One of the most frustrating parts of being in the nutrition profession is hearing time and again that a single pill or supplement is the key to weight loss, lean muscle development or improved athletic performance. It is important to be aware that dietary supplements can make claims on their labels that are not regulated, meaning it is up to the consumer to do the research and decipher the facts. The most disheartening part of supplement usage is the fact that most consumers rely on hearsay by peers or by athletes sponsored by supplement companies to judge whether a supplement is deemed safe and effective.
Considering the enormous amount of sports supplements and ergogenic aids on the market today, here we discuss a few supplements that have enough scientific research to assess.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) refer to three of the nine total essential amino acids — leucine, valine and isoleucine. Essential amino acids are amino acids that the body cannot produce on its own and thus must receive from food. When an individual is in a calorie deficit to lose weight, they may experience an inconvenient loss of both muscle mass and fat mass. However, the thought is that BCAAs can help reduce the breakdown of muscle while still allowing the individual to lose fat mass. Current research is mixed in regard to the effectiveness of branched-chain amino acid supplementation in this claimed action. There are new findings that show BCAAs may help with muscle recovery and reduced soreness, but further research is still needed. The good news is that BCAAs seem to be safe when used appropriately and have no side effects at dosages of approximately 5-20 grams per day.
Although BCAA supplementation has grown in popularity, many overlook the fact that whole foods contain these essential amino acids as well. Protein-rich foods like meat, fish, dairy products and eggs are the best, most natural sources of BCAAs.
Caffeine claims to improve sports performance and is one of the few widely studied supplements found to be honest in its claim. Consumption of caffeine prior to exercise has been shown to improve endurance. Caffeine also decreases perceived exertion during exercise, which means a person can work out at a higher intensity without the correlating feeling that they are trying harder.
Caffeine is safe when taken in recommended doses (2-3 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight), but with larger quantities or for caffeine-sensitive athletes, side effects such as rapid heart rate, jitteriness, insomnia or lightheadedness can occur.
Whey protein has long been studied for optimizing muscular growth and repair, and most of the research done on whey protein supports this claim. Several studies have shown that the supplement may lead to greater increases in muscle mass, larger decreases in fat mass and better improvements in strength when added to one’s diet.
It is best to consume whey protein around workout times, either before or after. While protein ingestion is important, research shows that a combination of both protein and carbohydrates (i.e. whey protein and a banana) around exercise may increase muscle protein synthesis more than protein alone. A protein intake greater than 2.5 grams per kilogram of body weight may put an athlete at risk of excessive energy intake, low carbohydrate intake, dehydration and increased excretion of urinary calcium. Also, physically active individuals should look into consuming whole foods first to meet their protein requirements before supplementing with a powder.
The most important thing to realize with any dietary supplement is that they are meant to supplement, not replace, a healthy lifestyle. Quality nutrition habits, a consistent workout routine, proper management of stress and adequate sleep patterns will always be the most important factors for fitness enthusiasts — and it is always a good idea to talk to your physician before beginning any supplementation regimen.