The problem is that they are often used without professional supervision. The effectiveness of some of them, as well as the risks at hepatic and renal level are some of the controversies to which health professionals respond.
There are many sports supplements on the market, and their number is growing rapidly. Solid foods, beverages, in concentrates, isolated or hydrolyzed... Each one of them is adapted to the athlete's situation, has a different amino acid profile and is more or less easily digestible.
Most people who take these types of dietary products seek to increase their sports performance.
"What they never think is that if they consume an inadequate product or in inappropriate doses, not only do they not improve their physical work, but it can be dangerous for their health," says Dr. Nieves Palacios, coordinator of the Physical Activity and Sports Working Group of the Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition (SEEN).
Muscle tissue contains 40% of the body's proteins. There is a mechanism of protein exchange according to which the synthesis from diet proteins and degradation are balanced according to the needs of the moment. After training, the protein expenditure is greater than its production, so following the recommendations of the SEEN, only if the intake is adequate can a protein count be achieved that reverses the situation.
At least 80% of subjects who regularly attend a gym to gain muscle mass have used protein as the most frequent supplement.
Athletes have increased protein requirements, especially at the beginning of the season. According to Dr. Palacios, the recommended consumption of these nutrients is between 1.2-1.5 grams per kilogram of weight per day, compared to 0.8-1 g/kg for people who do not train. "There is no evidence that intakes greater than 3 g/kg of weight and day improve sports performance," says Dr. Palacios.
Main sports supplementsAlthough there are no official statistics, recent studies on adolescents have shown that at least 80% or more of the subjects who regularly attend a gymnasium on a recreational basis with the aim of gaining muscle mass have used or regularly use protein as the most frequent supplement, says Dr. Juan Marcelo, coordinator of the Sports Supplementation area of the Spanish Society of Sports Nutrition (SENuDE).
Branched-chain amino acids are included in the protein category, while more than 70% of the same sample reported systematic use of creatine. The other great supplement is multivitamins.
BCAAsBranched-chain amino acids (BCAAs, Branched-Chain Amino Acids) are three specific amino acids (leucine, isoleucine and valine) associated with the processes of initiating protein synthesis and increasing muscle mass. "However, a more scientific look reveals that this is not so conclusive," says the sports nutritionist.
To date there is no evidence that BCAAs actually improve muscle anabolism
According to Dr. Marcelo, it is important to keep in mind that the BCAAs supplement only provides three of the amino acids, so they cannot build the proteins. "Proteins are very complex structures and do not need just three amino acids, but are built by twenty in different ways combined," he says.
The recommendation today to optimize muscle mass gain would be to eat enough high-quality protein, which is naturally included in BCAAs through food, and only when appropriate through supplementation. "To date there is no evidence that BCAAs really improve muscle anabolism," the specialist concludes.
CreatineCreatine is a nitrogenous compound produced by the body that can be consumed through foods such as red meat or seafood. It is usually ingested as creatine monohydrate. Juan Marcelo points out that several reviews have identified good effectiveness in increasing sports performance with the use of creatine in both isolated and repeated efforts, with the most pronounced effects of less than 30 seconds.
However, the Sports Supplementation coordinator emphasizes that "the benefit of creatine supplementation according to the protocols will depend on whether there was little muscle concentration". The intramuscular creatine gain will be the one that generates the most strength and power in muscle contraction, especially in small segments of time.
Effects on healthLike any other factor that we add to our diet and that becomes part of our body, all supplements have physiological effects on the different processes of our body. Dr. Marcelo insists that the consequences can be positive if used well, or negative if professional supervision is not followed.
"Neither BCAAs nor creatine should have any risk to a healthy person's kidney or liver health, as long as they are used in adequate amounts and under professional supervision," says the sports nutritionist.
According to the SENUDE doctor, to date, no studies have shown that high-dose protein intake in healthy individuals over the long term can compromise kidney health.
Interactions with the diet can be positive or negative: positive if they complement it if a proper level of protein intake is not achieved, or negative if they attempt to satisfy a dietary defect but it is not well controlled.
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Myths and recommendationsThere are many myths in the field of sports supplements. Juan Marcelo lists some of them:
"Supplements are independent of diet." Muscle gain cannot be unequivocally achieved with these supplements. According to the sports supplementation specialist, supervised planning of the different factors (diet, physical exercise and rest) is necessary so that the supplements make a small contribution to sports performance.
"This brand is better." Supplements should follow quality controls because they may be contaminated. "A study shows that different supplements of different brands and nature are contaminated to some degree and are therefore a health hazard," says the nutritionist.
"I buy this one because it's cheaper." In relation to the above, the cost difference is related to the purity or concentration of the nutrient. In the case of proteins, the impurities are usually fat, lactose, bioactive compounds such as albumin and globulins, and some allergens. "The greater the amount of these additives, the lower the protein concentration, and the lower the digestibility," says the specialist.
"A friend of mine told me to buy it there." Dr. Marcelo states that "from the Spanish Society of Sports Nutrition we consider it unacceptable that there is no more explicit regulation on the marketing of supplements". The nutritionist calls for it not to be possible for anyone without any health and nutritional knowledge to open a business and sell or even be able to prescribe a supplement to physically active people.