Are sports supplements really necessary?

Do your research before supplement shopping

— By Casey Jones

Athletes have many boxes to check off in the course of a day. Nutrition, training, mobility and mindset are a few of many pillars that an athlete must maintain for optimal performance.

Even when all these things are consistently kept in check, there are sometimes nutritional or metabolite deficiencies that can arise. How can we circumvent these issues? Enter the supplement industry.

Whether you like it or not, you’ve been the target of advertisements from supplement companies. Pills that promise “Lose 20 pounds in 20 days!” or protein supplements that pledge to “Gain 10 pounds of muscle in a week!” can be seen everywhere.


In reality, it’s not that simple. A pill or supplement can’t do this on their own without proper diet and exercise. But somehow, the supplement industry makes over $45 billion dollars globally each year (1).  

While there are supplements on the market that are useless or even harmful for your health and performance (looking at you, Dr. Oz), there are many others that have a well-studied link to improving it.

Not all supplements are equal

The supplements you consume should be chosen based on your goals, sport, and body type. It would be wise to adopt a whole foods diet and take supplements only when needed, or to improve performance around training or competition.

Below we’ve broken down some supplements that have proven to be effective:


Protein powder is a popular post-workout supplement, but often it is taken in excess. Anywhere from 0.4-1 gram per pound of bodyweight depending on your goals would be a good amount to target (2). For example, if you’re a highly active 130 pound woman, somewhere around 85 grams of protein a day would be a good start.

Your protein intake should come from a variety of sources — not just protein powder. Mix up your meat intake between poultry, beef, and fish, but don’t forget about the hearty plant-based sources of protein in foods like chia seeds and legumes such as lentils, chickpeas and beans.

Your protein intake should come from a variety of sources, including fish, beef, chicken, beans, peas and chia seeds.

Your protein intake should come from a variety of sources, including fish, beef, chicken, beans, peas and chia seeds.


Creatine is a common supplement for muscle building and power athletes. In fact, creatine is a vital source of energy for your muscles, specifically fast-twitch muscle fibers responsible for sprinting. Most see an improvement of power output and muscle mass with supplementation of 5 to 10 grams a day.


Beta-alanine is an amino acid, which are the building blocks of protein that your body uses to make muscle and other proteins needed for bodily function. It is a common component in many pre-workout supplements as a main ingredient, and has shown to improve muscular endurance and anaerobic performance to a small degree. A dose of 2 to 5 grams of beta-alanine may help with performance during intense training or competition.


As we’ve outlined in an earlier post, caffeine intake can be highly beneficial for workout performance and fat loss when taken correctly. If you’re using caffeine primarily for workout performance, remember to pace your daily intake for a maximal benefit.

Fish oil

Daily intake of fish oil supplements have shown to lower unfavorable fat molecules in the blood and reduce blood pressure, so it can be considered to be a healthy supplement. Some athletes also anecdotally report that it helps soreness and joint pain. However, research has shown no significant effects of fish oil on its marketed effects of fat loss and cholesterol reduction.

BCAAs (Branched-chain amino acids)

BCAAs consist of the amino acids leucine, isoleucine, and valine in powdered form. Some research suggests that athletes can see minor improvements in aerobic exercise and fatigue, but with proper dietary intake of protein it’s unlikely that you will be deficient in these amino acids during exercise. A scoop of BCAA powder may be helpful during a workout if you’re exercising on an empty stomach.

These supplements should be taken only when you have been properly eating and exercising for some time. It may not be wise to spend money on these expensive supplements when just beginning a workout plan.

SEE ALSO: Nutrition tips from a national team wrestler

Buyer beware at the supplement store

On the other hand, there are several other supplements that market false claims and may not have any impact on your body at all. Here are some sports supplements that you may want to consider avoiding:

Arginine & Citrulline — These amino acids are marketed to increase muscle mass, enhance recovery, and reduce muscle soreness after training. Despite these attractive claims, no research to date has substantiated them.

Testosterone Boosters — The ingredients in common testosterone boosters such as fenugreek and maca have shown little if any boost to testosterone levels in the body.

Glutamine — An amino acid that is marketed to increase muscle mass. In reality, very little glutamine reaches muscle cells due to digestion in the stomach and intestines.

Raspberry ketones and garcinia cambogia — Marketed as fat-loss supplements, the research on these ingredients actually show very little benefit to losing weight. Be wary of “fat-burners” that contain these compounds!

So on your next visit to the supplement store, keep these ingredients in mind and do your research!

Casey Jones is a master's in science student at Dalhousie University, where he studies the link between the human microbiome and pediatric Crohn’s disease in Nova Scotians.