Hello,

My name is Kevin Beasley and I’m a performance nutritionist. I have worked with inter-county Gaelic football teams (male and femKerry v Mayo - GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Semi-Finalale) at both senior and underage levels for the past eight years. I also have vast experience of working with clients from a variety of different sports.

If you are someone who enjoys working out but can’t get to the gym now because of the current lockdown, you may be fretting over your nutrition. You may be unsure over what you should be eating due to reduced training intensity or frequency. However, there are some easy steps you can take to remain in good shape, maintain a good body composition and most importantly remain healthy.

The global sports supplement is big business – $15.6 billion in 2019 and is expected to grow annually by 9% until 2027. One of the first questions many people ask me when they discover I’m a sports nutritionist is what supplements should be taking? This is the wrong question to ask! This post will explain why people supplement, some of the benefits of supplementation and some of the problems with supplementation.

Why Supplement?

Supplements are pills or powders that are taken by people to supplement a person’s diet. Why do people supplement?

  • To compensate for an inadequate or poor diet (e.g. vitamin and mineral supplement)
  • As an insurance policy (i.e. just in case your diet is deficient in something)
  • Convenience and timesaving (e.g. having a protein shake after the gym)
  • Marketing & hype – many supplements are marketed as providing amazing benefits – transform your physique, enhance performance and
  • Improve training and performance

 

Food First Approach

One of the major changes among sports nutritionists (SN) in the past 5 years is the “food first” approach to dietary advice. Previously, SN would freely advise clients with regards supplement usage. However, that has changed. So, what is the “food first” approach?

Food First is a simple message – a varied diet consisting of whole, natural foods is always more beneficial, and safer, than supplements. Why is this? Sports nutrition scientists have found that eating whole foods provide extra benefits over consuming supplements alone. Whole foods contain a wide variety of nutrients that act synergistically. As an example, consuming a whole egg is better for building muscle that consuming an egg white. Nutrients in the egg yolk help with the digestion and usage of the protein in the egg white versus consuming the egg white alone.

Natural whole foods also contain more vitamins and minerals than supplements (i.e. they are more nutrient dense). You are getting more “bang for your buck” by eating a whole food diet than relying on supplements.

Many people use supplements as a time saving device. If you are in the gym in the morning before work, then you may not have the time to cook a breakfast afterwards…consuming a protein shake is more convenient and less time consuming. However, with many people working from home, they now have the ability to cook a healthy breakfast after a work-out.

Athletes often use supplements to compensate for a poor diet. Many athletes now find themselves in a situation where they have less demands on their time. I would advise that using this time to improve on your cooking skills (e.g. cooking new meals, trying out different foods) would be very beneficial in the long-term.

 

Problems with Supplements

There are a number of basic problems with supplements:

  • Supplement quality – many protein powders are laced with cheap “fillers”. Cheap ingredients are used to bulk out protein powders, so it seems that you are getting value for money. These “fillers” are already abundant in most people’s diet and they will not get any extra benefit from consuming these powders.
  • Contamination – many supplements can be deliberately or accidentally contaminated with illegal ingredients. For example, some pre-workout supplements are deliberately contaminated with illegal stimulants to give the user a “buzz”. These “extra” ingredients are often not listed on the label or are hidden under a different name. It is therefore highly advised to only use batch tested supplements (check informed-sport.com for batch tested supplement database). While these batch tested supplements are usually more expensive, they give you peace of mind.
  • Quick Fix – many people view supplements as a quick fix to remedy deficiencies in their diets. The best advice from a sports performance and over-all health perspective is to focus on whole foods first, rather than supplements.
  • Overlook other strategies – athletes may often use supplements and overlook other, less glamorous options as a means to improve training and performance (e.g. mental preparation, sound nutritional practices, adequate sleep and rest).
  • Ad-hoc usages – most supplements have strict protocols regarding when to take them. Sometimes, these protocols are not followed meaning that the benefits of the supplement are greatly reduced (e.g. forgetting to take it, taking too much or too little).
  • Drain on resources – supplements cost money and can be a drain on limited resources.
  • Marketing hype around a particular brand or supplement can lead to false expectations.
  • Responders vs Non-responders – many people who take supplements may not gain any benefits. For example, if you have naturally high stores of creatine in your muscle, supplementation may not have a beneficial effect.

 

Over-use of Supplements

Long-term use of supplements can cause problems. Studies have shown that long-term, high doses of Vitamin C and E can blunt the bodies response to endurance training (Paulsen et al., 2015). Theses high doses will only be achieved through supplementation – it would be impossible to hit these intake levels through a food first approach.

Consuming high doses of Vitamin D without proper medical supervision and testing can lead to hyper-calcemia (high levels of Calcium in the blood) (Marcinowska-Suchowierska et al., 2018). Hyper-calcemia can lead to weak bones, kidney stones and interfere with how your heart and brain works.

 

Periodisation

Many people are aware of the concept of periodisation – this is the planned variation in training volume and intensity in order to elicit improvements in performance and to peak physically at the right time. A similar concept has now emerged in sports nutrition. You vary your diet based on the type of training you’re doing at any given time. Periodisation can also be applied to supplement usage. Some examples:

 

Vitamin D

Vitamin D is known as the sunshine vitamin and our skin makes it naturally upon exposure to sunlight. People living in the northern hemispheres (e.g. Ireland and Northern Europe) have a higher risk of becoming deficient in Vitamin D during the Winter (October to March). This is due to the lack of daylight, weak sun, spending more time indoors and wearing lots of clothes when out-doors.

Conversely, during the Summer months, as little as 15 mins of sun exposure per day will stimulate the skin to produce Vitamin D. You also have a naturally feedback mechanism whereby when you produce enough Vitamin D, your skin stops producing it. This mechanism doesn’t work if you are supplementing.

Therefore, it might be advisable to supplement with Vitamin D during the Winter (if deficient – a blood test will determine this), whereas during the Summer months it would not be advised as there will be sufficient sunlight and opportunity to go outdoors.

 

Creatine

Phospho-creatine is a natural occurring substance in the human body and is used as a source of energy for explosive movements (e.g. sprinting). A person eating a normal diet will consume 1-2g of creatine naturally every day and supplementation will increase muscle creatine stores by approximately 15-20%.

With regards periodisation, creatine may be effective during periods of heavy training, muscle building training blocks, heavy anaerobic work (e.g. sprint interval sessions) and during competition. It would be prudent to periodise creatine intake to these periods to improve training performance and adaptations to training.

Remember, creatine is a source of energy for explosive type movements and if you are not using explosive type movements during your training, then the supplementation of creatine might be unwarranted.

Experts advise that creatine is an acceptable nutritional strategy if you are consuming a well-balanced diet. If you are not consuming a well-balanced diet, then it is strongly advised to work on improving your diet quality first before supplementation.

Nutrition Pyramid

The above diagram shows the performance nutrition pyramid. The purpose of this is to illustrate the importance of your everyday diet in promoting good health and performance. Your everyday diet is the most important factor and is the foundation of your diet as an athlete. This is where you will make the most gains in energy levels, body composition, training quality and performance.

Consider it similar to be able to perform the most basic skills in your sport (e.g. controlling the ball, passing and scoring in most team sports). If you cannot do these simple skills, then your ability to perform effectively in a game will be diminished.

You will get the most benefit from working on the basic nutrition skills (e.g. understanding of what’s a healthy food, what should I eat before and after training, how much protein should I consume, how much carbohydrate should I consume, hydration). Most supplements, if effective provide miniscule improvements to performance (i.e. 0.5 – 1%, equivalent to a 10sec 100m sprinter shaving 0.05 to 0.1 seconds off their time). Supplements should only be considered when you have made improvements in many other areas of your life and you are looking for the tiny margins to bring you to the elite level.

With this in mind, consider areas of your everyday life where you can make improvements that will have a greater impact?

Please check in next week as I will be posting another blog on sports nutrition.

If you have any questions, please email me at: kevin@metabolise.ie

Check out my website and my YouTube channel which I update regularly with cooking demonstrations and recipes. I also have interviews with Kerry footballing greats discussing the importance of sports nutrition

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Finally, check out my blog for further posts on sports nutrition related topics.

Stay safe everyone, wash your hands regularly and practice physical distancing!

Kevin