In one of the early blogs on mysportscience, we discussed how many athletes start building a pyramid from the top without a solid foundation. This was triggered by the observation or experience that many athletes’ first question “what supplements should I take?” when discussing sports nutrition. The questions, “what are the most important things I can do to support my performance?” or “what are the foods I should be eating, how much and when?” are often secondary questions, if they are being asked at all. Sure, there is a role for supplements, for some athletes but general sports nutrition is key for all athletes. Many sports dietitians and sports nutritionists therefore use a food first approach. A recent paper by Graeme Close was entitled “Food first, but not always food only" (1). This paper implied that supplements were being overlooked or dismissed, or that a food first approach means supplements are not being considered. For me, a 'food first' approach means we need a base, we then build the second and the third layer. But a food first approach never meant that there would only build a base.
How would you construct a pyramid?
The schematic above demonstrates that if you spend all your time and energy on supplements, and the focus on meals to support your athletic goals comes as an afterthought, you may be building a pyramid upside down. An example may make this clearer. When young, adolescent athletes start to ask about supplements, (How much creatine should I take? And what brand? And what type of creatine is best?) and they ask these questions whilst skipping meals and quickly eating some fast food in between school and training, there is reason for concern. If this same young athlete would understand the fundamentals of nutrition and would have meals that are well spread throughout the day, with amounts of carbohydrate that support training optimally, with meals that provide not only fuel but also all the nutrients we need, it would then be more appropriate to have a conversation about supplements. The opposite is often true, and many athletes try to compensate for poor diet choices by taking supplements.
Many athletes try to compensate for poor diet choices by taking supplements.
It is also important to note that the term supplement is used in different ways. Some people will call all sports nutrition products supplements (gels, sports drinks, bars, protein powders as well as pills and capsules with herbal extracts, various nutrients, or substances). Here, we distinguish sports foods from nutrition supplements. Sports foods are carbohydrate sources like drinks, gels, chews, bars but also protein powders. The distinction between these products and foods is often minimal. For example, what is the difference between a sports nutrition bar and a cereal bar? Or between a soft drink and a high carb drink? Or between a chew and a gummy bear?
In the model discussed here, nutrition supplements refer to pills and capsules that contain herbal extracts, micronutrients often in very high doses, and various substances and proprietary blends, that are legally considered nutrition and not drugs. In most cases the impact on performance is greatest with normal foods, followed by sports foods, followed by supplements, with very few exceptions.
Taking supplements is the norm
We live in a society in which a supplement dependency has been created. 75% of all Americans take supplements and may take several supplements at the same time. Taking supplements has become the norm and this is based on assumptions that they are necessary and perpetuated by a massive and ever-growing industry. Here are 5 common beliefs around supplements:
For the vast majority of supplements taken, it is likely not necessary to take them and, more often than not, the supplement taken will have little or no physiological effect. There are, however, situations where supplements can help and can contribute to performance. There are a handful of supplements with demonstrated ergogenic benefits (usually in very specific situations, so the context is critically important). For example, some athletes may suffer from iron deficiency and iron supplements will restore levels more effectively than normal foods (as we discussed in a previous blog). There are other examples as well.
How to decide when to supplement?
A pragmatic approach is to spend time, money and energy on the things that will have the biggest impact on your performance, spend less time, money and energy on things that are less important and spend nothing on things that do not work. With that approach, the evidence indicates that good nutrition from normal foods, provided at the right times and in the right amounts will make sure glycogen stores are optimal and protein synthesis is optimally stimulated. These effects are fundamental to performance and the effects can be substantial. Sports foods can help in some cases to achieve these goals. The term supplement indicates that this is something that should be used to "supplement" the diet, not replace it, nor should it be the main focus. Supplements can be considered the cherry on the cake, but it is important to have a cake first. Supplements are often seen as quick or easy fixes and one general lesson that can be learned from sport is there are no quick fixes. Success demands effort.
There are no quick fixes in sport. Success demands effort.
So, the questions serious athletes should ask themselves are: How can I improve my nutrition intake to support my goals? And are there any sports nutrition products that can support my goals further during days of hard training or competition? Once those two questions are adequately addressed, it is sensible to ask the third question: Are there any supplements that can provide the icing on the cake? Without the cake, and with just the icing it is not going to be a great cake! Supplements should be the last tile on the roof, once a perfect house is built, it should not be the foundation. A pyramid should be built from the bottom up, and supplements may complete the masterpiece. So we can take the approach of “food first and food mostly, although not always food only”.
The questions serious athletes should ask are: How can I improve my nutrition to support my goals? And are there sports foods to help support these goals further during hard training or competition days?
Close GL, Kasper AM, Walsh NP, Maughan RJ. "Food First but Not Always Food Only": Recommendations for Using Dietary Supplements in Sport. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2022 Mar 12;32(5):371-386.