Pills, thrills and aches: why diet comes first

Sports supplements have their place, but only if used well and not as a substitute for good eating habits, experts say

Amateur sports people often take supplements without independent advice. Photograph: Getty Images

Amateur sports people often take supplements without independent advice. Photograph: Getty Images


Both professional and amateur sports people should examine their diets rather than turning to supplements, according to Dr Sharon Madigan, head of performance nutrition at the Irish Institute of Sport and former Irish Olympian Marie Murphy.

“We can get what we need in our nutrition” provided it is adequate in terms of the quality and quantity of nutrition before, during and after performance, according to Murphy, who advises professional and amateur athletes through her practice Mind, Body and Soul Fitness (mbsfitness.com).

Murphy, who bases her information on the guidelines of the International Olympic Committee, says that “a good diet will not make a mediocre athlete into a champion, but poor food choice may turn a potential champion into a mediocre athlete”.

She believes that some supplements have their place in sport, but that athletes “have to be looking at diet first and then at whether there are deficiencies there”.

Adverse impact
As a former Olympic runner and one who trains daily herself, Murphy believes it is most important that people understand what they’re taking and whether it may have an adverse impact on their performance or health.

She says many athletes are supplementing for deficiencies which could easily be tackled through an adequate diet.

The promotion and lack of regulation of the sports supplement industry is cause for concern, as is the easy availability of supplements online and in non-specialist environments such as supermarkets.

Murphy also says that the use of sports drinks as refreshment by the general population, especially young people, is “misuse” given their often high sodium and calorie content.

Madigan says that athletes are, by their very nature, “quite specific” in what they do, but that “specifics get lost in the influences around marketing, what trainers are doing, what sports colleagues are doing”.

“It has to be very individual. If you’re taking caffeine as an endurance athlete but you’re not eating right or recovering well then you’re not addressing the fundamentals.”

Madigan says that marketing, sponsorship and hype sell messages about supplementation in a “much sexier way” than information about proper dietary nutrition.

Contentious issue
It’s a particularly contentious issue around young athletes who may be getting mixed messages.

“Adolescents are not little adults – they have different requirements. Often young [sports] people have huge energy requirements but again the message through TV and magazines is ‘be careful, don’t eat too much’,” she says.

Murphy says that in her experience many athletes turn to dietary sports supplements for dietary inefficiencies in the hope of improving performance in training and competition and that they purchase supplements often without the correct information.

“Athletes need to be aware of their nutritional goals, but also require help in formulating an eating strategy to meet those goals,” she says.

Some of the most common supplements used in Ireland are sports drinks, multivitamins, protein, creatine and caffeine (especially among endurance athletes) as well as prebiotics and fish oils within certain groups.

“If an athlete comes to me and lines up 10 different bottles or packets, I would question why they have to use so many of them. When you increase the numbers of different things you take, you increase your risk of contamination, which is a big risk for professional athletes,” says Madigan.

“An athlete may be taking caffeine and medicine for pain or whatever; when you start mixing things together, drug/nutrient reactions can occur and may have devastating affects – for very few, but it does happen.”

It is particularly pertinent that young athletes understand the risk of supplements and Madigan cites caffeine as one supplement which can push the body beyond its true capabilities.

“The body has a great way of protecting itself. If you can’t do something, you either have to slow down or stop. Sometimes when you take these products, they override your body and you think you can do things you shouldn’t,” she says.

Diet first
The two experts say that sports people, both professional and amateur, need to look to diet first and then see where supplements can play a part.

Amateur sports people need to be careful because they often train without independent advice and professional sports people need to be very aware of the risk of contamination of sport supplement products and drug/nutrient reactions.

Clear information, regulation of the industry, education around supplements and an emphasis on nutrition though diet is required.

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