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What do you need to know before taking a nutritional supplement to practice sports?

Nutritional supplement for cirrhotics developed at UNAM - Gaceta UNAM

Physical exercise is an activity that increasingly occupies a more important place in the lives of many people. Without having to dedicate ourselves professionally to it, it is not strange that we want to improve our performance or overcome problems and adversities that arise during our favorite sport. A quick and simple search allows us to find a large multitude of products that claim that they can help us be faster, stronger and more resistant. But are all these products safe?

The first thing we should know is that many of these products have been developed for other purposes. “There are products used in the supplementation of older people that are beginning to be used in athletes in the form of smoothies or energy shakes, formulated to be absorbed very quickly without causing gastrointestinal problems. "Exactly what we are looking for in 'sport foods' that facilitate the consumption of nutrients before, during and after sports practice," says Carla Escuder, community pharmacist, specialist in sports nutrition and member of the Society's nutrition and digestive group. Spanish Family and Community Pharmacy (SEFAC).

“Although this is a field of great impact on society - and also on athletes - that generates an enormous amount of money, the reality is that there are few truly significant advances that are notable. Perhaps the only thing is the use of ketones to improve performance through an improvement in the use of energy substrates or the use of hydroxymethylbutyrate to increase muscle strength,” says Dr. Pedro Manonelles, professor at the Catholic University. San Antonio de Murcia of Sports Medicine, who comments how in any case these are observations that require further research to truly verify their usefulness.

There are no unique formulas

Running is not the same as lifting weights or playing tennis. And we must also keep in mind that what may be useful for a person who practices sports regularly may not be enough for someone who does it sporadically. The physical condition of each person also determines the needs. The advice of an expert is always important, since he is the one who can best know what these needs are and avoid future problems.

Therefore, first of all, a complete nutritional assessment must be carried out on each athlete and the multiple variables that may exist at any given time must be evaluated. In this way, Dr. Manonelles points out that, although it is most recommended that this evaluation be carried out by a sports medical professional, this is not always done. “Unfortunately, what usually happens is that the athlete decides to take them on his own or after non-medical advice.”

“The first step is to determine if the athlete needs that supplement. To do this, it is advisable to have a complete blood test to see your true nutritional status,” explains Carla Escuder, who also adds that “the choice also varies depending on the sports practice you do. This is recommended to avoid supplementing with products that are not necessary or appropriate and many times, due to lack of knowledge, stopping doing so when it would be necessary, especially for fear that it would be dangerous."

Once the product has been chosen, it is also very important to know its use. “The industry recommends a very general dosage that can serve more or less all athletes, but there are cases that have to be more individualized. If they are supplementing with a necessary product, but with the wrong dosage, it will not be effective,” says Carla Escuder.

“It is also important that the athlete takes into account the true usefulness of the product and that it is appropriate to their needs. You should also know that supplements can have side effects and counterproductive effects,” adds Dr. Pedro Manonelles, who emphasizes that there are very few nutritional supplements that have been shown to be truly useful for improving performance and that it is important to have the origin of the product is clear, especially when purchased online. “In those cases it is possible that they do not contain what one wants and could even include doping products in their composition,” warns the professor.

Is there a risk of doping?

In principle, no product that has been purchased on a regular basis should cause doping problems. The World Anti-Doping Agency issues a report every year with all the assets that they consider doping and are therefore prohibited in competitions. It is important to know that this list is not fixed and is subject to modifications. “For example, caffeine was removed from the list of prohibited products, however its quantity and relationship with improving sports performance is up for debate. If you work with trusted supplementation brands you ensure that these active ingredients will not be in their composition. In fact, there are quality seals that certify whether a brand is safe,” says Carla Escuder.

However, in many countries the regulations on dietary supplements can be very lax, so it is not surprising that supplements sold in health food stores or online contain prohibited substances that do not appear on the product label. In recent years, a large number of positive tests have been attributed to mislabeled or contaminated supplements. “To give an example, there have been a large number of cases in recent years, including at the Olympic Games, of athletes testing positive for the banned stimulant methylhexanamine, which is also known as dimethylamylamine or which can be called extract of geranium root or geranium oil, although it does not come from this oil or from plants. These names may or may not appear on the product label, but methylhexanamine never does. Thus, when in doubt, it is better not to take it or check with its batch number that it is free of prohibited substances on a page such as Informed-sport,” adds Paula Briones, member of Food of the Official College of Pharmacists of A Coruña.

And those who are not athletes?

Generally speaking, all these products are not necessary when you do not practice sports, as long as you eat a balanced diet, since it covers the nutritional requirements. “If you still decide to take them, it should always be under the prescription and advice of a nutrition expert, because supplements are not free of health risks and the recommended doses should not be exceeded,” explains Paula Briones.

“If there is a deficiency, such as iron or calcium, someone who is not an athlete can take them. Also those whose physical work causes situations similar to those of sports could find some use. Outside of this context, nutritional supplements are not necessary for people who do not practice sports,” adds Pedro Manonelles.

Carla Escuder, for her part, considers that it is also possible in other circumstances that these supplements provide benefits to people who do not practice sports. “There are different articles that talk about the safety of creatine in the geriatric or sick population, since it is a great ally to increase strength and muscle mass. There is also literature that recommends its use in the children's population, not as such, but as part of other compounds." The sports nutrition specialist also points out that regarding hydroxymethylbutyrate, which increases muscle mass, there are studies that support its use in older people to prevent sarcopenia and in children to maintain muscle mass.

Understanding the different classes

When starting to take some type of nutritional aid or supplement to improve sports performance, it is important to understand that, although we can find them all together, there are different categories. In this way, the first thing is to understand the different categories that exist:

  • Supplement: These products cover the lack of some nutrient that we cannot obtain through food or that is not enough.
  • Complement: Its function is to complete or reinforce the diet to obtain optimal levels of nutrients and improve physiological functions.
  • Ergogenic aids: These are legally used substances that increase the ability to perform physical work and improve performance.

In this way, there are four fundamental categories in which nutritional supplements for athletes can be classified:

  • Foods and drinks rich in carbohydrates, which contribute to the recovery of normal muscle function after high-intensity or long-duration exercise.
  • Carbohydrate and electrolyte solutions, which help maintain the level of resistance in prolonged exercises and improve water absorption during exercise.
  • Foods and drinks rich in protein, essential to activate muscle hypertrophy pathways and prevent protein catabolism, that is, when the body consumes its own tissues to nourish itself, when combined with exercise, helping to increase muscle strength and power. .
  • Performance-enhancing supplements, such as caffeine, creatine or polyunsaturated fatty acids, it is very important not to exceed the recommended doses.


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