If used incorrectly, food supplements do more harm than good. The most important points to clarify before taking them.
Autor: Esther Haller, BSc, Nutritionist SVDE, IOC Diploma in Sports Nutrition, Medbase Checkup Center Zürich
Supplements are all nutritional products that athletes hope to use to promote health or improve performance. The market is huge and the promises are great. But very few supplements really have a positive effect on health and/or performance. If used incorrectly, they can even reduce performance under certain circumstances. The motto “Even if it doesn’t do any good, it doesn’t do any harm” does not apply to dietary supplements.
If your diet is well-balanced and fits both individually and in terms of training, the athlete may already have an adequate supply of nutrients, vitamins and minerals. With just this you can prevent deficiencies, support performance and promote long-term health.
Seven important questions
If the athlete still needs to supplement, for example with a particular vitamin, then it should be done correctly. The following questions will help you decide for or against a supplement:
- Do I really need it?
- Is there a deficiency?
- Do I have an increased risk of a deficiency, for example due to a limited choice of food in case of food intolerance (e.g. lactose intolerance)?
- Can I improve my current diet to prevent or treat a deficiency?
- Does the supplement have a scientifically proven positive effect? And if so, in what situations and in what dosage?
- Does it have undesirable side effects?
- Will I experience a positive effect?
Adapt to Your Situation
The correct use of supplements is crucial. A multivitamin supplement makes sense in certain situations. For example, when access to fresh food is limited (e.g. when travelling) and in certain life situations such as during pregnancy. However, it is important to remember that a multivitamin supplement does not replace fruit and vegetables in the long term. This is because they contain – in contrast to a tablet – thousands of secondary plant substances that have a health-promoting effect. In addition, the fat-soluble vitamins (A, E, K) in tablet form can also be easily overdosed, which poses various health risks.
This is also the case with protein supplements: Used in a systematic way, they can have a positive effect in sports, but it can also quickly become too much, which does not bring any additional benefit for performance. In this case the saying , “When a little is good more must be better.” does not apply.
Beware of Doping
As mentioned above, supplements are not to be discouraged in every case. Because under certain circumstances they do indeed have a performance-enhancing effect. In sports nutrition, they are divided into four categories according to their scientifically proven benefits:
- Group A: For use in certain situations, the benefits of these supplements have been proven. But: No A supplement makes sense for all situations and athletes. If used improperly, the A supplement becomes a C supplement, which is better left alone.
- Group B: Supplements whose benefits have not yet been sufficiently researched. They should only be taken as part of a study or accompanied by a specialist. This group includes fish oil, glucosamine and carnitine.
- Group C: Supplements that are not recommended because they are of no or only marginal benefit.
- Group D: Supplements that are on the doping list or that carry a high risk of contamination with illicit substances. Before taking them, every runner should regularly check which of these four categories the product falls into and whether the supplement is permitted.
Pay Attention to Quality
Time and again, it happens that supplements contain undeclared ingredients or are contaminated. Reputable brands are therefore preferable to any dubious sources from the Internet. So if a supplement is already available, it is best to get expert advice from a reputable manufacturer.
- Ensure you have a balanced diet in everyday life, because supplements do not replace the standard diet.
- The supplement guide from the “Swiss Sports Nutrition Society” provides information on which category (A or B) a supplement belongs to.
- The list of prohibited substances (category D) can be found at https://www.antidoping.ch/recht/dopingliste.
- Children and young people should only take supplements prescribed by a doctor.
- Take monosupplements, i.e. single high-dose vitamins or minerals such as iron or calcium, only if there is a deficiency.
- The benefits of magnesium against muscle cramps are generally greatly overestimated. It is much more effective to adapt the load to the training condition and to ensure sufficient fluid and salt intake.
- Get advice from a qualified nutritionist before using supplements, especially if you have special dietary needs such as celiac disease, fructose or lactose intolerance.
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