We have grocery stores and we have sports nutrition stores. To an uneducated eye this translates into the opinion that sports nutrition is vastly different from the nutrition of ordinary people. And it does not stop here. Athletes are seen to be consuming energy gels during exercise containing special ingredients that make them faster. Even more, a huge daily energy expenditure that can be four times as high as energy expenditure of a normal male calls for something special, doesn’t it?
No. No. Nope. NOPE!
Sports nutrition are pasta, rice and potatoes
Nutrition of elite athletes mainly consists of ingredients that we all buy and eat. This means carbohydrates, fats and protein. The very same nutrients that ordinary people eat. Athletes, in the very same manner as everybody else, need protein for muscle growth and repair as well as for other cellular structures in the body. Athletes also need fat, especially healthy fats found in fish oil, flaxseeds, avocado and all those healthy fat sources that are recommended to the general public. And athletes also need carbohydrates, so pasta, rice and potatoes.
What about all those supplements?
Most supplements that athletes are consuming are actually only carbohydrates and protein. You don’t believe me? Hear me out.
Energy gels – Those are used by endurance athletes and are a source of carbohydrates during exercise. They consist of sugars, water and usually some salts. Sometimes a gelling agent is added so that a gel is formed. Citric acid sometimes improves the taste and there are also some flavourings. Some gels have caffeine added. The very same caffeine that is present in a coffee, just in the amounts recommended for athletes.
Energy drinks – During exercise athletes can lose in excess of 1 litre of sweat per hour. This water needs to be replaced. So athletes drink. Drink a lot. Energy drinks are similar to gels, just less concentrated with sugars and electrolytes. They also don’t contain gelling agents. So, again we are talking about carbohydrates.
Protein shakes – Exercise damages muscles and other structures in the body and during the recovery period those need to be repaired. And for that, protein is required. Protein shakes are nothing else than an easy-to-ingest source of a high-quality protein. And guess what – protein in the shakes most of the time comes from dairy. It is called whey protein. It is all natural.
Now the list of most common things that athletes ingest and your grandmother and grandfather don’t has almost been exhausted.
But I hear you – what about the pills that athletes are carrying around and taking them?
To be honest, I don’t believe that elite athletes actually take many pills. And even if they do, most of the time they are:
- a marginal gain (they improve the performance by a very small amount or help athletes get the required micronutrients they might be deficient from);
- useless (they don’t do anything),
- a placebo (they only help because athletes think they help them).
As a nutritionist, I feel responsible that athletes do not ingest anything their body doesn’t need or risk eating something that would actually do more harm than good.
A question why would an athlete need to be supplementing with special products? needs to be asked first.
- Energy density
Food present in nature and ordinary grocery stores is as energy-dense as the meal replacements. So there simply cannot be any benefit from ingesting meal replacement products. For instance, most of the Haribo candy is made out of carbohydrates and same applies for pasta and rice.
- Micronutrient composition of foods
There is no doubt about the fact that food we all eat contains everything that human body needs. Vitamins, minerals – all of them. We are living on the planet Earth for years now and this likely is not going to change. So why would someone eat special products manufactured in special facilities that are called meal replacement products? Perhaps because they are more convenient. Fair. But let me tell you that professional cycling teams have their own chefs with them and their trucks they are driving around have kitchens built in. But let’s go back to the meal replacement products quickly. They are made in the factories and are designed by humans. We cannot be sure that they contain everything they should (all the nutrients in a sufficient bioavailable form) and we cannot be sure that they are clean! Clean from banned substances. There are indeed numerous publicly known cases of athletes eating a meal replacement product thinking that they are having a healthy snack when in reality they were about to fail an anti-doping test. Nobody wants that!
- Special pills give you more of *insert a word*
I’ve heard so many things about how different supplements help with the performance but have only seen evidence of their efficacy for a few of them. Perhaps there are a handful of supplements that could help a bit with improvements in recovery and/or performance but only when the day-to-day nutrition is well designed. Here I like to borrow a list of rules by Professor Ron Maughan that numerous times said:
1. If it works, it is probably banned.
2. If it isn’t banned, then it probably doesn’t work.
3. There may be some exceptions.