Are the 2012 Olympics inspiring you to get fit and build your strength and stamina? Good for you. Just don't look for a quick fix in an athletic supplement bottle.
"Athletic supplements not nearly as helpful as people imagine," says Dave Ellis, RD, a sports dietitian and past president of the Collegiate & Professional Sports Dietitians Association. "It's more hype than substance."
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For the average weekend warrior -- let alone couch potato -- sports supplements can be a waste of money. Even worse, they can be a health risk if you take too much, says Ellen Coleman, RD, a sports dietitian and exercise physiologist who has worked with the Olympic athletes and teams like the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Truth About Athletic Supplements
Lots of people imagine that athletic supplements work like spinach did for Popeye or like a power-up in a video game. You imagine that they give you a boost of super-strength or super-stamina. Not really.
Yes, some supplements do have an effect on athletic performance. However, that effect is usually slight. Most supplements tend to benefit only a specific athlete in a specific situation, Coleman says. "I see lots of athletes taking supplements for the wrong reasons," she says.
Most people can get all the protein and amino acids they need from a well-balanced diet. Even a 200-pound strength athlete needs just 150 grams of protein a day, experts say. An average person weighing 150 pounds needs about 88 grams of protein a day. What's more, food naturally provides the complex mix of amino acids our bodies need, while supplements often focus on one or two types of amino acids.
Ellis says sports supplements should be reserved for special situations -- such as when a stressed-out college athlete is exhausted at the end of a season but has to keep going.
Popular Sports Supplements
Here's a rundown on popular athletic supplements to help you sort fact from fiction.
Creatine seems to help the muscles make energy quickly for intense activity. Studies have shown it can help people like sprinters, says Coleman. However, she often sees it misused. "I see marathon runners who take it," she says. "But it's not going to help them. In fact, it could cause them to gain weight and slow down."
Beta-alanine is another amino acid that could benefit some athletes. "It could help someone in stop-and-go sports like football or basketball," says Coleman. Studies seem to show that beta-alanine works best in highly trained athletes.
Whey protein can help build muscle mass, says Coleman. It seems to work better than other types of protein, such as soy or casein. Athletes may take it right after a workout to help with muscle repair. Whey protein isn't an instant muscle powder. It only works along with rigorous training.
Caffeine is a very common ingredient in sports supplements. Why? "Supplement manufacturers love caffeine because you feel it rev you up," Ellis says. "That makes you buy more of it."
Caffeine does have some potential benefits for some athletes. It may help endurance athletes last longer, says Coleman. But because it's everywhere -- in supplements, sodas, energy drinks, and energy bars -- it's easy to get too much caffeine.
"Your body does a good job of revving you up naturally before a competition," says Felicia Stoler, RD, an exercise physiologist and registered dietitian in New Jersey. Adding a lot of caffeine to that natural buzz can push you over the edge into anxiety.
Other stimulants. Coleman says that if you're going to use a stimulant, stick with caffeine. "We have the most research about caffeine," she tells WebMD. Other stimulants -- such as bitter orange -- could be risky.