Sports supplements can be useful, but should be individualised, paired with a healthy diet, and approached with care, says Katherine Caris-Harris.

With the sports nutrition market valued at £45.2 billion in 2020, it’s not just would-be Arnold Schwarzeneggers who are propping up this booming industry.

Whatever your activity, there is a supplement aimed at you.

From powders and drinks, to pills and bars, sports supplements are readily available on the high street, as well as online.

With no particular age restrictions (although some products are not meant to be purchased by anyone under the age of 16) they are available to anyone who can a­fford them.

Whether it's in the form of protein powders, amino acids, high dose vitamins and minerals, weight loss aids or energy boosters intended to help build muscle, lose weight or improve performance, it seems that there is something for everyone.

According to a survey of 459 people, more than 40% reported using dietary supplements, mostly to improve muscle mass and overall fitness performance.

Another survey of 348 young athletes aged 15-18 found that more than 80% of respondents used sports supplements, with protein being the most popular (54.5%).

Are sports supplements good for you?

According to Katherine Caris-Harris, a registered nutritional therapist who specialises in sports nutrition, sports supplements may be beneficial for some but a healthy and balanced diet should always form the foundations of performance.

“The basics, such as diet and lifestyle, need to be in place before fitness enthusiasts start to think about layering on supplements,” she says.

“If you want to eat a highly processed diet low in fresh vegetables and quality protein, that is fine, but you can’t expect a B complex and some magnesium to make up for this.”

She also emphasises that there is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to supplements.

“Supplements can be a useful adjunct, but they should be individualised; all people have unique demands on their body and we are all biochemically unique, so the requirements of one person are likely to be very di­fferent to those of the next.”

Gut dysfunction, hormonal imbalances, poor sleep, repeated infections and injuries, or just a busy lifestyle may all a­ffect how we absorb and digest certain nutrients.

Caris-Harris says that assessing someone in the context of their diet, lifestyle, genetics and “life load” is therefore key.

“It is important to understand the specific sport, training schedule [intensity and duration] and the unique requirements it places on someone’s body.”

But this is only part of the picture.

“Nutritional therapy is also about lifestyle,” she adds. “I incorporate a very holistic approach so, for example, [by] educating clients on the power of sleep for performance, immune function and optimal metabolic health.”

If you are thinking of supplementing, a registered nutritional therapist can advise on this. However, Caris-Harris says to start by paying attention to the quality of the product.

How to choose sports supplements

“As with food, it is about quality,” she says. “Some cheap supplements will have fillers added, such as cheap synthetic forms of vitamins with di­ffering bio-availabilities.”

This is a term used to describe how much of a nutrient is absorbed or activated by the body.

However, rather than just focusing on the cost, she recommends looking at what is in the supplement.

She says you should try to understand the interaction it may have with other vitamins and minerals in your body or in relation to any other medication you might be taking.

Magnesium, for example, comes in more than five or six di­fferent forms, which can all a­ffect how they are absorbed and used by the body.

Vitamins and minerals are also meant to work in synergy, so too much of something can be as harmful as too little.

“For competitive athletes, particularly those who are elite or professional, supplementation needs to be done with care,” says Caris-Harris. “Looking for supplements that are Informed Sport Certified is paramount.”

Should I take protein supplements?

Frequently added to chocolatey snack bars and milky shakes, protein has become something of a buzzword.

Proteins are necessary to build, maintain and repair muscles, but there is still a lot of debate around how much we need to consume.

A 2018 analysis of 49 studies found protein supplementation to be beneficial for athletes and fitness enthusiasts wanting to bulk up with strength training.

The research suggested that protein supplements significantly improved muscle size and strength in healthy adults who performed resistance exercise, such as lifting weights.

Evidence also suggests that protein supplementation is equally e­ffective in both men and women.

However, e­ffectiveness may decrease with age, as older adults have higher protein requirements than younger people.

The study also found that once protein exceeded 1.6g per kilogram bodyweight a day, the participants did not experience any additional benefits.

According to the researchers, this is because the body uses the proteins it needs and expels those it doesn’t, meaning there is no benefit to consuming more protein than needed.

What are branched chain amino acids?

There are 20 di­fferent amino acids used to make proteins in the body. Of these, nine are considered essential, meaning they must be consumed through diet.

Three of these nine — leucine, isoleucine and valine — are known as branched chain amino acids (BCAAs) and are important for building and maintaining muscle.

Found in foods such as eggs, meat and dairy, BCAAs are also sold in supplement form — primarily powders, designed to be mixed with water.

One meta-analysis of eight studies found that BCAA supplementation after exercise caused a reduction in delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) compared to a placebo.

Further research has also demonstrated that BCAAs taken before and after resistance exercise reduce muscle damage and accelerate recovery in males.

Enjoyed this article?

Learn about how to make the healthiest smoothies

For articles and recipes subscribe to the Optimum Nutrition newsletter

Discover our courses in nutrition