If you are an athlete or are training to improve your strength and endurance you may take, or be interested in, sports supplements. Dietary supplements are a multibillion dollar industry with many products marketed specifically to people who exercise. In fact, you may use these supplements already – sports drinks like Gatorade and post-workout protein shakes or smoothies are common in most gyms.
While many sports supplements are effective and even necessary for some athletes, many people who use supplements really don't need them. This could be because the type of exercise they do doesn't require them or because they get enough of that nutrient through their diet. And there are some people who might benefit from supplements but don't use them because of the cost.
This raises the question, can you replace sports supplements with food? One of my students, Kyle Sprow, examined this question and presented his findings at Research Day at USC Aiken earlier this month. The supplements he included in his analysis are both widely used and have research to show that they are effective. This is an important point since most sports supplements have no research to support their use. Here I will focus on two supplements commonly used by athletes engaged in strength training: protein and creatine.
Protein supplements are often recommended for people who exercise. The protein requirements for athletes who are attempting to build muscle mass and strength are well above the general recommendation for good health. For example, someone who weighs 200 pounds needs a minimum of 72 grams of protein per day. To put this in perspective, 4 ounces of meat contains about 30 grams of protein. But that same person who is engaged in strenuous resistance training may need twice as much protein!
Many athletes turn to protein supplements to meet this requirement. However, since most athletes eat more total food, this leads to a protein intake that meets this need. And those who do need more protein can get it from food. A can of tuna contains as much protein as a serving of a typical whey protein supplement at a much lower cost.
The timing of protein intake is also important. Research shows that protein consumed immediately after exercise leads to greater muscle growth, especially if it is combined with some carbohydrates. This is why you might have seen a sign in the locker room at the gym reminding you that “your workout isn't complete” without a special recovery beverage from the juice bar.
But almost any food or drink that contains a mixture of carbohydrates and protein will work. Research also shows that chocolate milk is just as effective as more expensive supplements for promoting muscle protein synthesis following exercise. It turns out that the mix of carbohydrate and protein in chocolate milk closely matches that in many supplements and is more affordable.
Another popular supplement for boosting muscle mass is creatine monohydrate. This supplement boosts muscle levels of creatine, an important fuel for heavy resistance training. This leads to greater gains in muscle mass and strength, something that is well-supported by research. Unlike protein, it would be very difficult to get enough creatine from food. Most supplements contain about 5 grams of creatine. By comparison, you would need to eat a kilogram (that's over 2 pounds) of beef to get the same amount!
In most cases, the nutrients in supplements can be provided by food at a lower cost. I focused on protein here, but the same is true for carbohydrates, omega-3 fats, and most vitamins and minerals. The exception is creatine for athletes who are doing intense strength training.
Keep in mind that the benefits of protein and creatine supplements are greatest for athletes who do intense training. The type of workouts that most people do to lose weight or improve their fitness do not require supplements at all.
Brian Parr, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at USC Aiken where he teaches courses in exercise physiology, nutrition and health behavior.