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Supplements can’t replace benefits of healthy foods


A well-planned nutrition and hydration plan positively influences athletic performance. Combine proper nutrition with physical training, conditioning, mental preparation, optimal sleep habits and commitment, and athletes are well on their way to successful careers. However, with a multi-billion dollar dietary supplement industry marketing new specialized sports nutrition products, many student-athletes fall prey to choosing dietary supplement products over whole foods and fluids. In fact, in a 2005 NCAA survey, 41 percent of student-athletes reported consuming nutritional supplements. Creatine, protein and amino acid products, and thermogenic products for weight loss were most commonly named.

When we, as practitioners, dismiss the use of dietary supplements, we may lose credibility with athletes. It is important that coaches, strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers stay informed and maintain an open dialogue with student-athletes about the different products on the market, while also educating them on the importance of consuming adequate nutrients through food. This means helping student-athletes understand that they can obtain the performance enhancement they desire from choosing the right foods and beverages.

The foundation of a healthy diet includes lean proteins, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, low-fat dairy and healthy fats. For athletes, the type and timing of macronutrients are also critical to enhance sports performance. Each food group supplies the body with different vitamins and minerals needed for proper growth, development and health (see the Understanding Dietary Supplements fact sheet for specifics). Moreover, foods provide much more than just vitamins and minerals. Whole foods contain powerful compounds and chemicals that work synergistically to improve the nutritional potential of the diet, far beyond what is possible from individual nutrients or supplements.

The U.S. government strictly regulates foods for ingredients, additives, manufacturing practices, safety and packaging. That is not the case for dietary supplements. Under the Dietary Supplement Health Education Act (DSHEA), dietary supplements are not required to be registered with or obtain pre-market approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This means the FDA provides no assurance of purity, safety or effectiveness 2. The FDA must show that a supplement is unsafe or has been adulterated before it can be removed from the market2. The FDA does not conduct premarket reviews to determine if a supplement is effective and manufacturers are not required to share with consumers or the FDA any information on safety or effectiveness of supplements 2. As such, dietary supplements are not well regulated, can cause adverse health effects and may result in a positive test for banned substances 2.

Some situations, however, may call for nutritional supplementation beyond whole foods. For example, athletes who omit a certain food group due to a food allergy or other medical issue, or athletes on lower calorie diets may need to supplement their diet in order to meet the recommended daily intake. Further, dietary supplements may be necessary to treat or prevent a known nutrient deficiency. If vitamin/mineral supplementation is required, it should be part of a total dietary management plan and prescribed by a sports dietitian or a physician with nutrition training. Dietary supplements should never be taken in place of a healthy diet or “just in case” an athlete feels it is needed. If taken in large amounts or at the wrong time, some dietary supplements can actually hinder performance and/or can be harmful.

In this ever-changing world of functional/fortified foods and nutraceuticals, differentiation of products by reliance on the label heading of either “Nutrition Facts” or “Supplement Facts” does not always assure that a product does or does not contain a dietary supplement ingredient. However, products with a “Supplement Facts” label must also include a disclaimer: “This statement has not been evaluated by the FDA. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.”

When additional macronutrients and hydration are needed, athletes should first complement meals with foods and beverages that have a Nutrition Facts Panel. Sports drinks, bars and gels can be a practical and convenient way to complement an athlete’s diet if more calories are needed. The Nutrition Facts Panel indicates that the food product contains nutrients found in everyday foods. Conversely, just because a food or beverage item has a Nutrition Facts Panel does not mean it is recommended. Some products, such as energy drinks, may be dangerous and subject athletes to disqualification due to high levels of caffeine and other stimulants.

Coaches and athletic trainers need open communication with student-athletes to properly address the use of supplements and ergogenic aids,. Sports foods and dietary supplements, when used as directed and indicated, can assist student-athletes in meeting their unique nutritional needs. Dietary supplements should never be used to replace a nutrient-dense diet. All student-athletes should be familiar with and adhere to NCAA drug education and drug-testing policy, and should be routinely reminded that they are responsible for what they ingest.


NCAA Nutritional/Dietary Supplements Warning:

  • Dietary supplements are not well regulated and may cause a positive drug test result.
  • Student-athletes have tested positive and lost their eligibility using dietary supplements.
  • Many dietary supplements are contaminated with banned drugs not listed on the label.
  • Any product containing a dietary supplement ingredient is taken at your own risk!


This article was written for the Sport Science Institute by SCAN Registered Dietitians (RDs). For advice on customizing a hydration plan, consult an RD who specializes in sports, particularly a Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD). Find a SCAN RD at

  1. Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, Rosenbloom C, Coleman E. Sports Nutrition: A Practice Manual for Professionals, 5th edition. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: 2012.
  2. U.S. Senate. 103rd Congress. Public Law 103-417, Dietary Supplement and Education Act of 1994. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1994. Available here online.

Last Updated: Sep 12, 2013