Supplements can be a confusing area to navigate. Catchy marketing, confusing claims and savvy science lingo can be overwhelming, making it hard to know what you should and shouldn’t spend your money on. Rachel Scoular, APD Dietitian and Nutritionist, gives us the lowdown.
Firstly, it's important to note that supplements play only a small part in optimising athletic performance and are not as important as building a strong foundation: adequate nutrition, appropriate training and quality sleep. Once you've got these essentials down-pat, you can then consider if there is any benefit from supplements. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular supplements on the market.
Protein powder would have to be one of the most commonly utilised sports supplements. Our bodies require protein for the repair of our muscles and is essential to support muscle growth.
Protein powder has proven to be a popular supplement as it is a convenient, easy solution after workouts, it is also cost effective and most on the market contain high-quality protein (particularly whey protein powders) to promote muscle protein synthesis.
When choosing a protein powder, look for one which provides at least 20g of protein per serve (usually 30-40g serve) and less than 5g total fat and 5g total carbohydrates.
Verdict: To best support muscle growth and development, ensure you prioritise protein from food sources and are meeting your daily protein needs. Protein powders can be an effective tool to help you reach your target, however they shouldn’t be favoured over lean high-protein food sources, such as lean meats and poultry, seafood and low-fat dairy. As mentioned, protein powders can be quite cost effective, so depending on your requirements and current dietary intake, it may be worth the investment.
Caffeine is a substance that is naturally found in plants and when consumed, acts as a stimulant in the body.
Caffeine has become an increasingly popular supplement in the sporting world. We can consume caffeine via a range of dietary sources (coffee, tea and cola) or as a powdered caffeine supplement to consume dissolved in water.
Caffeine-containing beverages typically contain 30-120mg of caffeine and most oral caffeine supplements contain 100mg – 250mg caffeine.
The main benefits of caffeine for athletic performance originate from the role it plays on the central nervous system, with potential to reduce the body’s perception of effort (aka exercise “feels” easier). As a result, it may also allow you to exercise for longer, at a higher intensity and may also reduce perception of fatigue.
Verdict: Research suggests that caffeine may be beneficial for both high intensity, short duration sports as well as endurance activities. There are a range of side effects that you may encounter when supplementing with caffeine (such as increased heart rate, dizziness, anxiety and sleep interruption). It is important to note that many of us consume caffeine in our regular diet, and therefore you can potentially access these potential benefits without paying for a supplement.
Creatine is a naturally occurring non-protein amino acid that is formed in muscle tissues. Creatine is produced in the kidneys then transported to the muscle for uptake. It can also be found in a small amount of protein foods (red meat and seafood).
The human body is able to synthesise a small amount of creatine for use, however it is difficult to eat enough creatine food sources to significantly boost and maintain high levels of stored creatine. When you supplement with creatine, you are able to reach a ‘saturation level’ of creatine in the muscles, which can then provide you with an increased amount of fuel to support high intensity exercise that you may not be able to reach without supplementing the substance.
Creatine has been linked to improved recovery after exercise, injury prevention and rehabilitation and helps to regulate body temperature.
Verdict: Depending on your requirements and athletic training, it may not be necessary to supplement with creatine. However, doing so does hold potential for increased performance across a range of exercises. Creatine is also cheap, safe and is approved for use in Australia.
Pre-workouts are multi-ingredient synthetic powders designed to boost energy and athletic performance.
They are typically a powdered substance that you mix with water before commencing exercise. The contents of pre-workout supplements can vary significantly from one brand to the next. Typically, they contain a mixture of caffeine, creatine, vitamins, amino acids and artificial sweeteners.
Due to the large variation in ingredients from one brand to the next, it's important to understand what ingredients are in pre-workouts and if there is any crossover with other supplements you are also consuming.
Verdict: Generally speaking, most people do not require a pre-workout supplement and these may be better suited for elite athletes or those training multiple times in one day. My initial recommendation would be to instead focus on consuming a hit of quality, low GI carbohydrates 30-60 minutes before exercise. This means that the energy will be digested quickly into the bloodstream and then distributed to the muscles. Examples include: a piece of fruit, muesli bar or a small fruit smoothie.
Ultimately, I always suggest to my clients to turn to food first in order to get the nutrients needed for high fitness performance. In my opinion, most supplements are only beneficial if you can’t consume them in the optimal amount through food.
Rachel Scoular is a leading Australian APD Dietitian and Nutritionist, with a wealth of experience in industry and media. Rachel is passionate about helping people look and feel their best and to equip and empower individuals with quality nutrition advice. She is well-trusted in the field with a notable social media fan club. Find out more here.