Dietary Supplements

By: Lilli Rozanski MS, RDN, LDN, Sports and Fitness Dietitian, Thibodaux Regional Medical Center

Dietary supplements have been used to enhance health and performance since the early Olympic Games. Today, athletes of all levels are working to improve their performance and consider whether or not to use a dietary supplement to get ahead or for health benefit. If you are considering adding a supplement to your routine here are some facts to consider:

Supplement Regulation:

In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated by the FDA and are defined as “a product taken by mouth that contains a dietary ingredient and is intended to SUPPLEMENT the diet”. Unlike the strict approval process for drugs, however, supplement companies do not have to prove their products are safe or effective before they sell them. The use of unhealthy, low-quality, or unlisted ingredients is a big problem in the supplement industry. Even though there are many high-quality and safe dietary supplements on the market, there is always the possibility that the supplement an athlete chooses could contain dangerous or illegal ingredients, leaving athletes vulnerable to misinformation and unintended health risks.

Food First Approach:

Before adding a supplement, it is crucial to evaluate the diet. Poor dietary choices could be why most athletes do not achieve their performance goals. Performance supplements cannot substitute for a healthy diet. Foods offer more nutrients than you may realize. In most cases, the vitamins and minerals in food are better absorbed than those found in supplements. A sports dietitian can help an athlete evaluate whether their dietary choices need to improve.

Safer Supplementation:

When thinking about taking a new supplement, ask yourself these important questions.

Is it safe?

Is it legal?

Is it effective?

Can I afford it?

Some supplements do offer real benefits for athletic performance. Dietary supplements help address or prevent nutrient deficiency that can otherwise reduce performance. Some products also work by producing a direct performance-enhancing (ergogenic) effect and have a good evidence base for beneficial effects. Although there is no risk-free way to choose a supplement, an athlete can reduce risks in a couple of ways. First, to help evaluate whether a specific ingredient would benefit an athlete, it is helpful to consult with a sports dietitian. Second, reduce the risk of using a low-quality or contaminated product by choosing one that is certified by a reputable third-party testing agency. These agencies test a product to see if the label matches the actual ingredients. Agencies like NSF created the “NSF Certified for Sport” mark to ensure the product quality and purity, reducing the risk that a dietary supplement contains banned substances. Even though the certification is safer, there are no guarantees and the use of any dietary supplement is at your own risk. If you are a serious athlete who undergoes drug testing, be aware that contaminated dietary supplements have caused athletes to fail drug tests.

*references available on request*