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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.
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Sports Nutrition Supplements

This is a broad category that includes both sports performance and weight loss supplements. It includes pills, powders, formulas and drinks formulated not just to hydrate but to enhance physical activity. Among them are creatine, amino acids, protein formulas, and fat burners.

"These products provide a subtle, incremental effect. You can't use a sports supplement for a week and expect to gain pounds of muscle, but if used properly, research shows they can provide a slight, not overwhelming, edge," says Andrew Shoa, PhD, vice president for regulatory affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition, a trade association for the dietary supplement industry.

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.

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