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Sports Nutrition


Benefits and risks of using supplements and sports foods

Supplements and Sports Foods

Supplements and sports foods represent a lucrative industry that takes advantage of strong marketing to athletes and people who exercise, while also reflecting the community interest in supplements.

The use of supplements and sports foods by athletes involves a balance between the potential benefits (e.g. contribution to an evidence-based sports nutrition program) and potential risks (e.g. waste of resources, distraction, poor role modelling, anti-doping rule violations, adverse health events).  Although many sports agencies still provide a blanket warning against the use of supplements in view of these concerns, there is a movement towards a more pragmatic approach. This approach requires the athlete to make a considered decision when contemplating the use of a supplement/sport food:

  • Is it safe?
  • Is it permitted in sport?
  • Is there evidence that it “works” (i.e. is there evidence that it will provide a meaningful benefit?)

The 2018 consensus statement on supplements and the high-performance athlete by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) provides a  summary of the challenges faced by the high performance athletes, coaches and support staff when considering the use of supplements.

IOC consensus statement: dietary supplements and the high-performance athlete

Maughan RJ, Burke LM, Dvorak J, Larson-Meyer DE,  Peeling P, Phillips SM, Rawson ES, Walsh NP, Garthe I, Geyer H, Meeusen R, van Loon LJC, Shirreffs SM, Spriet LL, Stuart M, Vernec A, Currell K, Ali VM, Budgett RG, Ljungqvist A, Mountjoy M, Pitsiladis YP, Soligard T, Erdener U, Engebretsen L.
Br J Sports Med. 2018 ;52(7):439-455. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2018-099027

Nutrition usually makes a small but potentially valuable contribution to successful performance in elite athletes, and dietary supplements can make a minor contribution to this nutrition programme. Nonetheless, supplement use is widespread at all levels of sport. Products described as supplements target different issues, including (1) the management of micronutrient deficiencies, (2) supply of convenient forms of energy and macronutrients, and (3) provision of direct benefits to performance or (4) indirect benefits such as supporting intense training regimens. The appropriate use of some supplements can benefit the athlete, but others may harm the athlete's health, performance, and/or livelihood and reputation (if an antidoping rule violation results). A complete nutritional assessment should be undertaken before decisions regarding supplement use are made. Supplements claiming to directly or indirectly enhance performance are typically the largest group of products marketed to athletes, but only a few (including caffeine, creatine, specific buffering agents and nitrate) have good evidence of benefits. However, responses are affected by the scenario of use and may vary widely between individuals because of factors that include genetics, the microbiome and habitual diet. Supplements intended to enhance performance should be thoroughly trialled in training or simulated competition before being used in competition. Inadvertent ingestion of substances prohibited under the antidoping codes that govern elite sport is a known risk of taking some supplements. Protection of the athlete's health and awareness of the potential for harm must be paramount; expert professional opinion and assistance is strongly advised before an athlete embarks on supplement use

The AIS Sports Supplement Framework 2019

The Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) Sports Supplement Framework is a leadership activity of the AIS which provides the expertise and resources developed during the implementation of the AIS Sports Supplement Program (2000-2013) to allow National Sporting Organisations (NSOs) and agencies to develop their own Sports Supplement Guidelines and Programs. These resources are shared via open access to help athletes, coaches and scientists to make evidence-based decisions about their use of supplements and sports foods.

2019 AIS Sports Supplement Framework [PDF]

The Supplement Framework is underpinned by the ABCD Classification system

The ABCD Classification system ranks sports foods and supplement ingredients into 4 groups according to scientific evidence and other practical considerations that determine whether a product is safe, permitted and effective in improving sports performance.

The current Classification of supplements and sports foods was made via the consensus of the AIS Sports Supplement Framework working team, and will constantly evolve according to new knowledge plus the informed direction of our key stakeholders.

  • The ABCD Classification system focusses on sports foods and individual ingredients rather than specific supplement products and brands.
  • Multi-ingredient supplements (e.g. pre-workouts) raise specific concerns. These products contain a large list of individual ingredients, and in some cases, the doses of these ingredients are not stated on the label with the excuse that it is a “proprietary blend” over which the manufacturer has special ownership. Concerns about these products include the lack of an effective dose (e.g. inadequate amounts or poor timing of intake relative to exercise) of some active ingredients, potential for harmful interactions between ingredients, and the increased risk of inadvertent contamination due to the sourcing of ingredients from various locations.
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