The truth about sports performance products

By Amanda Johnson 30/07/2012

Well, the Olympic Games are now in full swing, and the eyes of the world are focussed on London as international top athletes compete for gold.

It is quite timely, then, that the British Medical Journal has just published a paper on sports performance products and the usefulness (or lack) of taking such products.

This was the subject of a documentary in the UK on the BBC’s Panorama programme and has sparked considerable debate in the UK. Check out these articles on the BBC news website and in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

Basically, the BBC Panorama team worked with researchers from Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence Based Medicine and the British Medical Journal to investigate the research and scientific evidence behind claims made about sports performance products as part of a systematic assessment. The authors of this research viewed 1,035 web pages and identified 431 performance-enhancing claims for 104 different products.

This research found a striking lack of evidence to support the claims made by the vast majority of sports-related products – including drinks, supplements and footwear – to enhance performance or recovery. Half the websites provided no evidence for their claims and, of those who did, half the evidence was not suitable for critical appraisal.

The authors conclude that it is virtually impossible for the public to make informed choices about the benefits and harms of advertised sports products based on the available evidence.

So what’s the bottom line when it comes to sports supplements? Well, they are certainly very popular! It is a multi-billion dollar industry and lots of people are using an array of different products. Most of us though (if we are just exercising at the gym a few times a week for 30-60 mins for example) simply don’t need to spend the money on these products.

In fact, even for athletes, a balanced diet will generally provide the nutrients necessary for sport. I should add that for certain elite athletes, it may be beneficial to take some nutrition supplements but this should be under the guidance of an Accredited Sports Dietitian.

The British Dietetic Association has a nice summary of the recommendations in this area, and a dietetic colleague of mine, Celine Evans, has put together some guidelines and recommendations on sports supplements for New Zealanders.

Celine’s advice for athletes in relation to protein supplements for example is that “Protein supplements are not recommended if an athlete is eating a variety of foods to maintain their body weight and energy needs.”

However, she does go on to say that “Consultation with a Sports Dietitian is recommended for any athletes at risk of disordered eating patterns and/or suspected unbalanced dietary practices.”

For most of us though, we can stick to a healthy balanced diet – and save ourselves a fair bit of money!