Athletes know that eating right is as important as working out when it comes to winning. Unfortunately, many teen athletes prefer Cheetos and energy drinks to fruits and vegetables. They’d rather eat what they want most of the time and then squeeze in a few protein shakes and some supplements. Supplement advertisers are more than happy to convince teens that “good nutrition” can fit into a pill bottle and some whey powder. But can it?
When foods are processed and their nutrients are extracted for packaging into supplements, the various nutrients in the food are separated into different products. When nutrients are no longer eaten together, as they would be in a whole food, the way they are processed in the body can change.
Some of this is understood and some of it has yet to be discovered. When companies understand how nutrients work, they can try to group them together in their products. Often, however, nutrient interactions aren’t completely understood. When people eat whole foods, they don’t need to understand how every nutrient works. They just need to eat them. When taking supplements, however, it’s hard to know what you may be missing.
Some nutrients, for instance, can’t be absorbed without the presence of another, second, nutrient. When that second nutrient is missing, it doesn’t matter how much of the first nutrient a supplement contains. Most of it is never going to make it into the bloodstream. Instead, it will literally be flushed down the toilet.
When sold as food supplements, nutrients are not only isolated, they are also concentrated. This means that there is much more of the nutrient in the supplement than is found in a whole fruit or vegetable. When nutrients are extremely concentrated, it’s easy for people to accidentally take too much. In some cases, people take so much that the nutrient becomes toxic. There are “Tolerable Upper Intake Levels” of vitamins and minerals. This is the limit of how much a person can safely consume. Unfortunately, the fact that these limits exist is not well-known. They can be found at: Scientific Report of EFSA (europa.eu)
Because food supplements are derived from natural substances, many people assume that all supplements are safe. This isn’t always true. There are thousands of supplements on the market in the US and, unlike medications, they are not certified by the Food and Drug Administration. It’s much safer and more reliable to get your nutrition directly from whole foods.
To help athletes meet the challenge of safe nutrition, the US Anti-Doping Association (USADA) has published a downloadable booklet entitled “Nutrition Guide, Fueling for Performance”. The purpose of this booklet is to show athletes how they can get the winning nutrition they need by eating real food instead of taking supplements. The booklet contains useful and easy-to-understand charts of what foods to eat and when to eat them, both before and after competitions.