Supplement or Snack?

By By Lauren Hartman M.S., R.D., L.D. – September 1, 2016
Photo by Jessica Fray

Nutritional supplements are no longer marketed exclusively to the elite athlete. New products hit the shelf every day: pills and powders that promise fat loss overnight with before-and-after testimonials to prove it, drink mixes that guarantee your best workout yet, and herbal concoctions that claim to solve any ailment you can think of. When did over-priced, under-regulated products overtake the power of a balanced plate?

As a sports dietitian, my No. 1 priority is ensuring the foods my athletes eat on a daily basis are providing them the energy and nutrients they need to keep their body functioning optimally. Some supplements may have their place in a healthy diet, whether you’re gearing up for your third Ironman triathlon or you just want to train for your first 5K. But the truth is, supplements are largely unregulated; there is no guarantee they contain the ingredients they claim to provide, and there’s always the chance they may be contaminated with other ingredients not listed on the label. Not to mention, many of them have not been proven effective! Here are the facts on a few hot products on the market today:

“Pre-Workout” Supplements

Claim to Fame: Meant to be taken shortly before exercise, these products claim to provide the boost you need to power through a great workout.

Reality Check: That “boost” is often achieved via extreme doses of caffeine or other stimulants with varying degrees of safety and legality. Some supplement companies have even been sued for the use of a stimulant called DMAA which poses health risks ranging from increased blood pressure and shortness of breath to cardiac arrest!

Pro Tip: Struggling with chronic fatigue? Your body may just be telling you it needs more sleep, or better nutrition, or both! Overconsumption of stimulants will just mask the problem. Power up with 7 to 8 hours of sleep a night and fuel your body with a balanced meal 3 to 4 hours before your workout for results that are safe, effective, and proven by science.

Branched Chain Amino Acids(BCAA’s)

Claim to Fame: BCAA supplements boast the ability to improve performance by delaying fatigue & minimizing muscle damage.

Reality Check: BCAA supplements will typically cost you over $30 per bottle, usually recommend much too high a dose, and have not yet been proven effective by research. What research does tell us it that one BCAA in particular known as leucine plays a huge role in building and maintaining muscle mass, and there is no additional benefit to consuming more than 20 to 25 grams of protein after exercise.

Pro Tip: The best way to support muscle growth & repair is to meet your protein needs with food first! Eat four to five meals/snacks throughout the day with around 20 grams of from high-quality protein sources like lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and low-fat dairy.

Post-Workout Protein Drinks

Claim to Fame: These products promise to help you optimize muscle gain and fat loss after your workout.

Reality Check: Ready-to-drink protein shakes can certainly be a convenient, grab-and-go option for recovery after an intense or lengthy workout. If you’re set on
using shakes, look for products that offer 15 to 20 grams of protein and check the ingredient label for simple, recognizable ingredients.

Pro Tip: Eat a balanced meal within an hour of finishing your workout to cover your recovery needs. Exercising intensely for more than an hour? Consume a small protein- and carbohydrate rich snack within 30 minutes of finishing your workout to refuel your body. Try something simple like Greek yogurt with fruit or toast with peanut butter and milk!

Whey Protein

Claim to Fame: Many whey supplements claim to enhance strength, size, and stamina.

Reality Check: Whey protein is high in one particular amino acid, leucine, which has recently been determined to be a key in kickstarting the process of building and repairing muscle tissue. Whey protein supplements are effective in promoting post-exercise recovery; keep in mind however, that whey protein powders are often wildly expensive, and may have unnecessary added ingredients!

Pro Tip: Optimize muscle repair and recovery after long, high-intensity
exercise with whole foods that are high in whey protein, i.e. dairy products. Try a fruit smoothie with low-fat milk and Greek yogurt!


Claim to Fame: Vitamin and mineral supplements are marketed in a way that suggests you cannot meet the recommended amounts of these nutrients through food alone.

Reality Check: Nutrients are almost always more easily absorbed from whole foods. Vitamin and mineral supplements are warranted and most effective when an individual is clinically deficient; otherwise, there isn’t much benefit. Additionally, consuming more than the recommended amount of some nutrients can lead to some nasty side effects!

Pro Tip: Talk to your doctor or to a registered dietitian about which supplements might be right for you. Otherwise, consume a varied diet rich in whole grains, lean protein, dairy, fruits, and vegetables to meet your needs!

Keep reading for more supplements!


“Gainer” Supplements

Claim to Fame: These supplements insinuate that gaining lean mass through diet alone is impossible.

Reality Check: Most weight gain formulas have over 50 grams of protein per recommended serving and some pack up to 1000 calories! For most generally active
adults, that’s more than half their protein and calorie needs in one fell swoop! Additionally, consuming more than about 20 grams of protein in one sitting does not translate to more lean mass gain.

Pro Tip: Increasing lean mass requires increasing intake of protein and calories, which can be easily achieved through diet alone. Be sure to eat 20 to 25 grams of protein five to six times a day. Still having trouble putting on weight? Focus on energy-dense whole foods such as nuts and nut butters, avocado, 100 percent fruit juices, and oils.

Testosterone Boosters

Claim to Fame: A group of substances, also referred to as “prohormones,” can be taken orally and converted to testosterone in the body, with the intent to increase muscle size and strength.

Reality Check: Safety and efficacy are both issues here. Prohormones have a laundry list of negative effects, including increased risk of cancer, high cholesterol, and liver damage. Even worse, most research has found these supplements largely ineffective.

Pro Tip: Steer clear! Taking these supplements is a huge health risk.


Claim to Fame: Creatine supplements claim to increase creatine stores in skeletal muscle, which improves muscle strength and size.

Reality Check: A good body of evidence supports the effectiveness of creatine in improving performance in high-intensity bouts of exercise lasting less than 30 seconds, not directly increasing muscle size and strength. For adults who are just hoping to increase overall activity, or who prefer endurance-based exercise, there is no benefit to taking creatine. Besides, it is also known to cause gastrointestinal discomfort!

Pro Tip: Try a small snack with about 30 grams of carbohydrate 30 to 60 minutes before your workout. A piece of fruit, a handful of cereal, or a granola bar will suffice. If you feel creatine may be a good choice for you, work with a dietitian to build a great nutritional foundation first, then work creatine in if needed.

Supplements: The Bottom Line

99.9 percent of the time, providing your body with a variety of whole food options and eating  consistently throughout the day will fuel your workouts, nourish your body, and promote long-term health without the potential risks and exorbitant cost of supplements that don’t live up to their hype. If you do take supplements, make sure they’re safe! There are several third-party quality assurance organizations who investigate the safety and purity of supplements on the market:

 – search their website for information regarding your supplement

– NSF International’s  Dietary Supplement Certification Program: look for the NSF stamp on the label

– USP Dietary Supplement Verification Program: look for the USP stamp on the label

Additional Resources

Still feel like you’re needing that extra edge for your training? Seek out a registered dietitian for help! These professional organizations
can help you locate an RD nearest to you, and their websites are packed with great nutrition information:

– Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND):

– Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition dietetic practice group (SCAN):

– Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA):

Craving more ingredients? Check out our other articles on Food LabelsSmoothiesTeaMeat, Chocolate, and Mystery Ingredients!


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