Certainly, supplements play a role for certain athletes, but overall, prioritizing general sports nutrition is crucial for all athletes. That's why many sports dietitians and nutritionists adopt a "food first" approach. In a recent paper by Graeme Close titled "Food first, but not always food only", the idea was conveyed that while supplements should not be overlooked or dismissed, a food first approach doesn't mean supplements are disregarded. For us, a 'food first' approach means establishing a solid foundation and then building upon it with additional layers. However, a food first approach doesn't imply that we should only focus on the foundation.
The Inverted Pyramid: Neglecting Meals for Supplements
Let's envision constructing a pyramid. The diagram above illustrates that if you invest all your time and energy into supplements while neglecting the importance of meals that support your athletic goals, you may be constructing an inverted pyramid. To make this clearer, imagine young athletes who inquire about supplements at a young age, asking questions like "How much creatine should I take? Which brand is best? What type of creatine should I use?" Meanwhile, they skip meals and hastily consume fast food between school and training.
This situation raises concerns. If these young athletes were to understand the fundamentals of nutrition and have well-balanced meals throughout the day, providing adequate amounts of carbohydrates to optimize their training, along with meals that deliver not only fuel but also essential nutrients, then it would be more appropriate to discuss supplements. However, the opposite is often true, as many athletes try to compensate for poor dietary choices by relying on supplements.
Differentiating Sports Foods and Nutrition Supplements
It's important to note that the term "supplement" is used in various ways. Some people consider all sports nutrition products as supplements, including gels, sports drinks, bars, protein powders, as well as pills and capsules containing herbal extracts, nutrients, or other substances. Here, we differentiate between sports foods and nutrition supplements. Sports foods encompass carbohydrate sources like drinks, gels, chews, bars, and protein powders. The distinction between these products and regular foods is often minimal. For instance, what sets apart a sports nutrition bar from a cereal bar? Or a soft drink from a high-carb drink? Or a chew from a gummy bear?
Understanding Nutrition Supplements
In the model discussed here, nutrition supplements refer to pills and capsules containing herbal extracts, high doses of micronutrients, and various substances and proprietary blends that are legally classified as nutrition rather than drugs. In most cases, the greatest impact on performance is achieved through regular foods, followed by sports foods, and then supplements, with only a few exceptions.
Understanding Nutrition Supplements
Taking supplements has become the norm in our society. A supplement dependency has been created, with 75% of all Americans consuming supplements, often multiple ones simultaneously. This widespread practice is based on the assumption that supplements are necessary, perpetuated by a massive and ever-growing industry. In the infographic below we show 5 common believes regarding supplements.
For the majority of supplements taken, it is often unnecessary, and more often than not, the physiological effect is minimal or nonexistent. However, there are situations where supplements can be beneficial and contribute to performance. Certain supplements have demonstrated ergogenic benefits, usually in specific contexts. For example, athletes who suffer from iron deficiency can benefit from iron supplements, which restore levels more effectively than regular foods, as we discussed in a previous blog. Similar examples exist as well.
Deciding When to Use Supplements
So, how do you decide when to use supplements? A pragmatic approach is to allocate your time, money, and energy to things that will have the greatest impact on your performance. Spend less on things that are less important, and avoid spending anything on things that don't work. With this approach, the evidence indicates that optimal nutrition from regular foods, provided at the right times and in the right quantities, ensures that glycogen stores are optimal and protein synthesis is optimally stimulated. These effects are fundamental to performance and can have a significant impact.
Sports foods can assist in achieving these goals in some cases. The term "supplement" implies that it should be used to "supplement" the diet, not replace it, and it should not be the primary focus. Supplements can be considered the icing on the cake, but it's essential to have a cake first. Supplements are often viewed as quick or easy fixes, but one important lesson we can learn from sports is that there are no shortcuts to success. Achieving success requires effort.
No Shortcuts to Success
Effort and Nutrition EnhancementTherefore, serious athletes should ask themselves: How can I enhance my nutrition intake to support my goals? Are there any sports nutrition products that can further support my goals during intense training or competition? Once these two questions are adequately addressed, it's reasonable to consider the third question: Are there any supplements that can provide the finishing touch? However, without the foundation (the cake), relying solely on the finishing touch (the icing) won't result in a great outcome!
Supplements should be the final addition, like the last tile on a roof, once a perfect house is built. They should not form the foundation. A pyramid should be built from the bottom up, and supplements can complete the masterpiece. Thus, we can embrace the approach of "food first and food mostly, although not always food only."Serious athletes should inquire: How can I enhance my nutrition to support my goals? Are there sports foods that can further support these goals during intense training or competition days?
If you have any further questions about the topic, then just drop us online by clicking here
- Close GL, Kasper AM, Walsh NP, Maughan RJ. "Food First but Not Always Food Only": Recommendations for Using Dietary Supplements in Sport. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. 2022 Mar 12;32(5):371-386.