Supplement Perspectives

How Much Value Do Sports Nutrition Supplements Add?

You may not like the answer. Anthony Almada has more.

The late 1970s to the early 1980s marked the addition of muscle magazines to my nighttime reading routine. Invariably, each issue made some mention like “nutrition and supplements are responsible for up to 80 percent of your gains.”

In retrospect, this was a laughable assertion…but one that I devoured like a ‘60s muscle car drinks gas. The origins of such inflated hyperbole I know not; I would guess it stemmed from these magazines wanting to sell more supplements. But the song remains largely the same, sung among the masses of “bro science devotees” and nutrition evangelists. And then a little thing called evidence started to emerge…

As a pretty decent high school competitive swimmer in the late ‘70s—who also was the first to stuff his sandwich with alfalfa sprouts, demand whole grain bread from his Wonder® bread-bred mother, and buy his own natural peanut butter—I witnessed a buffet of different dietary practices, admonitions, and superstitions. When I added resistance training to my suite of exercise the buffet became a 24/7 cafeteria and was peppered with “old school” supplements: dessicated liver, wheat germ oil, mega weight gainers, and even “vitamin B15.”

The mantra back then, which persists today, is “You need to eat clean every meal!” to get maximum gains—in performance, muscle mass gains, and/or fat mass drops. I knew people who ate a Big Mac® (or two) and fries three times a week and had phenomenal physiques. Others lived off white bread and bologna sandwiches, chips, and cookies. They still blew by me in the water like a pod of dolphins chasing fish.

Almost two years ago some Swedish researchers chose to address the now multi-generational assertion that one needs to eat clean (and lean/light) to get maximum gains—while engaging in an exercise program. This study enrolled 24 young male medical students (one was not a med student) who belonged to a gym. They were asked to engage in a resistance training session for at least one hour, thrice weekly, for 12 weeks. Endurance or “cardio” exercise was proscribed.

This next part—the different treatment—you’re going to really like. Half of the group was told to eat a famous fast food meal once daily, adding a whopping average of over 1,300 calories, 51 grams of fat, 41 grams of protein, and 182 grams of carbs (mostly starch). The other half took in 30 grams of protein only (from Whey Protein Fuel by Twinlab, since discontinued and replaced by 100% Whey Fuel). Notably, the subjects were not instructed as to when to ingest the meal or protein supplement.

What happened to the Super-Size Me physiques compared to the wheyfarers? As they say en France… “No différence!” Muscle mass, fat mass, and strength gains were not different between groups. Metabolic health got somewhat waylaid by the mighty meal addition—whole body insulin resistance—compared to the “right wheyers.”

The takeaway from this pilot study: on the outside, the consumer-relevant results (in the mirror and in the gym) were not enhanced by adding what many consider the Crown Prince of Proteins compared to a daily fast food feast. In 1999, we (within Dr. Richard Kreider’s lab while he was at the University of Memphis) published a study showing that, after 12 weeks of intense resistance training among Division I collegiate football players during off season training, a very popular whey protein-centric supplement imparted no greater muscle gains than…NO supplement or a carbohydrate supplement.

Yes, there are many studies showing that supplements can help performance and body composition. Among strength and endurance athletes, I have co-authored a few of them. Know, however, many studies show very popular, ostensibly evidence-based sports supplements—that do nothing.

Anthony Almada is CEO of Vitargo Global Sciences, LLC.

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