Sports Supplements

Legal and Illegal Sports Supplements — Get the Facts

It seems like every other day we see reports in the media of athletes or teams being accused or convicted of violations for the use of performance enhancing drugs. Indeed, prior to the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, there were calls for the entire Russian team to be banned.

In addition to sports drugs, however, there are numerous “dietary supplements” such as vitamins, herbs, sports drinks, and amino acids which are products designed to help people build muscle, boost energy, or lose weight.

Supplement ‘factoids’diet-supplements
  • There are more than 50,000 dietary supplements available
  • More than half of the U.S. adult population (~55%) consume dietary supplements
  • The most common supplements consumed are multivitamins
  • Estimates that nutritional supplement sales exceed 37 billion dollars and over 80 billion worldwide

What are supplements?

The “Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994” was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton. The DSHEA defined dietary supplements as food, thus ending previous decades of controversy over whether dietary supplements should be fit into the existing food or drug frameworks. The key features of the act were (i) that the word “dietary supplement” appear on the product’s package, and that there was a “supplement facts” panel (e.g., serving size, % daily value if established) included, as well.

Nature Made vitamin C Supplement nutrition facts

Supplements research at Auburn University

A number of research projects on the effectiveness of nutritional supplements and/or diet on performance are taking place within the School of Kinesiology at Auburn University. Michael Roberts, Ph.D., is one such faculty member, who is the director of the Molecular and Applied Sciences Lab (MASL). Sample projects include studying the effect of branched chain amino acid supplements on cyclists, and the testing of various protein supplements on muscle mass and body composition.

Cody Haun MASL lab protein study Kinesiology, Mike Roberts, Molecular Lab, College of Education

How does a supplements research project work?
  1. The lab is supplied with a particular supplement from one of the sponsoring companies. These have included FutureCeuticals, Bionutritional Research Group, Hilmar Ingredients, DolCas Biotech and Maximum Human Performance.
  2. As well as these supplements, a placebo (inactive) supplement designed to have no real effect is also supplied, so that those participating in the study are unaware of whether they are receiving the supplement or the one that should have no effect.
  3. Training studies usually last between 10 and 12 weeks, with the participants tested before and after the program. Some of these tests include (i) body composition (percent fat and lean muscle mass), (ii) performance on various strength or endurance tests, (iii) blood samples, and/or (iv) the analysis of small samples of muscle or fat taken from the leg and hip.
  4. Equally important during these studies, the Auburn researchers do not know which of their participants are receiving the real supplement or the inactive one. This ensures that there is no extra encouragement given to the group receiving the supplement.

Protein supplements

Dietary protein is mainly known for its role in the repair, maintenance, and growth of body tissues. For athletes, to build muscle it is essential that proper amounts of high quality protein be consumed at the proper times.

Think of a protein as strings of sausages, where each sausage represents one of 15 similar small molecules called amino acids. The cells in your intestine can’t absorb whole proteins, only single amino acids or very small chains of two or three amino acids – called peptides.  So digestive enzymes (specialized proteins themselves!) break down the proteins into their component amino acids – essentially, cutting the string between the sausages.

The amino acids and peptides are absorbed into the bloodstream and safely delivered at different parts around your body where they are required to maintain or rebuild tissue structures.

Key findings from protein research
  1. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reports athletes need about 1.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to build muscle mass (about 0.7 grams of protein per pound of body weight) each day.
  2. Milk proteins appear to be better than other select proteins at aiding in muscle growth.
  3. In cow’s milk, approximately 80% of milk protein is casein and the remaining 20 is whey protein. During the cheese-making process, whey and casein protein are a byproduct. Until the 1980s, these byproducts were typically disposed of. However, cheese-making companies now further purify these dairy proteins and sell them to nutritional supplement companies who, in turn, make whey or casein powders.
  4. Studies have reported that whey protein produces the greatest change in lean mass when compared to other protein supplements such as casein, soy, and other plant-based protein supplements (e.g., pea and rice protein).
  5. 30 g of whey protein after a workout is the recommended amount to optimize protein synthesis and muscle building.
  6. Chocolate milk has been found to be an excellent supplement after exercise as well, and as a result serves as a more convenient and cheaper option.

Proto whey power crunch protein powderchoc-milk

What about other amino acid supplements?
  • While the jury is still out, there does not appear to be much positive benefit from taking amino acid supplements, and they don’t appear to prolong exercise performance.
  • Glutamine supplementation, for example, has received little support from well-controlled scientific studies in healthy, well-nourished humans.

Fat burning supplements

There are a number of supplements available that are designed to help people lose weight. Typically, they are designed to reduce appetite (making you feel more full so that you eat fewer calories), reduce absorption of nutrients like fat (making you take in fewer calories), or increase fat burning (making you burn more calories).

It should be noted that many of these weight loss solutions can increase heart rate, increase blood pressure, and also potentially cause arrhythmias with long-term use.

Key findings from fat burning supplement research
  1. As a key finding, it has been found that diet and exercise alone have more drastic body composition changes (up to 20 lbs over a 3 month period) than the fat burning aids that actually work.
  2. With these supplements, the increases in weight loss measure only 3-5 lbs over the same time period.

Sports Drinks

It is generally accepted that taking in carbohydrates during exercise can improve endurance capacity (time to exhaustion) and exercise performance during prolonged exercise (>2 h). Most of the time these are available through the various sports drinks on the market.

Key findings from sports drink research
  1. gatorade and poweradeWhen looking for sports drinks, those that have combinations of carbohydrates, such as glucose and fructose, have been shown to be the most effective in helping endurance (both Powerade and Gatorade have this combination)
  2. The concentration of these carbohydrates should be between 6–8 percent.
  3. When you consume a sports drink, aim for regular intervals of 15-20 minutes and at least 20 ounces (2.5 cups) for each hour of the workout.
  4. Keep in mind that you don’t have to drink the entire amount at once.
  5. For a team sport athlete, drink about 20 ounces before a game starts, and then another 20 ounces at half time.


What about illegal supplements?

You’ve probably heard of PEDs, known as performance enhancing drugs. In contrast to nutritional supplements, these compounds are usually man-made, and as drugs, have the ability or potential to drastically altersports-doping the human body and its biology. Many of these have been found to be very successful in the ability to considerably improve athletic performance in certain instances.

These drugs, however, can be extremely dangerous and, in certain situations, deadly. As a result, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) was established in 1999 as an international independent agency composed and funded equally by the sport movement and governments of the world. Its key activities include scientific research, education, development of anti-doping capacities, and monitoring of the World Anti Doping Code – the document that ensures consistency across the anti-doping policies in all sports and all countries.

How does a substance get considered for the WADA Prohibited List?

Typically, a substance or method will be considered for the WADA Prohibited List if the substance or method meets any two of the following three criteria:

2017_World Anti-doping Prohibited List


  1. It has the potential to enhance or enhances sport performance
  2. It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete
  3. It violates the spirit of sport

If you are to look over the Prohibited List, you would find over 80 steroids, over 60 stimulants, over 20 peptide hormones (those related to promoting growth), and a number of hormone regulators. Also included are many diuretics and masking agents, as they are often used to conceal the presence of the drugs.

In addition to drugs themselves, WADA also bans what we call “blood doping” or “gene doping”. Blood doping is the practice of boosting the number of red blood cells in the bloodstream in order to enhance athletic performance. Because such blood cells carry oxygen from the lungs to the muscles, a higher concentration in the blood can improve an athlete’s aerobic capacity and endurance. For example, athletes in endurance sports such as cycling and cross-country skiing. Gene doping is a much newer process, and involves the transfer of genes or genetically modified cells into an individual as a potential method for illicitly enhancing athletic performance.

How do athletes engage in blood doping?

There are three common ways in which athletes try to boost their performance through blood doping.

  1. Taking some of their own blood, storing it, and then reintroducing it before competition.
  2. Using the blood of someone else with the same blood type.
  3. Injecting a hormone called EPO. EPO is a hormone produced by the kidney that stimulates the bone marrow to produce more red cells.

Who controls drug testing in sports in the USA?usada_logo

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) is recognized by the United States Congress as the official anti-doping organization for all Olympic, Paralympic, Pan American and Para Pan American sport in the United States.

The organization has a number of roles. Some of these include

  1. Conducting in-competition and out-of competition testing
  2. Developing drug reference resources
  3. Providing athlete education for all United States Olympic Committee (USOC) recognized sport national governing bodies, their athletes, and events.
  4. Producing a dietary supplement safety education and awareness source. Known as “Supplement 411,” the program is based upon 3 Rs: realize, recognize and reduce.

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