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Sports supplements--the winners edge? (Sport Nutrition).

What is the best protein supplement to build muscle?

What about Ripped Fuel to lose fat and boost energy?

Is it safe for my 16-year-old son to take creatine?

All athletes, with or without disabilities, yearn for a winning edge. Consequently, athletes of all types and sports look towards sports supplements to supposedly enhance their health, performance, or recovery from injury. Yet questions arise--Is the supplement safe? Does it work?

This article looks at a few popular sports supplements, separates hype from truth, and reminds athletes that no supplement can replace hard training and good nutrition.

Supplements to Build Muscle

Protein Powders

If dazzled by the photos of ripped body builders in muscle magazines, you undoubtedly believe the accompanying ads linking protein bars, powders, and shakes with magnificent muscle mass. Wrong. The key to bulking up is lifting weights, not eating excessive protein. Certainly, athletes who want to build muscles need adequate protein; however, the required amount is easily available through customary foods--milk, eggs, meats, fish, beans, soy, nuts.

The safe and adequate amount of protein recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine, American Dietetic Association, and the Dietitians of Canada is 0.5 to 0.6 grams protein/lb for endurance athletes and 0.7 to 0.8 grams protein/lb for strength athletes. Hence, the 200 lb body builder who needs 140 to 160 grams of protein per day can easily consume that amount via 1 quart of milk (40 grams protein), a 6-oz can of tuna (40 grams protein), and an 8 ounce chicken breast (65 grams protein). Plus, he will get even more protein from other food in his diet. Consuming additional protein from supplements is not only needless, but also costly and displaces carbohydrates needed to provide fuel for hard, muscle-building workouts.

Athletes who might benefit from protein supplements are vegetarians who fail to consume adequate beans, tofu, or other sources of plant proteins. In this situation, consuming a protein supplement is better than consuming no protein.


Popular among strength athletes and those who do repeated bursts of brief, explosive exercise (weight lifting, sprints, ice hockey), creatine is reputed to enhance recovery from one bout to the next. Creatine rapidly re-energizes the energy system allowing muscles to do repeated bouts of hard exercise. For example, some body builders report better results from their workouts when they use creatine. By being able to repeatedly lift heavy weights, they are able to stimulate muscular growth. This translates into more strength, power, and body mass. But not all athletes respond to creatine; some have little or no response.

Athletes who choose to take creatine should know that larger than recommended doses are needless; more is not better. They should also drink extra water to guard against cramps. If you are a parent questioning whether your high school athlete can safely take creatine, you will be relieved to know research suggests creatine is safe. To date, creatine taken in recommended doses has not been linked with medical problems. Yet, a wise motto with creatine (and any supplement) is take at your own risk due to poor quality control in the supplement industry.

The psychological effects of taking creatine should not be overlooked--Will the young athlete miss out on knowing how well his all natural body responds to old-fashioned hard training? This knowledge certainly builds self-esteem; lack of this knowledge may leave a feeling of self-doubt. Hence, this nutritionist recommends young athletes reach their performance goals by training hard (and wisely) and optimizing their sports diet (i.e., eating a substantial breakfast and lunch to fully fuel themselves for a hard afternoon workout), and discourages use of creatine in growing bodies.

Supplements for Endurance


Caffeine is popular among endurance athletes and those who want a pre-exercise energy boost. It is touted to enhance endurance and the ability to work harder with less perceived effort. But like most ergogenic aids, caffeine's effect varies from person to person. If you are not a coffee drinker, but decide to consume some pre-event for a supposed energy boost, you may simply end up with the jitters and a bad case of coffee stomach. As with any dietary experiment, practice taking caffeine during training so there are no surprises on competition day.

Caffeine has the reputation of being a diuretic and contributing to needless dehydration. According to Dr. Larry Armstrong of the University of Connecticut, caffeine's diuretic effect is insignificant, particularly among regular coffee drinkers. Caffeine may speed the rate of urination--that is, you may urinate more in 2 hours--but not in 24 hours.

If preference is to abstain from pre-exercise caffeine, a tried-and-true route to enhance endurance and performance is to eat appropriately before a workout. Research suggests athletes who ate 400 calories for breakfast three hours prior to endurance exercise exercised for 27 minutes longer than those failing to consume breakfast (136 vs 109 minutes). If exercising more than 90 minutes, further enhance endurance by consuming carbohydrates (i.e., sports drink, gel, banana) during exercise. Food gives lasting fuel.

Ephedra/Ma Huang

Ephedra (also called ma huang) is a stimulant banned by the NCAA. Ephedra commonly appears in nasal decongestants, cold medications, and diet pills. It is also found in Ripped Fuel, a popular supplement to lose fat and enhance energy.

Ephedra in combination with caffeine and aspirin--a bad combination. Just go to the Center for Disease Control's website and check out the number of medical problems and, yes, deaths associated with ephedra. In general, athletes and non-athletes alike should be wary of products with ephedra and not take more than 24 mg ephedrine per day.


A smart sports diet can safely provide benefits sought from supplements. Plus, if you win with good nutrition, you will know it was you who won. Hence, the best bet for a winning edge is to consult with a local sports nutritionist. Visit for a list of sports nutritionists; simply enter your zip code into the referral network. Or, for further education about sports supplements, surf the web, being sure to go to reliable sites such as www.sportsci org or For a compilation of in-depth research from professional journals, will overwhelm you with a gold mine of sports supplement information!

Sport Nutrition is a regular department of PALAESTRA which addresses issues and answers questions sport-active people of all ages and abilities ask about high energy, healthful eating, and offers a scientific approach to eating for top performance, as well as the practical how-to approach which includes specific food suggestions.

Nancy Clark, Director of Nutrition Services for SportsMedicine Brookline, Brookline, MA, and author of Nancy Clark's Sport Nutrition Guidebook and The NYC Marathon Cookbook, is the Department Editor. Visit her web site at
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Author:Clark, Nancy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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