How Effective is the Consumption of Supplements Vs Actual Food?

Three out of four Canadians put their trust in vitamins and dietary supplements to improve their health and fitness despite persistent questions about their effectiveness. Among the most frequent users are athletes and gym rats — 40 to 70 per cent consume pills and powders in the hope of aiding recovery, building muscle and boosting energy.
The premise behind most supplement use is that they enhance or fortify a diet lacking in a particular nutrient or micronutrient. Athletes who indulge consider supplements a necessary part of their training regimen, typically using protein powders and amino acids to regenerate a body broken down by tough workouts.
Despite a burgeoning market that has seen supplements go from behind the counter to over the counter, there’s little evidence that health and performance can be improved with the help of any of the 55,000 products on the market. This in spite of the $250-300 million invested annually by the American-based National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund research into the field of dietary supplements.
To date none of that research has demonstrated significant improvements in health and/or performance and most supplements don’t measure up to the claims on the label. Echinacea had little effect on the common cold, St. John’s wort didn’t combat depression, ginkgo biloba was unsuccessful at making us smarter and amino acid supplements failed to help athletes jump higher, run faster or throw farther.
“For the majority of adults, supplements likely provide little, if any, benefit,” said Peter Cohen in an editorial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association this past October.

That doesn’t mean that supplements are worthless. On the contrary, when used to complement diets that are short on the nutrients needed to maintain health and performance, vitamins and supplements can be useful. But even then, there’s cause for concern. Studies in neutral labs have shown that one in five products sold by retailers in Canada and the U.S. don’t conform to the ingredients listed on the label. In some cases the products were short on ingredients and in others, consumers were getting more than they bargained for. This lack of product control is a problem for anyone combining supplements with other medications and for elite athletes who may be subject to random drug testing by sporting agencies looking to curb the use of banned performance enhancing substances.
A number of media reports have highlighted the lack of robust science around the use of supplements and the uncertainty regarding the purity of their contents, but until recently there was little to suggest that the average consumer is listening. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association used data obtained from 37,000 interviews to highlight some interesting trends that imply supplement users may indeed be paying attention.
According to this impressively large pool of information collected between 1999 and 2012, there was a notable decline in the popularity of several vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, including vitamin C, vitamin E, ginkgo biloba, ginseng and selenium. Also suffering from a dip in use is multivitamins, which the study’s authors suggest is due to “increased scrutiny of multivitamins following several studies showing no benefit.” But while these select supplements proved less popular, others saw their use increase.

Glucosamine/chondroitin supplements (used to reduce joint pain), omega-3 fatty acids (claims of reduced risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease), lycopene (claims to reduce the risk of prostate cancer), vitamin D (various claims including reducing the risk of cancer, fractures, cardiovascular disease and multiple sclerosis) and probiotics all realized a spike in popularity that helped keep overall sales relatively constant.
Is there any proof that the latest round of supplements are any better than those that have fallen out of favour? Not yet, though labs around the world are still trying to find a product that delivers fitness and wellness in a bottle. In the meantime, nutrition experts claim a healthy lifestyle delivers all the benefits consumers are trying to find in pills and powders.
“In most cases, good training, a healthy and balanced diet and enough rest will help your performance more than any supplement,” said Dietitians of Canada.
That said, some types of training and schedules make it difficult to consume all the nutrients needed to optimize health and performance. In that case, supplements can be helpful, though the type and quantities should be chosen with the help of a certified nutritionist who specializes in sports performance. Keep in mind that most personal trainers have little or no formal training in nutrition and shouldn’t be considered experts in evaluating your need for supplements.

“Nutritionists can help you get the results you want,” said Catherine Naulleau, a Montreal-based sports nutritionist who works with elite and recreational athletes.
Consult the Dieticians of Canada website for basic guidelines on nutritional and sports supplements as well as for a list of dietitians in your area. Until then, rely on proven pathways to better health and performance, like healthy food, regular exercise and a good night’s sleep.

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