Contrary to popular belief, dietary supplements are not necessary for your success as an athlete. Supplements are intended to “supplement” your diet AFTER you have your nutrition dialed in. To get the most bang for your buck, focusing on your nutrition is far more important than any supplement you take.
The intent of this article is to provide insight on three commonly used supplements amongst athletes. I love a good return on investment as much as the next guy. However, not all supplements are worth the investment.
I would also like to note that I’m not recommending any specific supplement; rather, providing you with the educational intel that will ultimately allow you to decipher whether these popular supplements are worth taking. Before you even consider taking a supplement, please note that the onus is often on you – the consumer – on vetting out a product for quality and safety.
When in doubt, check with your primary care provider or another trusted professional before considering adding a supplement to your nutrition and training arsenal.
Additionally, looking for a third-party certification seal (examples shown below) on your product is certainly a best practice to help with your decision-making process.
Truth: Protein supplements can serve as a vehicle to help you meet your daily protein needs.
There is nothing magical about protein supplements. However, protein supplements are insanely convenient (and portable) options in most situations including ready-to-drink protein supplements and protein powders. Supplementing with a protein product is just a vehicle to help you, the athlete, meet your daily target protein needs.
High quality protein sources include: poultry, dairy, eggs, seafood, and meat. Most athletes need between 1.4 to 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day. If you weigh 165 pounds (75 kilograms), that is roughly 105-150 grams of protein per day. Rounding up to a gram per pound of body weight (provided you are a relatively lean and healthy individual) will usually work.
The literature also suggests distributing your protein feedings into 3-4 feedings at roughly 0.4-0.55 grams per kilogram of body weight most optimally flips the switch to turn on muscle protein synthesis (1). For most individuals, this is between 20-50g protein per feeding, depending on your body size. Just split it up.
Whey protein is by far the most popular protein product amongst athletes. Whey contains all nine essential amino acids and contains a very high concentration of the anabolic trigger, leucine, making it ideal to consume after resistance training.
Casein protein, a slow digesting protein derived from milk, is a fine option for a pre-bed protein nightcap. However, consuming some casein-rich dairy food sources (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, or even mixing your whey with cow’s milk) can get the job done just as well.
Truth: Healthy levels of vitamin D can do more than just promote healthy bones and skeletal health.
Some athletes may be aware of the benefits of vitamin D optimization related to bone health.
The latest research suggests that vitamin D optimization may play a role in muscular health, as some literature vitamin D positively influences skeletal muscle by turning on expression of genes that impacts muscular growth - particularly in type 2 muscle fibers (2).
Vitamin D acts as both a vitamin and a hormone, which explains how vitamin D is a key component in “turning on the switch” for several physiological functions including: bone health optimization, immunity, and muscle function.
Dietary sources of vitamin D include: salmon, eggs, milk, cheese, yogurt, mushrooms, and sensible sunlight exposure.
A low dose of vitamin D3 is (1,000-2,000 IU/day) is often times a good maintenance dose; however, Higher doses may be indicated during the winter months and/or reverse cycles. It is best to confer with a Registered Dietitian or healthcare provider first. Athletes who are unsure about their vitamin D status, and/or have a history of stress fractures, might benefit from having their blood vitamin D status tested via blood work.
Lie: Supplementing with Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) builds muscle.
Sipping BCAA-ladened, fluorescent-colored water in a gallon jug at the local gym definitely can raise some eye brows from onlookers. However, the practice of supplementing with BCAAs does not raise your chances of building more muscle.
Yes, amino acids are the building blocks of muscle. In fact, you need all nine essential amino acids to build muscle (3) not just the three branched chain aminos (leucine, isoleucine, valine).
Optimizing your dietary protein intake with the tips mentioned above is a surefire way to optimize muscle protein synthesis to the fullest.
Moral of the Supplement Story:
Focus on maximizing your nutrition before even considering the addition of a supplement to your arsenal. And just keep in mind… If a new supplement sounds too good to be true, it might just be.
This article was written by Mike Polis, who works as a performance dietitian with athletes, helping them reach and maintain high levels of performance under challenging circumstances. Mike holds both a Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree from the University of Alabama in Human Nutrition. He is both a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. As a Registered Dietitian, Mike supports a variety of performers and athletes – including the tactical and military population. Mike is passionate about helping athletes and leverages his background in performance nutrition to help others accomplish their goals and perform optimally when it matters most.
- Schoenfeld, B.J., Aragon, A.A. How much protein can the body use in a single meal for muscle-building? Implications for daily protein distribution. J Int Soc Sports Nutr15, 10 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0215-1
- Girgis, C.M., R.J. Clifton-Bligh, M.W. Hamrick, M.F. Holick, and J.E. Gunton (2013). The roles of vitamin D in skeletal muscle: form, function, and metabolism. Endocrin. Rev. 34:33-83.
- Churchward-Venne TA, Burd NA, Mitchell CJ, West DW, Philp A, Marcotte GR, Baker SK, Baar K, Phillips SM. Supplementation of a suboptimal protein dose with leucine or essential amino acids: effects on myofibrillar protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise in men. J Physiol. 2012 Jun 1;590(11):2751-65. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2012.228833. Epub 2012 Mar 25. PMID: 22451437; PMCID: PMC3424729.