What are the potential benefits AND risks of taking sports supplements? With such a wide array of options available, how do we separate fact from good marketing?

You’ve come to the right place because this episode of The Health Wrap On The Move will answer these questions and more around this topic. Dietitian, Elsabe Loubser, joins our host, Ayanda Charlie, to share her expert advice on everything from incorporating products like protein powders, pre-workouts, vitamins and creatine, to which products to avoid depending on what you want to achieve.

[00:00:00] Ayanda Charlie: Welcome to The Sports Series, powered by Mediclinic. I’m your host Ayanda Charlie. As a multimedia content producer with a love for investigative journalism, I am here to ask all the questions you might have, chatting to the specialists to get real answers! Keep looking out for our future episodes as we have a great line-up of doctors and other experts to support you with all the information you need for your fitness journey, no matter what level of sports you play!

[00:00:26] Ayanda Charlie: Please note that the views shared by any of our guests in this podcast, may not necessarily reflect the views of Mediclinic, so please consult a medical professional if you have concerns. Today we’ll be taking a look at the world of sports supplements and sharing a conversation packed with valuable insights for professional athletes, fitness enthusiasts, or anyone who is simply curious about enhancing athletic performance.

[00:00:50] Ayanda Charlie: Sports supplements have become increasingly popular among athletes, promising to boost strength, endurance, and overall performance. But with such a wide array of options available, it’s essential to separate fact from fiction or good marketing, and to understand the potential benefits and risks associated with these products.

[00:01:11] Ayanda Charlie: As we look at this important subject, we’ll be joined by dietitian Elsabe Loubser. We’ll hear from Elsabe about some of the science behind sports supplements and get some practical tips to help you make informed decisions about incorporating products like protein powders, pre-workouts, vitamins, creatine, and more into your training regimen.

[00:01:33] Ayanda Charlie: Sports supplements can be a powerful tool, but it’s crucial to approach them with caution and awareness. Today we want to debunk some myths, separate marketing hype from scientific evidence, and provide practical guidelines to help you optimise your performance while prioritising your health and well-being.

[00:01:51] Ayanda Charlie: Welcome, Elsabe!

Elsabe Loubser: Thank you.

Ayanda Charlie: Thank you for joining us. Well, you are a dietician, but I think it's best if you introduce yourself and [00:02:00] share briefly about the work that you do, please.

[00:02:03] Elsabe Loubser: Thanks so much Ayanda for having me. So I'm a registered dietician based here in Cape Town. Um, and I have a honours degree in sports science as well, so that's actually my special interest is sport nutrition.

[00:02:17] Elsabe Loubser: And I work with different types of people, whether it is the recreational athlete or the elite athlete, doesn't matter the age. My aim is to optimize their performance through nutrition.

[00:02:31] Ayanda Charlie: Mm mm. Interesting you should say nutrition. There also be, because from what I understand as a lay person, When I take a supplement, I am taking the nutrition I would be getting from food just in a compressed kind of, you know, smaller dose.

[00:02:49] Ayanda Charlie: Am I right about that? Like what's the difference between getting your nutrients from supplements or from Whole Foods, and what are the potential advantages and disadvantages of each approach?

[00:02:58] Elsabe Loubser: Well, I think the most [00:03:00] important thing is to identify the difference between the two. So obviously Whole Foods are foods like.

[00:03:07] Elsabe Loubser: Meat, veggies, fruits, grains, that has a variety of different nutrients, whereas a supplement usually has isolated nutrients. In other words, specific nutrients like a protein or a carbohydrate, a vitamin or a mineral. So that's the main difference between the two and the advantages, I would say, from our whole foods, that we are getting in a variety of nutrients, not just.

[00:03:35] Elsabe Loubser: Specific ones and even some nutrients kind of work together to help absorb a little bit better. So for example, vitamin C might help iron to be absorbed better into the body, but there are certain, um, individuals, specifically athletes, that may have such high demands in their sports that. The amount that they get from food might not [00:04:00] be enough, or they have to eat so much food to actually meet their requirements.

[00:04:05] Elsabe Loubser: So that's where a sport supplements might actually be more beneficial. And sports supplements also is important, or supplements in general is important for when there's a deficiency presence. So, There's a lot of, of nutrients, um, in these supplements, especially in high amounts that aren't always necessary.

[00:04:27] Elsabe Loubser: And this can make a supplement very expensive. Um, and the amounts of the nutrients are necessary for the body. So it's, it's important to identify which, which one is actually needed. We need to optimize our nutrition before considering having a supplement.,

[00:04:45] Ayanda Charlie: Uh optimizing nutrition through actually having Whole Foods first.

[00:04:50] Ayanda Charlie: Okay. Exactly. Yeah. But I mean, recently, especially with the boom in like gym culture, right? As a lifestyle thing, supplements are everywhere. Like they [00:05:00] come in gummies, they come in drinks, tablets, capsules, powders. I mean, there's even energy bars. Why do you think these supplements have become so popular in recent years?

[00:05:10] Ayanda Charlie: I mean, I know I've said there's the gym culture, but there just seems to be a bigger movement than that.

[00:05:16] Elsabe Loubser: Definitely, and I think the main reasons might be from marketing and accessibility. So marketing. If we, if we just look at the types of products available, they look enticing, they look interesting, they usually colorful.

[00:05:32] Elsabe Loubser: So when you walk through a pharmacy down the sports supplements aisle, you've got these bright colors, you've got these mm-hmm. Striking, descriptive words like, um, RAGE and, um, GAIN. And they, of course have all of these persuasives of claims around them. Mm-hmm. So that's, that's mainly I think, a, a big marketing scheme to.

[00:05:55] Elsabe Loubser: Pull in consumers to buy their products. And of [00:06:00] course they are the, the companies who, who make use of social media. Mm-hmm. So they get influences to serve as ambassadors for their products. And you these, these supplements then reach thousands of followers and that forms a whole following of the product as well.

[00:06:20] Elsabe Loubser: And in terms of accessibility, we've got so much of these supplements available to us. We even find it in supermarkets. Mm. Like grocery stores. So definitely the accessibility is much, much wider than it was years before.

[00:06:37] Ayanda Charlie: But back to athletes, right? What are some of the most commonly used sports supplements among athletes, and what are the specific benefits that they claim to provide?

[00:06:49] Elsabe Loubser: So the most common ones that I would say is things like protein shakes, creatine supplementation, multivitamins, um, isolated amino [00:07:00] acids, as well as caffeine. Now, protein, um, might help with repairing and building muscles while creatine claims to improve performance and power output, and we know multivitamins having a variety of different vitamins might help with immune function.

[00:07:17] Elsabe Loubser: And then the amino acid might claim to improve muscle growth and ease muscle soreness and caffeine may improve alertness and concentration during exercise and all of these are claims. Mm-hmm. So they're not necessarily evidence backed. So, um, there's a lot of supplements out there and commonly used, but it's not always, um, when they are commonly used, it's not always said that they actually work as well as they claim to be.

[00:07:45] Ayanda Charlie: Yeah. And I mean, supplements can include Vitamin D, B12; minerals like calcium and iron. There's herbs and other botanicals. Like what is it? Echinacea and garlic like, I mean. [00:08:00] But there's amino acids, there's enzymes. I could go on and on. I'm just wondering if you think any of these are necessarily ingredients that are effective, number one, and that we need to get from supplements.

[00:08:12] Elsabe Loubser: It's very individual dependent, so starting with. Identifying whether an individual actually has a deficiency because we know just blatantly supplementing with these types of vitamins, minerals, and components isn't necessarily, um, going to have any benefits unless there's a deficiency to start with. Mm.

[00:08:35] Elsabe Loubser: Obviously there's, in certain cases, there might be indications to certain vitamins or minerals or supplements. So for example, you mentioned vitamin B12. So individuals who follow a more plant-based diet like veganism might not get enough vitamin B12 in because our main source is meat. Mm-hmm. So they might need vitamin B12 [00:09:00] supplements.

[00:09:00] Elsabe Loubser: So all of these different supplements have their time in place, but I would definitely suggest that please consult your doctor or a dietician beforehand, um, because it might not be necessary or it might actually be harmful to the individual.

[00:09:17] Ayanda Charlie: Mm mm Harmful indeed. Because, I mean, I remember seeing a doctor, uh, well, a dietician, and they said to me, Any amount of vitamins you take beyond what you need.

[00:09:27] Ayanda Charlie: She called it expensive urine. Yes. But then she also said, you know, some things, some things can just kind of over, over flood your system and then start to do have, you know, the opposite effect. I know many people don't know, you know, aren't aware of, of some supplements, you know, interaction with medicines and what happens when, when those two come into contact, for example, I know Vitamin K can reduce the ability of the blood thinner warfarin, um, to prevent blood from clotting.

[00:09:54] Ayanda Charlie: Are there any other examples you can share with us and, and should one, consult a doctor or dietician before [00:10:00] taking any sports or health supplements since you can find them on the shelf at a supermarket?

[00:10:04] Elsabe Loubser: Definitely. And that's what makes it a bit, um, bit scary because these these supplements or these products are so readily available, but they can actually interact with the medications that we need to take for chronic conditions or whatever.

[00:10:20] Elsabe Loubser: So even if it's considered herbal or natural, we need to be wary. So a few examples could be, um, St. John's Wart. So this is a, a herbal supplement and it can actually interfere with the breakdown of, and reduce the effect of many, um, medications like antidepressants, contraceptives, heart medications, ARVs, as well as transplant drugs, um, and some, and wow, another herbal supplement, Jingo Biloba has the same effects.

[00:10:53] Elsabe Loubser: Then, um, a certain compound called glucosamine can reduce the effects of heart medication while certain antioxidants, such as vitamin C and E can actually reduce the effectiveness of some types of cancer chemotherapy. Wow. So it would definitely be best to just consult a doctor or dietician before considering taking, um, any supplements and obviously to read the package inserts, um, of the specific medication that they are using.

[00:11:24] Elsabe Loubser: Or the, um, the specific supplement that they are considering, just to see if there isn't any interactions listed.

[00:11:32] Ayanda Charlie: So Elsabe, is it true that not all supplements undergo rigorous testing for safety?

[00:11:36] Elsabe Loubser: Unfortunately, sports supplements aren't well regulated across the world, and because of this, there isn't a guarantee that supplements.

[00:11:46] Elsabe Loubser: Are free of prohibited supplements at all. Mm-hmm. So oftentimes these supplements are made in factories, um, factories that produce other products or medications or [00:12:00] whatever. So there is a large risk of cross contamination or maybe using contaminated raw materials. Consumers should really be, be mindful of the claims on supplements, especially when, when they say


[00:12:16] Elsabe Loubser: Safe or, or free of banned substances because it actually can't be a guarantee. Um, whenever you take a supplement, the individual or the athlete should take that responsibility on themselves or, or assume a risk of, of contamination within the supplements but there are third party testing done on, on certain supplements.

[00:12:43] Elsabe Loubser: Um, they, they have a certification on the package packaging of the, the supplements. Again, it can't be guaranteed but at least this helps us, give us a little bit more ease of mind, um, that these [00:13:00] supplements have been tested. So there's a specific one, um, at least can look out for. It's called the Informed Sports logo.

[00:13:08] Elsabe Loubser: So it's a yellow circle with a tick mark, um, on it. Mm-hmm. So this means that each batch of the supplement has been tested for prohibited substances. Then there's another one that looks very similar, but it's just green and this one says ‘Informed choice’, but this one is randomly tasted, so it's not as as reliable as the Informed Sport logo.

[00:13:37] Elsabe Loubser: Um, but just so that athletes are mindful of that as well.

[00:13:42] Ayanda Charlie: Wow, that's, this should be taught in school. I feel like that should be basic information that we all know. Um, so what role does individual variation and specific sport or event requirements play in determining whether an athlete may benefit from certain types of sports supplements?[00:14:00]

[00:14:00] Elsabe Loubser: Well, thinking of the different sports and individuals, so the, the level of competition, we can assume that each sport and each level has different demands. So thinking about a long distance runner, um, a marathon runner, for example. They have to run for a few hours, so they need a lot of energy throughout that time.

[00:14:24] Elsabe Loubser: So, their demand for carbohydrates may be higher. Carbohydrates is our, our quickest source of energy. So they may benefit from a high carb supplement during their race, but. In the case of, uh, say we've got a weightlifter, Olympic weightlifter like we see in the Olympics, lifting those heavy weights, their exercise is shorter, but the demand of power is very high.
[00:14:50] Elsabe Loubser: So in the moment, they won't benefit from carbohydrates. It's too short. But we know that the demand from that [00:15:00] movement was so high that they might have a bit of muscle tear so afterwards they need carbohydrates and protein to repair those muscles again. So there's no one size fits all when it comes to sport nutrition, um, and specifically all looking at all athletes.
[00:15:18] Elsabe Loubser: It all depends on their age, their competition level, the sporting discipline, and of course their medical, um, background. So we need to keep all of this into consideration when given the right guidance.
[00:15:34] Ayanda Charlie: How do recovery shakes compare to whole food options in terms of nutrient absorption and timing and things like that?
[00:15:40] Ayanda Charlie: Are there specific scenarios where it makes more sense to take the shake over a whole food?
[00:15:45] Elsabe Loubser: So, the nutrients found in recovery shakes are often in, it's more isolated forms. And, um, so for example, the protein, whether it is in the form of a whey protein casein [00:16:00] or a plant-based protein, and the carbohydrates in, in its, um, more simpler forms, and compared to the, the forms found in food, it might be absorbed a little bit quicker than when we would eat something, but comparing, uh, carbohydrate and protein food with a.
[00:16:20] Elsabe Loubser: Protein and carbohydrate recovery shake after, after exercise, we actually find the same effects. So whether it's good muscle recovery, growth, energy replenishment coming from a food or shake, we still see the same results. So I want to emphasize that we want to always follow a food first approach, but in some cases, the supplemental route may be beneficial.
[00:16:49] Elsabe Loubser: For example, say an athlete has to, um, participate in multiple events on the day, like a triathlete or [00:17:00] a sevens player playing in a tournament event and having to play multiple matches. It might be beneficial to get in a sport supplement or a recovery shake rather than having to eat foods because he or she needs to participate again in a, in a, in an hour or so.
[00:17:19] Elsabe Loubser: Some people exercise so hard that they actually feel nauseous after exercising and, um, taking a, a shake, um, usually a shake is in the form of a liquid, so that is a little bit easier to get in than having like a sandwich. So then a recovery shake might be beneficial, um, just so that they can actually stomach something after the session.
[00:17:44] Elsabe Loubser: And also, we know with, with individuals who have really high demands, um, after exercise, such as a marathon runner who's been running for five hours, a recovery shake might also be a good form of, of [00:18:00] replacing what has been lost because they have used so much energy during that, that race.
[00:18:06] Ayanda Charlie: Mm mm That makes sense.
[00:18:09] Ayanda Charlie: And what about pre-workout supplements? What are the key ingredients commonly found in them, and are there any potential risks or side effects? I mean, I've, I've heard about, you know, how they affect your heart health and things like that. It's so hard to choose between the different pre-workout brands that are on the shelf right now.
[00:18:27] Elsabe Loubser: Definitely there are so many to choose from, but, uh, pre-workouts. Aim is to help provide energy and aid endurance during an exercise session. So often what we'll find is something like caffeine to help improve alertness and concentration during session. It also often contains creatine, which helps to play a role in energy utilization in like short burst type of movements.
[00:18:54] Elsabe Loubser: And then it might contain certain amino acids. So for example, we might see [00:19:00] something, um, like beta alanine, and this is often added to shakes to help prevent muscle fatigue during a session. But there are side effects. So you mentioned the heart effects that could come from the caffeine because we see high amounts of caffeine in these shakes.
[00:19:19] Elsabe Loubser: Up to 200 to 300 milligrams, and if I'm correct, that's about four to five espresso shots. So that's quite a lot of caffeine to take in. Wow. And especially for someone who is caffeine sensitive or, uh, advised to avoid caffeine such as with certain heart conditions or anxiety, that's not a good idea then to take a such a high, um mm-hmm.
[00:19:43] Elsabe Loubser: Caffeine containing supplement. With creatine, taking it before a session can actually cause some stomach discomfort, which is obviously not the, the most ideal situation and high levels of beta alanine can cause pins and [00:20:00] needles under the skin, so that can affect the session. It's, it's not necessarily harmful.
[00:20:05] Elsabe Loubser: But it can affect your session if you are feeling tingly under the skin.
[00:20:10] Ayanda Charlie: Yeah, that is so weird. So then what do you do as an alternative?
[00:20:13] Elsabe Loubser: There are a lot of alternative options to, to use as a pre-workout. So, personally, what I advise patients to do, or individuals athletes to do is if they want to have a caffeine boost, have a coffee, an hour, a half, an hour to an hour before exercise just to get that caffeine boost.
[00:20:35] Elsabe Loubser: And it takes about 60 minutes for the caffeine to take effect in the body as well. And also not to focus on those specific components that are in pre-workout shakes, but also to remember that you just need general energy. So you might need a little bit of a carbohydrate-containing snack before your exercise session to make sure that you [00:21:00] actually have enough energy in the body.
[00:21:02] Elsabe Loubser: Um, so always, um, going for the food first approach as well. Mm-hmm.
[00:21:08] Ayanda Charlie: We’ll be back with dietitian Elsabe Loubser shortly! But first, we wanted to share the details of the Mediclinic 24/7 Helpline. You can call the number +27 86 023 3333. The 24/7 Helpline is no longer only for medical enquiries but can even go as far as assisting you with making a booking for the doctor.
[00:21:30] Ayanda Charlie: Back to you, Elsabe. Now, whey protein and creatine supplementation are both very popular these days. What's the difference between these two?
[00:21:40] Elsabe Loubser: There's a big difference. So whey protein is an isolated form of protein and it's found in milk. So this is one of the most commonly used protein supplements, and it might help with, um, muscle recovery and growth.
[00:21:57] Elsabe Loubser: Whereas creatine is [00:22:00] an organic compound that is naturally made in the body, but when used as a supplement may actually improve exercise performance and improve training adaptations.
[00:22:10] Ayanda Charlie: Okay. That's clear. So what are the potential benefits and risks, right, of creatine supplementation for athletes and individuals looking to enhance their physical performance?
[00:22:19] Ayanda Charlie: Are there any specific populations or conditions where caution should be exercised iif you're considering taking creatine supplementation?
[00:22:26] Elsabe Loubser: So creatine is used as an energy source in the body, specifically in the first few seconds of like high intensity exercise. So think about a sprint that first, um, boost that you get.
[00:22:40] Elsabe Loubser: Mm-hmm. Or in a, a power lifting movement, weightlifting, um, or even in any high intensity exercise where quick and rapid movements is needed. So we can assume that if we supplement with creatine, we'll have a little bit more endurance in that regard. So it helps with [00:23:00] enhancing the performance in that session, and of course, the strength and power inputs and possibly prevents early fatigue.
[00:23:08] Elsabe Loubser: Now, creatine is one of the most, uh, researched supplements, um, sports supplements specifically out there, and it is generally considered safe for adults and doesn't have any adverse health effects on individuals, but there are certain individuals that it is contraindicated in and specifically in younger individuals.
[00:23:33] Elsabe Loubser: So individuals younger than 18. And this is specifically because these supplements aren't tested on, on younger individuals, so we don't know the long-term effects on them. And for individuals who, who has liver and kidney problems, we advise them not to take creatine. Wow.
[00:23:53] Ayanda Charlie: And, and what do we think of, well, what do you think of teenagers and, and, and young people who are [00:24:00] taking, you know, supplements? Any kind? What are your thoughts on that?
[00:24:02] Elsabe Loubser: So I don't advise children or teenagers to take supplements specifically because they are growing. We, we don't know how these supplements might impact their growth, their development, and it's especially important to note that these supplements have not been tested on individuals
younger than 18.
[00:24:25] Elsabe Loubser: So we really don't know the long-term effects. Like we mentioned earlier, some of these, um, supplements may be contaminated with some form of banned substance. It could be a harmful substance. So it's, it's rather, um, a better option to avoid supplementation when you are a younger individual. And it's important for coaches and parents and teachers to, to educate children around supplementation in the, in the sense of that it's called a supplement for a[00:25:00] reason.

[00:25:00] Elsabe Loubser: It's there as an extra an add-on. It's not supposed to be the, the first line of performance enhancements. There are so many factors that we need to, to choose first or, or work on first. Um, whether it is the proper training, the, uh, recovery, enough sleep, and of course the nutrition side.

[00:25:24] Ayanda Charlie: Now let's talk about weight loss supplements, right? I mean, in general, weight loss supplements, are they effective? Are they scientifically proven to be effective, not anecdotally, or are they generally just not recommended as a reliable approach for long-term weight loss management or just weight management?

[00:25:44] Elsabe Loubser: I don't recommend weight loss supplements, as they are often coined as a quick fix and of course, very, very expensive. And using these supplements doesn't actually address healthy dietary patterns and [00:26:00] habits, so they're not a very sustainable way of losing weight. Oftentimes in practice, what I see is that when individuals take these types of weight loss supplements, they often regain the weight or gain even more.

[00:26:16] Elsabe Loubser: And they actually have a bad relationship with food then afterwards. So they go through moments where they eat a lot and then they don't eat anything. So it, it would be more appropriate to, to address the dietary pattern rather than going for a weight loss supplement. Mm-hmm.

[00:26:37] Ayanda Charlie: Wow. And then finally, I mean, if you were to give me just a top of mind example of a fad in this world of supplements that isn't scientifically backed, that you feel, you know, has really dire potential risks for consumers, what are some of those?

[00:26:54] Elsabe Loubser: Sure. There, there are a few, um, there's a few interesting and strange [00:27:00] fads. Um, so one of them, and this is more a way of taking a supplement, is where they take the, the pre-workouts, the dry powder and throw it into their mouth. I dunno if you've ever seen that.

[00:27:14] Ayanda Charlie: Oh my goodness, I have seen that. Yeah.

[00:27:16] Elsabe Loubser: So supplements needs to be taken as directed for a reason.

[00:27:21] Elsabe Loubser: When we take it in its powder form, um, we might accidentally be taking too much or taking too much too quickly, so that can be harmful because, um, Where, whereas previously it might be taken over an hour and now you're getting all of that, that specific nutrients and we mentioned all that caffeine in one go.

[00:27:43] Elsabe Loubser: So that can be harmful. Um, it's always important to, to question, be critical around, um, your sports supplements and I wanted to mention that whenever something sounds too good to be true and whe when it sounds like [00:28:00] a fix all it's, it probably doesn't fix anything

[00:28:06] Ayanda Charlie: Well, Elsabe, thank you so much for being with me today. I mean, you've really helped. I know myself and surely our listeners gain valuable insights into the world of post nutrition and supplements, and I feel. More empowered, um, to make better decisions in this area. And I, I'm pretty sure our listeners feel the same.

[00:28:21] Elsabe Loubser: Awesome. Thank you for, for having me, Ayanda.

[00:28:24] Ayanda Charlie: After all, no magic pill or shortcut can replace the foundation of proper nutrition, tailored to your unique needs. Individualisation, consistency, and a focus on long-term sustainability are the keys to success. For any athlete or sportsperson continuing their sports supplementation journey, it’s important to stay curious, seek knowledge, and to consult qualified professionals, such as registered dietitians, for personalised guidance.

[00:28:51] Ayanda Charlie: Fueling your performance is not just about what you consume, but also about fostering a healthy mindset, balancing training and recovery, and nurturing your body and mind as a whole. Thank you again to Elsabe Loubser for being with me today. And to all of you who joined me in listening to this episode of The Sports Series podcast, powered by Mediclinic.

[00:29:12] Ayanda Charlie: If you haven’t yet done so, subscribe to our podcast channel and sign up for the Mediclinic Prime newsletter, packed with great health articles; a bi-weekly series of newsletters focused on young families – the link is in the show notes too. Until next time.