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Sport supplements: Necessary for optimal performance or a waste of money?

Protein powders, fat burners, sport bars and pre-workout products are just a few examples of the enormous variety of supplements available on the market today. With promises to enhance muscle mass, burn fat fast, increase energy, focus and endurance, supplements are marketed as a crucial component of an effective training diet. Is there truth behind these claims?

Let’s take a look at three of the most commonly used sport supplements.

Protein Powder

Protein powder is the most popular nutritional supplement used by individuals looking to build muscle mass. Getting enough protein is easily achieved by most of us through our usual diets. Foods like meat, fish, legumes, milk, nuts and seeds all provide quality protein, as well as other vitamins and minerals. However, endurance and strength athletes require additional protein to promote recovery and muscle growth. In particular, individuals who have just started a strength training routine require more protein than individuals who routinely engage in resistance training, as our bodies become more adept at utilizing protein to maintain muscle mass.

Research has shown that protein consumed in the hour following exercise can help to promote muscle growth and recovery. However, protein is not the only nutrient of importance post-workout. Carbohydrates are also needed for replenishing glycogen stores after a tough workout. While protein powders are safe and convenient, they often lack the carbohydrates your body needs to refuel after your workout. Turn your protein shake into a smoothie by adding some frozen fruit and milk to create a balanced snack.

Some more examples of good post-workout snacks include: a glass of chocolate milk, low fat Greek yogurt and berries or cereal and milk.

Bottom line: Protein powders are safe, however no better or no worse than food in terms of promoting muscle growth and recovery.

Sport Drinks

Sport drinks are intended to assist athletes meet electrolyte, water and energy needs to improve performance.  Sport drinks are very heavily marketed, with celebrity endorsements and sponsorships galore.

Hydration is crucial for optimal sport performance. However, despite their widespread use, sport drinks simply aren’t necessary for most of us. Most of the time plain old water will do the trick! Sport drinks can be counterproductive to our goals if not needed by our bodies, as they can be high in sugar and sodium. For light exercise, stay hydrated by drinking ½ cup to 1 cup of water every 15 to 20 minutes.

Individuals who would benefit from a sport drink include those who have very high sweat rates, exercising in very hot or humid conditions or who are exercising for over an hour. Marathon runners, football players or triathletes are all examples of athletes who would benefit from a sport drink.

Bottom line: It is only under special circumstances that sport drinks are truly necessary. Most of the time, water will do the trick.


Creatine is most commonly used by individuals looking to build muscle and facilitate recovery. The most widely available form of creatine is creatine monohydrate. It is most commonly sold in a powder form that can be mixed with water or as a capsule. Creatine is also found naturally in foods such as meat, eggs and fish.

Research shows that use of creatine is most beneficial for athletes engaging in intense activity lasting less than 30 seconds. Therefore, for sports like weight-lifting and sprinting, the use of creatine may be beneficial, whereas endurance athletes such as marathon runners would not benefit from creatine supplementation.

The most common side effects of creatine use are water retention, cramping, nausea and diarrhea. There has been little research conducted with regard to the long term side effects of creatine. While, it is generally considered to be safe for healthy individuals, those at risk for kidney or liver disorders should speak with a health care professional before taking creatine.

Bottom line: Creatine supplementation may be beneficial depending on the activity. However, the long term effects remain unknown.

For the answers to all of your sport nutrition questions, check out the Coaching Association of Canada website (www.coach.ca). For information on a wide variety of nutrition topics visit the Dietitians of Canada website (www.dietitians.ca).

For help with meeting your nutritional needs call, or drop in to the Student Health Centre (506) 453-4837 to book an appointment. Dietitian services are FREE to all full-time UNB and STU students. No referral is needed.

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