Humans have been using supplements to augment sports performance for more than 2,000 years — since the Greek Olympians tried to improve their athleticism by eating meat, figs, mushrooms, and taking the stimulant strychnine.
Since then, the sports supplement market has ballooned to a more than $10.7bn industry. Despite thousands of products on the market, an extremely limited number of supplements have research to back up their ability to improve athletic performance — at least in people who are already eating a balanced diet and training properly.
Many unscrupulous companies use terms such as “research-backed” or “scientifically proven” in their sales copy to push their products. But if you take the time to click on the studies they provide (if they provide the studies at all), you’ll often quickly find that their too-good-to-be-true statements are precisely that. Too good to be true. It’s important to understand what the research actually says about supplements.
Research has consistently found that taking creatine may improve the way your body adapts to high-intensity exercise and aid in postexercise recovery. Likewise, studies have repeatedly found that caffeine can help temporarily improve aerobic endurance, muscular strength, and many other aspects of performance.
Despite a lack of quality evidence for the majority of supplements, deceitful companies have figured out that providing links to research on their product pages can help increase sales, even if these studies are irrelevant or of low quality.
Supplement companies also often report the results of studies without mentioning who the participants were. One aspect of research that often gets lost in the sales copy of many sports supplements is the demographics of the participants. Many companies extrapolate the results of studies performed on untrained or lightly trained individuals to all athletes. High-level athletes, who are usually already eating well, rarely experience the kind of dramatic benefit from a supplement as less well-trained people.
This statement is technically true and sounds impressive to potential shoppers. BCAA supplements contain the three ingredients leucine, isoleucine, and valine. Research has found a leucine-rich diet does modify the mTORC1 pathway. But how much and in whom?
One small study found that taking BCAAs may increase muscle recovery after endurance exercise in untrained college-aged males. However, the research looks bleaker for people who are already trained. In a 2018 study, researchers found taking BCAAs with 1.2g/kg of protein per day produced “trivial” gains in preventing muscle damage after weightlifting in trained males. Likewise, the authors of a 2017 review of studies published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition concluded, “The claim that consumption of dietary BCAAs stimulates muscle protein synthesis or produces an anabolic response in human subjects is unwarranted.”
While research may not always stack up to companies’ claims, other times they just don’t provide it. Companies use phrases such as “studies show” or “research has found” in their marketing without providing links to the studies.
As a rule of thumb, the more research backing a product, the more accessible companies make the studies. For example, one company selling creatine, one of the most well-researched supplements, offers a 13-page document clearly summarizing the research.
In contrast, the sales page for the fat burner PhenQ claims that “extensive clinical studies” have proven that their blend of ingredients called α-Lacys Reset® can decrease body weight and body fat. They go on to claim that in these clinical trials, “Compared to a placebo and other ingredients, people taking α-Lacys Reset® lost 7.24% of their body fat, lost 3.44% of their body weight, and increased 3.80% of their muscle mass.”
When I emailed the company directly asking for the studies, they responded by saying that, “The clinical trials and studies that we have are the ones available at the bottom of the page. The ones we have available are only the clinical references for the ingredients used.”
In other words, the studies don’t exist.
Even worse, most of the top Google results for “PhenQ” are fake review websites to influence skeptical buyers. In the words of one sponsored ad, PhenQ is “produced by a reputable company, not a scammer with a fake business who can disappear at will.”
To save money, supplement companies may provide much smaller amounts of the active ingredient in their product than the doses studied in research. It’s common practice for companies to provide a very small amount of their active ingredient in their product. Going back to the PhenQ example, the key ingredient in their formula called α-Lacys Reset® is alpha-lipoic acid (ALA).
An analysis of 10 randomized, double-blind, placebo studies (the gold standard in research) found that ALA may have a small effect on weight loss for overweight and obese individuals. The participants lost an average of 1.27kg of weight in the studies that ran from 8 weeks to one year. The daily dose of ALA given to participants in the studies ranged from 300mg to 1800mg per day.
According to the PhenQ label, the product only contains a daily dose of 50mg of α-Lacys Reset®, a blend of ingredients only partly made-up of ALA. If the entire blend was made up of ALA, it would still only contain 2.7% compared to the 16.7% of the daily dose found to be effective in research.
Many companies claim their products are “scientifically proven,” but what does that actually mean? Scientifically proven could mean one small study with no control group that hasn’t been reviewed by other scientists found a potential benefit. Or it could mean there are 100 high-quality studies published in highly respected journals.
The description of one top-selling L-arginine product on Amazon reads “L-Arginine 1500 is scientifically formulated to support energy levels, muscle pumps, strength and endurance. Better blood flow equals bigger pumps and muscle growth to perform at your best!”
Despite the promising marketing hype, the majority of the “science” tends to disagree with these statements. As the National Institutes of Health Office of Dietary Supplements explains, “Arginine supplementation’s ability to enhance strength, improve exercise or athletic performance, or promote muscular recovery after exercise has little scientific support.”
If you’re about to hit the gym or start running for the first time, or you’re thinking of upping the intensity of your training programs, beware the misleading claims made by supplement companies.
There’s no shortage of ways that companies manipulate research. If in doubt, aim to get most of your nutrition through whole and unprocessed foods like fish, fruit, or vegetables. In the meantime, keep an eye out for these further ways supplement companies exaggerate their benefits:
- Self-funding their own studies or making conclusions from studies funded by groups with conflicting interests
- Pulling conclusions from studies not peer-reviewed by other scientists
- Relying on studies published in predatory journals, or deceptive journals that claim to be legitimate scientific publications
- Hand-picking studies that conform to their bias while ignoring higher-quality evidence to the contrary
- Using a case study of an athlete who takes a particular supplement to insinuate that athlete is successful because of that supplement
- Using the results of studies correcting nutrient deficiencies and extrapolating the results to people who are not nutrient deficient.