Nutritional Sports Supplements – Are They Worth It?

Walk into any health food store, supermarket, sports shop, gym or pharmacy…..the chances are that you will find a fairly large section dedicated to sports supplements. A huge range of products exist, such as protein, energy, recovery and electrolyte powders; energy and protein bars; and of course energy gels. The market for these items is continually growing, with new brands and product ranges being released on a seemingly weekly basis. Head to any elite sporting event and you will find advertising everywhere; and at amateur events you will see athletes and participants well stocked with supplies. Chances are, if you open your kitchen cupboard, you will have one or two sports supplements staring you in the face!

But the big question is… you actually need to be using these supplements??? Do they do what they claim to do? Are they worth spending your money on? Or is it all just marketing hype?


An average person performing their regular daily activities needs around 2,000 to 2,200 calories each day to maintain their weight. This figure of course changes depending on a large number of factors including age, weight, gender, lifestyle and metabolism. But of course, when you undertake regular physical activities, this figure can change drastically.

Different activities and sports burn varying amounts of calories. Intensity and duration of exercise can change the amount of energy burned during each session; and energy requirements before and after exercise can also change depending on the types of activities being performed. A 30 minute brisk walk around the park every day will increase your energy requirements by a small degree, but this will be nothing compared to jumping on a bike and riding at a moderate intensity for 3 hours every day!

Elite athletes usually need to eat a fairly large amount of food to maintain weight and keep themselves at peak performance. Training and competing require much more energy input…and due to the stresses placed on the body, more energy is often required to allow the body to recover properly.

The types of food eaten by athletes also needs to be considered. Not only do athletes need to eat more calories, but they also need to increase their protein intake to allow for muscle recovery. In addition, vitamins are used by the body in a greater volume; and electrolytes and tissue salts are often lost at a greater rate through more sweating….this also needs to be considered when choosing what types of foods and drink to consume.


Whole foods…think whole cuts of meat, fruits and vegetables, grains and cereals etc…..are fairly complex structures. They contain a lot of different things which are good for us, such as sugars, proteins, vitamins and minerals, and fats (which are sometimes good, sometimes not so good). Plant based foods also contain fibre, which is good for bowel health, but is not digested or absorbed by the body….so it provides no value in terms of energy and nutrients. But the majority of the structure of many whole foods is water. Meats can often be made up of 75% water, while some fruits and vegetables can contain up to 95% water! Breads usually contain less water than this (depending on the type of bread of course)…sometimes up to 40% water content.

Due to the amount of water in many whole foods, as well as the fibre volume of plant based foods, and of course the fats contained in many foods, athletes usually have to eat a balanced diet in fairly large volumes in order to attain all of the carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins and minerals that their body needs. For some athletes, especially ultra-endurance athletes, this can be a rather daunting and costly process….which is where we get to nutritional sports supplements.


The contents of sports supplements of course varies depending on what they are to be used for. But in essence, what these products ultimately contain is the raw dietary needs of athletes…..carbohydrates, proteins and electrolytes….in a highly concentrated form. Essentially, these products are a form of food!

Items advertised for energy usually contain a large amount of raw carbohydrates, or sugars, for their size. Some energy gels contain around 120 calories packed into less than 50ml of gel. By comparison, an average 100g banana only contains around 90 calories! Quite obviously, it is much easier to carry and consume the gel for energy instead of the banana….and the body would have to use a lot more energy and take more time in order to process the energy from the banana, to make it available.

Some of these nutritional sports supplements are high in proteins; some contain a combination of carbohydrates, proteins and fats; others contain large amounts of electrolytes.

Quite a few sports supplements also contain items in order to enhance athletic performance. Ingredients such as caffeine are okay to consume, but beware…..some products, particularly those used by athletes wishing to quickly enhance muscle growth, contain ingredients which are banned for use in sports. Anybody who follows the AFL would be familiar with the Essendon Supplements Scandal! A recent study of the supplements available in Australia showed that close to 20% contain an ingredient which is banned in sport; and 2 of the products tested showed there could be a significant health risk if consumed. Some products which are available in Australia also contain ingredients which are not listed on the label…….including steroids. Obviously, this is not a good scenario.


Ultimately, the answer is no. A healthy, balanced diet, in the right volume, is always going to be able to provide the energy and nutritional needs for any athlete, no matter what sport they are playing. Nutritional supplements should be treated as just that….supplements. They can be used as an addition to a healthy diet, but should never replace real whole foods. If you are drinking a protein shake as an afternoon snack, you really need to be reconsidering your diet choices!

However, these types of supplements definitely do have a place in sport. Imagine running a 3 hour marathon and needing to eat a bit of food every hour. Or jumping on a bike for a 120km race. Activities such as these require large amounts of energy to be consumed not only before and after, but also during the event……and its kind of hard to carry a bowl of pasta with you while competing! Energy bars and gels are a compact, convenient way of carrying the extra energy you need. Energy and recovery powders/shakes are also a handy way of being able to get the additional sustenance you need before or after an event, especially if eating a large volume of food isn’t the best option. But really, this is what nutritional sports supplements are…….a convenient source of nutrition.

As athletes, having a chat to a sports dietician is a good idea to ensure you are getting the best out of your diet…..and if you decide to use nutritional sports supplements, be sure to buy your products from a reputable source, to ensure they are safe. Companies such as HASTA test and certify nutritional sports supplements to ensure their safety. Websites such as are also a good place to check for product safety. The last thing you want to do is start using a sports supplement and put your health at risk;, or be banned from competing because it is contaminated with a banned substance!

Nutritional sports supplements are a handy, convenient addition to your diet, which can help keep you performing at your best. But remember, these products should supplement the food you eat, not replace it……..nothing will ever beat a healthy, balanced diet of whole foods!

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