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Blog & Recipes

  • by Alexandra Inman, Stephanie Dang

Exercise supplements - are they worth it?

Pre-workout… creatine... BCAAs…. protein powder… The list of exercise supplements available on the market today is overwhelming - even for us! There are millions of dollars to be made by selling supplements that promise to make you gain muscle, run faster, jump higher, lift heavier, recover quicker, and everything in between. But just because a label or a salesperson says a supplement will benefit you, does that mean it actually will? Let’s examine the current research on some common exercise supplements used today.

There are a variety of different pre-workout products on the market - all claim to increase energy levels, increase focus, improve muscle growth and recovery, and/or increase endurance, or any combination of these. Pre-workout products often contain caffeine, a variety of amino acids, and/or a variety of vitamins/minerals

If you consume a varied, balanced diet, you likely do not need any extra vitamins or minerals from a pre-workout supplement.

Caffeine is the most widely used stimulant in the world. It stimulates the central nervous system to increase alertness, improve muscle contraction, and enhance some motor skills. Caffeine may make exercise feel easier, delay feelings of fatigue, and can improve short-term, high intensity exercise performance. It is found naturally in coffee, chocolate, and some teas. Caffeine can be taken before or during exercise from food or supplement. Caffeine affects people differently, so we recommend trialing it in your training before competition to see if it’s helpful for you or if you may experience unpleasant side effects. It is important to note that supplements, such as pre-workouts or capsules, are quick to be digested and absorbed so you may feel the effects quicker and possibly more severely. Book an appointment with Alex or Stephanie to discuss the right dose of caffeine for your training and performance!

Most, but not all, amino acids often included in pre-workout supplements do not have sufficient scientific evidence to support their proclaimed benefits.

Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) encompass 3 amino acids: leucine, isoleucine, and valine. These amino acids are essential, which means that the human body is unable to make them and they need to be consumed from foods such as: meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy products, soy products, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These amino acids are unique in that they can be metabolized directly by the muscle, without having to be metabolized by the liver first. It has been hypothesized that BCAAs can help performance by promoting muscle growth, preventing muscle breakdown, reducing exercise-induced damage, and preventing fatigue. As a result, BCAAs are commonly encouraged in supplement stores, at gyms, or by individuals who have found them to be beneficial. However, there is currently no conclusive research to support these proclaimed benefits. There are also no documented adverse side effects with BCAA supplementation.

Creatine monohydrate is an organic compound produced by the liver and stored in muscle cells. High food sources of creatine include animal products like meat, poultry, and fish. There is evidence that creatine may increase lean muscle mass and performance in sports which require short bursts of energy (~10-30 seconds) such as weight lifting or sprinting. However, no effect has been found on performance in sports with longer duration such as long distance swimming, running, or cycling.

Not everyone will respond to creatine supplementation or experience its benefits. Vegetarians may experience more benefits from creatine supplementation, likely due to their low intake of animal-based proteins. Side effects of creatine supplementation may include: bloating, muscle cramps, nausea, and/or diarrhea - book an appointment with us if you are experiencing these side effects for help adjusting your dose. Another side effect is weight gain (due to a mixture of muscle gain and fluid retention), although this is often the desired goal of creatine supplementation. Creatine supplementation is not advisable if you are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Protein is an important nutrient for maintaining, repairing, and building muscle tissue. It is important to ensure you are consuming adequate protein throughout the day as well as after exercise. It is also important to ensure that you are consuming enough overall calories and carbohydrates so that the protein you consume is used for muscle growth rather than as a source of energy.

It is important to remember that there is a limit to how much protein your body can use for muscle repair and growth. Consuming excessive amounts of protein does not mean limitless muscle growth! In fact, consuming more protein than your body needs may actually mean you are consuming excessive calories, which may result in an increase in fat tissue.

The ideal source of protein would be from nutrient dense, whole foods such as meat, fish, poultry, dairy products, soy products, eggs, legumes, nuts, and seeds because these foods are also rich in other nutrients. However protein powders can be helpful for when you need a convenient, on-the-go source of protein. There is a wide variety of protein powders available on the market; from whey and casein to soy, rice, hemp, pea and even cricket protein powders. Most research has focused on whey and casein, and current evidence indicates that whey protein is the quickest to be absorbed by the body. However, any source of protein is effective to stimulate muscle repair and growth.

There are only a few supplements which have conclusive evidence for their safety and efficacy. Many products available on the market lack sufficient evidence to support their proposed benefits, but are still sold widely with attractive marketing and extravagant claims. It’s best to take any and all claims made by salespeople or products with a (figurative) grain of salt. A good question to ask yourself is “Who profits from this?”

If you have decided to trial sports supplements, always look for a Natural Product Number (NPN) or Drug Identification Number (DIN) - these numbers mean that Health Canada has reviewed the product for safety and quality. However, it is always best to check with your healthcare provider before starting any new supplement to ensure it is appropriate and safe for you!

At the end of the day, no supplement outweighs good training, a healthy diet, and adequate rest! If you want to assess your supplementation needs and determine the safe & correct dosage, we recommend booking an appointment with Alex or Stephanie today to make sure you are supplying your body with everything it needs for optimal performance!

Works Cited

  1. Sports Nutrition Evidence Summary (Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition)

  2. Sports Nutrition - Creatine Background (Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition)

  3. Branched Chain Amino Acids (Sports Dietitians Australia)

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