A supplement is defined as “a thing added to something else in order to complete or enhance it.”
It’s a definition we often tend to forget in our pursuit of a magic pill that will instantly make us concentrate harder, recover faster or lose weight. The truth is, while supplements certainly have their place and can provide benefits when chosen and used correctly, they can also be a waste of money at best and harmful at worse.
When it comes to recovery, supplements are used to help your body repair, improve performance, reduce inflammation or simply refuel and rehydrate. But in an industry that is ever growing and not universally regulated how do you know;
- If you need a supplement
- When to take it
- How to choose the good, from the useless, from the bad
To find the answers, we reached out to Marie MacGregor RD(SA), a registered dietician who practices at Shelly Meltzer and Associates. They are a team of Dietitians that are associated with the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. Marie has a food forward approach, meaning she advocates for getting all your nutritional needs from food first. Once you’re eating a well-balanced diet, then you can look into supplements to complete or enhance your recovery and performance if deemed necessary. We spoke to her about supplements in the context of sports performance, recovery and nutrition.
When Should You Consider Taking a Supplement?
Athletes should focus first on consuming a varied, well-balanced diet that provides enough energy for the demands of exercise rather than looking for supplements. A common misconception is that nutrients found in supplements are better than those found in real food. Once the diet has been optimised, an appropriate supplement can be added if needed. The decision to take a supplement for an athlete should be a carefully considered decision made in consultation with a sports dietitian or physician rather than based on what a friend, fellow athlete, coach or salesperson at the pharmacy recommends.
When calculating a nutrition plan for an athlete we use a strategic approach referred to as nutrition periodisation. If you know your training demands for a specific exercise session, you can manipulate your nutritional intake on different days. You can base your meal composition and timing of meals and snacks on your exercise session/s.
What is the best supplement or food source to take in for recovery?
It is very difficult to make general recommendations for recovery. You will always need to take into account the length, intensity and type of training that you have completed. A light gym session or walk won’t need any recovery meal particularly if your goal is weight loss. After a hard strength session or endurance type exercise you are looking for a combination of both protein and carbohydrate in the immediate recovery period. The carbohydrate replaces fuel stores that you have used up during the exercise session, promotes muscle glycogen synthesis and helps to support the immune system by lowering inflammation in the recovery period. Protein helps to support muscle protein synthesis, prevent muscle protein breakdown and repair muscle tissue after exercise. This protein does not need to come from a supplement, in fact easily digestible, leucine-rich protein found in dairy is an excellent source of protein for recovery. Try yogurts, smoothies for leucine and egg, tuna or chicken sandwiches or wraps for other protein.
You also need to make sure that you are eating enough protein and energy across the course of the day and don’t forget your fluid.
Antioxidants have been promoted in the recovery period as they help to reduce inflammation, but the research shows that the best place to get antioxidants for recovery is from whole foods. Fruit and vegetables are your best sources. They provide a broad spectrum of antioxidants which are well absorbed rather than focusing on a single antioxidant in a supplement. There is a small amount of evidence to show that the antioxidants bromelain (found in pineapple) and curcumin (found in turmeric) may help to reduce inflammation in the post exercise period. Why not add pineapple to your smoothie or choose a turmeric shot in addition to your chosen protein and carbohydrate.
For an average gym-goer you can’t go wrong with a cup of coffee and a fruit before a workout and then carefully assess whether you are actually in need of a recovery meal.
How do you Know What Supplements to look for and When to take them?
Any supplement that has no proven benefit or any supplement that is used in the incorrect situation is a waste of money.
Editor’s Note: Marie directed us to the Australian Institute of sports, which has a list of supplements specifically used for recovery that have proven benefits. They categorise the supplements into 3 groups;
- Supplements which have strong evidence showing the benefits when used correctly.
- Supplements which have emerging research indicating benefits. These can be considered but must be used along with careful care and monitoring.
- Supplements which are harmful or high risk. These supplements may lead to positive doping tests and should be avoided.
We’re going to look closer at the first two groups
Group 1 – Supplements that have strong scientific evidence for use in specific situations in sport using evidence-based protocols.
Sports Foods are specialised products that provide you with a convenient source of nutrients during times when you cannot consume everyday foods (like during long training sessions or races). Sports food consist of sports drinks, gels, bars, electrolyte supplements and isolated protein supplements. When used correctly, the above have proven benefits to both performance and recovery.
Medical supplements are supplements used to prevent or treat clinical issues including diagnosed nutrient deficiencies. The following supplements are proven to have benefits – iron, calcium, multivitamins, Vitamin D and probiotics.
Medical supplements should be used in conjunction with a proper nutrition plan under the guidance of a Medical Practitioner or Accredited Sports Dietitian
Performance Supplements are ingredients that may support or enhance sports performance in specific circumstances and in specific people. The ingredients and supplements with proven performance benefits include caffeine, B-alanine, Bicarbonate, Beetroot juice/Nitrate, Creatine and Glycerol, but only when used in the correct situation.
Group 2 – Supplements that have emerging scientist support but need further research. They can be considered for use by individually identified athletes within research or clinical monitoring situations.
Food polyphenols are food compounds which may have certain anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. You can take them in their whole form or via supplements i.e. Concentrated. Included here are cherries, berries and black currants.
Compounds which may benefit body function, integrity and/or metabolism. These include collagen, carnitine, HMB, ketone supplements, fish oils, phosphate and curcumin.
Amino Acids are part of what makes up protein. They may have effects when taken in isolation and taken to help supplement a certain amino acid if there is a recognised deficiency in the diet. These include BCAA, Leucine and Tyrosine, but in most people’s diets you are taking in enough from food without needing any further supplementation.
Antioxidants are compounds often found in food. They help protect against oxidative damage from free-radical chemicals. These include Vitamins C and E and N-acetyl cysteine.
How Do you Identify safe Supplements?
Many supplements are banned for use in sport. The SAIDS (South African Institute for Drug Free Sports) website lists all the banned substance. There are also accredited testing companies which batch test supplements for contaminants. Before choosing a supplement, look for one that has been batch tested. Informed Sport (HFL) is one of the recognised independent companies that does these batch tests. Remember that even if the supplement has been batch tested and found to be free of contaminants or illegal substances, that does not mean that it will enhance health or performance.
Editor’s Note: The 2019 list of banned supplements can be found over here. Before trying a new supplement, look at the ingredients and make sure none are on the banned list. The list of brands that have been tested by Informed Sports can be found here. However, just because a brand is not listed on the Informed Sports website doesn’t mean it’s not good. You can read the ingredients to see what’s going in each supplement, review brands websites to learn about quality and ingredients or email them to ask them.
Adpatogens like Maca and Ashwaganda are said to help with recovery, as a dietitian what do you feel about them being used?
The words ‘herbal’ or ‘natural’ on a supplement label do not mean that the product is safe. There are currently no clinical trials that have been done on the use of maca root or ashwagandha by athletes and you would still be looking at the associated risks as mentioned previously with other supplements. Why risk it if you can get great results from food?
For more information or to get professional advice visit Shelly Meltzer & Associates here
Zissy is the co-founder of Nutreats. She likes to make things, do things and wear things.