Athletes & Supplements: Do Supplements Ensure Peak Performance?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006 - 10:12am

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

Whether you are an elite athlete or just an active person, good nutrition is fundamental to performing your best. Athletes need the same nutrients as inactive people, but some nutrients may be required in slightly higher quantities. You may wonder whether you need to add supplements to your diet in order to reach nutrient needs, and if some supplements will even help enhance your performance. The vitamin industry spends four billion dollars per year on marketing to convince athletes of a need to supplement their diets as a way to get an edge on the competition. On the contrary, many sports nutrition experts claim that taking extra vitamins and minerals offers no added advantage to athletic performance. This conflicting information from health professionals, the supplement industry, and the media make it tricky to decipher the truth. Following are some facts about the nutrient needs of athletes to help you decide if supplementation is right for you.

Do you need a protein supplement?

Everyone needs protein to build and repair body tissues, to make body chemicals such as enzymes and hormones, to transport nutrients, and to regulate other body processes. The amount of protein you need per day varies slightly based on the intensity of your exercise routine. The following chart gives general protein recommendations for healthy individuals.

Type of Athlete

Grams of protein per pound of body weight

Grams of protein per day for 180 pound man




Recreational athlete



Recreational athlete involved in strength or speed training



Competitive athlete



Athletes building muscle mass (weight lifters and football players)



Most athletes get enough protein from their daily meals and snacks. Those who do not might consider taking a protein supplement, usually in the form of a powder. However, consuming excess protein, whether from food or supplements, will not build muscle nor enhance performance. In fact, excess protein can be stored as fat.

Can amino acids build muscle and increase fat loss?

There are 20 unique amino acids that link together to form protein. Some amino acids like arginine, ornithine, isoleuceine, leucine, and valine are sold as supplements and are promoted to build muscle and increase fat loss among athletes. However, there is no sound scientific evidence supporting these claims. There is, however, evidence that Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAsisoleucine, leucine and valine) could possibly enhance recovery from exhaustive endurance exercise. While it is true that BCAAs are quickly available for use during periods of recovery, more research is needed to determine if there is an actual benefit to supplementing with BCAAs.

Do vitamin and mineral supplements provide “health insurance?”

Vitamins and minerals trigger body processes for physical performance by helping produce energy from carbohydrates, fats and proteins. You need adequate vitamins and minerals to function optimally, and deficiencies can impair athletic performance. If you are extremely active, your needs may increase slightly. However, just the increased calorie intake that accompanies a high level of activity is usually enough to fill that need, making supplementation unnecessary. However, some people prefer to take a supplement to make up for poor-eating days. While there is no substitute for real food, a single one-a-day multi-vitamin/mineral supplement is a harmless form of “health insurance” as long as it does not provide more than 100% of the Daily Values for vitamins and minerals. Taking extra won’t offer an energy boost or enhance physical performance, and in some cases can be dangerous.

Are chromium supplements safe?

Chromium is a mineral that works with insulin and is involved in energy production. The supplement industry advertises chromium as a reliable, safe, and fast way to increase energy, build muscle, and reduce body fat. However, well-controlled scientific studies have yet to suggest that chromium offers any advantage for athletes who are not chromium deficient, and chromium deficiency is extremely rare. This has not prevented athletes looking for a quick fix from falling for another marketing scam, as evidenced by skyrocketing chromium supplement sales. Now concerns are being raised about the potential dangers of chromium supplements. While there is a scarcity of research concerning side effects of chromium supplementation, there have been single reports of irregular heartbeat, mental changes, and disruption of motor abilities that have lead the FDA to cite “safety concerns” about the supplement. Consumers should always be wary of dietary supplements touted as “miracles,” and investigate the truth behind their claims before deciding to take them.

for further information on safety guidelines when buying supplements see the following article from TheDietChannel: How to Protect Yourself When Purchasing Supplements.

Food is the best supplement

If you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency that is impairing your performance, a supplement may correct that problem. Taking a single one-a-day multi-vitamin/mineral supplement as “health insurance” is an easy and inexpensive way to ease your mind if you eat poorly from time to time. However, despite claims to the contrary, supplements will not enhance performance, increase strength or endurance, provide energy or build muscles. As lackluster as it may sound, plain old carbohydrate is still the best energy enhancer on the market, and that is not likely to change. For optimal performance, eat a balanced diet of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats and low-fat dairy products. There is no supplement that can substitute for the real thing.