is the most important source of energy for exercise. The main role of protein in the body is for growth, repair and maintenance of body cells and tissues, such as muscle. 15-25g of high quality protein, has been shown to be enough for optimum muscle protein synthesis following any exercise or training session, for most people, and any excess protein that is ingested will be used for energy. The recommendations for daily protein intake are set equally for both endurance training and resistance training athletes, so higher intakes are not recommended even for those exclusively trying to build muscle. Any more protein than this will not be used for muscle building and just used as energy.
Therefore, whilst among recreational gym-goers protein supplementation has become increasingly popular for muscle building, it is generally unnecessary. For most active people the body’s protein needs can be easily achieved from a healthy, varied diet, with good choices of high quality, lean protein foods being incorporated into meals and snacks. However, after competition or an intense training session, high quality protein powders can be a more convenient and transportable recovery method when there is limited access to food or if an individual does not feel hungry around exercise, and may be effective for maintenance, growth and repair of muscle.
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Last reviewed April 2020. Next review due April 2023.