Have you ever flipped through a fitness magazine and thought, “Take all my money”?

Advertisements may lead us to believe that sports nutrition supplements are shortcuts to mighty muscles and an engine that won’t quit. It’s easy to see the appeal, and you’re certainly not alone if you carry a supplement store loyalty card in your wallet.

Natural Products INSIDER predicts the global market for sports supplements will reach nearly $34 billion in revenue by 2022. Several factors have contributed to this surge in demand; among them, an increasing perception that supplements offer health and performance advantages beyond whole foods.

Reality check: Sports nutrition products — including powders, bars, drinks and gels — may be beneficial in certain cases, but they’re usually not necessary. So, let’s compare the benefits of whole foods and supplements and discuss how to find quality solutions.

In Defense of Food
A well-balanced diet provides most of the nutrients a healthy adult needs. Supplement formulas today are more similar to whole foods than in the past, with added vitamins and minerals to boost their nutritional profiles, but whole foods still have some advantages.

Even with fortification, you might miss opportunities to take in key nutrients when you choose supplements. One scoop of whey protein powder and 1 1/3 cup of cooked lentils each contain 25 grams of protein. But the lentils have an edge because they contain 22 grams of fiber and more antioxidants.

In addition to being more nutritionally complex, whole foods have fewer side effects. Many supplements contain additives to prolong shelf life, boost flavor and enhance texture. In the short term, additives like sugar alcohols increase the risk for gastrointestinal distress for people with sensitive guts, while added sugars put you at risk for tooth decay.

We just don’t know the long-term effects of certain ingredients in supplements. The FDA considers many additives “generally regarded as safe.” However, there’s some chance that specific added ingredients may be harmful in certain people or in large doses.

It probably won’t hurt you to supplement every now and then, but a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins provides plenty of the nutrients you need and few of the ingredients you don’t.

When to Supplement
This is not to say there’s no place for supplements. Even some healthy eaters have gaps in their diets due to inadequate intake or increased needs for specific nutrients. Strength-based athletes and older adults, for example, need more protein than the average adult. Protein shakes may help people who have trouble meeting their protein goals through diet alone.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of sports nutrition products, though, is convenience. Supplements are highly portable and have long shelf lives. Sure, it’s possible to pack real foods for your adventures, but a protein powder is easier and more compact than a chicken breast and holds up better over time. Similarly, carbohydrate gels offer high energy at a low volume. This makes it easier to get the nutrition you need during intense exercise without weighing down your pack or your belly.

Finding Quality Solutions
Convinced you need a supplement? They’re easy to find at retailers, gyms and healthcare practices. But resist the urge to buy just any product that catches your eye. There are few guarantees that supplement labels are accurate.

Case in point: The FDA warned a supplement manufacturer in 2015 for misleading label claims. Analysis of the brand’s protein powders found the protein content to be as little as 12 percent of the declared value — and the sugar content to be as much as 1,814 percent! Mislabeling concerns extend beyond protein and carbs. Other supplements have been found to contain ingredients banned by worldwide sports governing bodies.

How could this happen? The FDA isn’t authorized to assess supplement labels until after products hit the market. Even then, it’d be nearly impossible to test every single one that’s released. In other words, let the buyer beware.

But there is a way to identify quality supplements. Products labeled NSF Certified for Sport have been evaluated by a third party to ensure accuracy in labeling. The NSF website has a searchable database to help you find products that meet your needs.

If you still find yourself overwhelmed, your best course of action is to contact a registered dietitian to discuss the right blend of whole foods and supplements for your diet.


Try This Instead
Looking for the perks of supplements, minus the side effects? Give these substitutions a try.

Protein Powders
Need to refuel your muscles after a hard training session but don’t have access to a refrigerator? Try jerky as an alternative; about 2.5 ounces of turkey or seitan jerky is equal to one scoop of whey protein isolate.

Sports Gels/Jelly Beans
Gels and jelly beans are intended to replace carbohydrates for endurance events. Small studies have found no significant performance differences between these supplements and raisins. About 1/5 cup of raisins is equal to one gel or one package of beans.

Sports Drinks
Most popular sports drinks contain carbohydrates for energy and electrolytes for fluid balance. In some cases, like endurance events in hot weather, sports drinks may be your best bet. However, you can rehydrate after short, sweaty workouts with plain water and a salty snack.

Pre-workout Supplement
These supplements are designed to provide quick energy for workouts. Most studies on their effectiveness are either small or sponsored by supplement companies. Coffee or tea may give you a comparable boost.

Author: Kim Yawitz is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.