Aids and Supplements—What Every User Needs to Know

By Deanna Wolfe, M.S., RDN, LD, ACE-HCC – December 1, 2014

This article is the first in a series that will evaluate the evidence regarding some of the most popular dietary supplements and ergogenic aids on the market, including branched-chain amino acids (BCAA), caffeine, carnitine, and whey protein. Subsequent articles will address the supplement’s claimed action, the current research for or against the action, side effects, and potential issues with the product.

Ergogenic aids and dietary supplements on today’s market claim to enhance athletic performance, endurance, and energy levels while shedding body fat and increasing lean muscle mass. Therefore, it’s not surprising that approximately 50 percent of the general population and as much as 76 percent of athletes have reported taking some form of dietary supplement.While these products may be enticing with their big promises, many are poorly regulated and not as effective as they claim. 

It’s important to first understand what ergogenic aids are, how supplements and ergogenic aids are regulated, where to find unbiased information, and how to interpret potential side effects and safety concerns. Working one-on-one with a board-certified sports dietitian can help determine what supplements, if any, will work best for an individual’s body. The most important thing to remember is that ergogenic aids are not a solution to all health-related problems; they are meant to supplement a lifestyle that involves healthy eating habits, regular exercise, stress management, and adequate sleep patterns.   

What are Ergogenic Aids? 

According to the International Society of Sports Nutrition, an ergogenic aid is any training, technique, nutritional practice, or pharmacological agent that can help improve exercise performance capacity or enhance physical strength. While a specially designed article of clothing is considered an ergogenic aid, the most well known form is the dietary supplement.  

Who is Watching Out for You? 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than more conventional foods and drug products. The FDA is responsible for taking action to remove or restrict the sale of a supplement only after it has been on the market and shown to be unsafe. Thus, supplement companies are not required to prove a supplement is safe or works in the manner intended before it is sold.  

Controlled research is required to tell if an ergogenic aid is safe and effective. Many supplement companies cannot support their claims with substantiated research and will, therefore, use tactics to convince the consumer that the product is right for them. For example: Be wary if a supplement is advertised as being quick, easy, and right for everyone. Also watch out for “secret formulas” and success stories to promote a product’s benefits. Bottom line—there is no magic pill. 

There are many ways to go about evaluating a supplement’s safety and efficacy. To help determine whether the claims made are credible, review scientific literature through free databases (PubMed) or member-only databases, such as the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Evidence Analysis Library and the Natural Medicine Comprehensive Database. The Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition is another great resource. Be skeptical of articles funded by the supplement’s manufacturer, and look for those that are labeled as cGMP (Current Good Manufacturing Practice) products. Adherence to the cGMP regulations guarantees the product’s identity, strength, quality and purity by requiring manufacturers to adequately control manufacturing operations. Another important factor is whether or not the proposed benefit of the supplement is worth the cost or the risk, so research any side effects associated with the supplement and compare prices by looking at the number of servings per package (and the serving size). Finally, for recalls and safety alerts, check the FDA’s website ( or follow the FDA on Twitter (@FDArecalls).  

There are ergogenic aids that show promising results in certain studies, and we want to highlight these as well. Learning that supplements are put on shelves with little to no regulation should encourage users to do their own research and investigate the risks and benefits associated with a supplement before purchasing. Reading unbiased information is imperative to making smart decisions about which supplements are worth the cost involved to aid athletic performance, body composition, endurance, and energy—and which are best avoided.


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