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The Truth Behind the Top 10 Dietary Supplements

What you need to know about the most popular dietary and nutritional supplements on the market.

Sports Nutrition Supplements continued...

Kris Clark, PhD, RD, sports nutrition director at Penn State University, says she very carefully uses select sports supplements with collegiate athletes: "I rely on the major nutrients in food, timing of meals and fluids to enhance athletic performance, and in general I discourage dietary supplements, other than the use of sport shakes, bars, and gels after practice or events for muscle cell recovery."

She also uses chocolate milk, which she says is "the perfect recovery drink that includes protein, carbohydrates and fluids."

"Creatine is one of the most popular supplements, with over 100 studies consistently showing it can work in muscle cell recovery in athletes who engage in high-intensity, short-burst activity such as sprinting or weight lifting," notes Clark. "But it does not work for endurance or recreational athletics." (She cautions anyone taking creatine to be sure they stay well hydrated to avoid cramping.)

Stimulants are also common ingredients in sports supplements, says Shao. "Some products that contain stimulants like caffeine have been shown to be a performance enhancer," he says. "But it is not a panacea and must be part of a healthy diet and fitness routine."  

Clark prefers to get these benefits from caffeinated drinks instead.  "You can get the same boost from a cup of coffee or an energy drink that are safe. ... When you take supplements, there are often cryptic ingredients that could be potentially risky."

Calcium

Calcium is one of the minerals most often lacking in Americans' diets. But experts say that whenever you can, you should choose calcium from foods such as dairy products, fortified foods, dark leafy greens, soybeans, beans, fish, and raisins.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommends three servings of low-fat or non-fat dairy each day to help bridge this gap. But there are plenty of people who shun dairy, the best source of calcium in our diets.

"Many people misinterpret a sensitivity to lactose and think they are lactose-intolerant," says Grotto.

If you have not been diagnosed as lactose-intolerant, give dairy another chance. Start slowly, with a small amount with meals, or try dairy products that are lower in lactose, such as aged cheeses and yogurt.

If you do choose a calcium supplement, look for calcium citrate or lactate. These forms are best absorbed by the body, says Grotto.

B vitamins

B vitamins include thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, and vitamin B-12.

Many of us don't need these supplements, experts say.

"Romance surrounds the B vitamins because people misuse them to reduce stress and think a supplement will make them a nice person in traffic," says Grotto. "But there is not much research to support this theory. And besides, our diets are plentiful in B vitamins."

One exception, he says, is seniors, who may need additional B-12 because as we get older, we absorb less of it. Most of us should skip the supplements and get our Bs from grains, dark green vegetables, orange juice, and enriched foods. People with certain medical conditions or who take drugs that interfere with vitamin absorption may also require supplementation.

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