A wide variety of nutritional supplements are shown.
Some nutritional supplements may indeed help boost your performance, but the improvement is typically nominal. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Those who want to improve on fitness know how hard it is to find that extra edge when it comes to getting better results.

We all want the maximum benefit from every workout. But exercise is inherently tough.

So when we find something that claims to boost our physical performance, many of us consider giving that certain something a try.

More than 50% U.S. adults take dietary supplements. These various sports supplements promise all kinds of benefits—quick energy, a ripped physique, increased strength or incredible recovery.

All in a pill or powder.

But do they really work?

Maybe the better question is: Are they safe?

Safety and certification

Manufacturers of dietary supplements are not required to obtain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That means there’s no assurance of a product’s purity, safety or effectiveness.

Use of dietary supplements is associated with 23,000 emergency department visits and 2,000 hospitalizations each year in the U.S.

Researchers frequently discover supplements that contain excess heavy metals, fungi and drugs.

Even if a certain ingredient seems to work, there’s no guarantee the product has exactly what it says it has and no guarantee it doesn’t contain harmful substances.

Some may contain ingredients that result in college or pro athletes testing positive for banned substances.

The best way to ensure you’re getting a quality product? Find one that is third-party certified.

Organizations such as NSF, USP, or ConsumerLab are good places to start to find a good brand.

Bona fides

You should also consider the product’s effectiveness. Manufacturers can make many claims about a supplement’s benefits, but most don’t have the scientific proof to back it up.

There are indeed benefits to certain supplements, but the average improvement on performance is about 1% to 3%.

You have to ask yourself: Is 1% to 3% improvement worth the cost?

There are a few ingredients that have some backing. (Others may not be worth your time or money.)

Some of the ingredients proven effective:

  • Creatine: Possibly helpful for increased strength.
  • Beta-alanine or sodium bicarbonate: Possibly helpful for enhancing high-intensity short spurts—about 30 seconds to 10 minutes.
  • Nitrate or beetroot juice: Possibly helpful for longer, intermittent exercise of 10 to 40 minutes.
  • Caffeine: Possibly helpful for increased exercise endurance.

When it comes to caffeine, there are other important aspects to consider.

If you regularly consume caffeine, you’ll realize minimal exercise benefit because you’ve built a tolerance to it. And in any case, consuming more is not better, as it can cause nausea, anxiety, insomnia, rapid heart rate and restlessness.

Always check with your doctor and a dietitian before starting a dietary supplement to ensure safety and proper usage.

Right to the source

If you’re curious about nutrition and performance, look to food first.

Many of the ingredients and elements that manufactured supplements market as beneficial can be easily obtained from food.

When you look at how much real food is needed to get all the carbs, protein and calories, many times the supplemented nutrients can be obtained daily right from what you are eating.

Take nitrate as an example. It can be obtained from beets, celery, spinach or arugula.

Other examples:

  • Creatine is found in animal proteins, with the highest amount in herring, cod, salmon, tuna, beef or pork.
  • Beta-alanine is in poultry, soybeans, fish or lean beef.

Other beneficial foods for sports performance or recovery include:

  • Tart cherry juice, for recovery and reducing inflammation
  • Omega-3 in fish, for anti-inflammation
  • Spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon or garlic, for anti-inflammation
  • Gelatin (in bone broth or Jell-O), for joint health
  • Good carbs (whole grains, fruit, potatoes), for energy
  • Lean proteins (beans, low-fat diary, chicken or fish), for muscle growth or repair

These sources can all provide a great energy boost and help build muscle. It’s about quantity, quality and timing.

No matter how much research there is to back up the benefits of a supplement, without a proper diet and exercise program it’s like throwing seeds on stone.

Supplements are not a magic bullet to bypass a healthy diet and exercise. You must have a healthy eating foundation to get the most out of any exercise program.