Supplement Savvy: A Practical Guide for Endurance Athletes (Part 1)


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Dietary supplement (DS) use is widespread in today’s society. Athletes and active individuals take supplements for a variety of reasons but several motivators include decreased risk of disease, achieving nutritional adequacy, slowing the effects of aging, and of course…. improved athletic performance.

The latest U.S. statistics indicate that over half the population takes at least one DS.   Did you take any today?shutterstock_214263193

This growth has become very lucrative for the supplement industry. Last year weight loss and sports nutrition supplements combined to generate nearly 30 billion dollars.

How often are you asked to ‘give advice’ or ‘recommend’ a particular supplement? The best practice in this situation is to educate on DS use instead of promoting one product or another.  To this end, the goal of this first blog post (1 of 5) will be to describe how DS are regulated and provide tips to help you and your fellow athletes become safe and informed consumers.


How Are Dietary Supplements Regulated?

Over a decade has passed since the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 (DSHEA) was enacted by the U.S. Congress. This legislation provided an umbrella for hundreds of thousands of products to be sold as DS. Since DS are considered ‘foods’ under DSHEA, the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN) is the branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that oversees labeling, safety and compliance enforcement.  As defined by DSHEA a DS is “a product (other than tobacco) that is intended to supplement the diet that bears or contains one or more of the following dietary ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an herb or other botanical, an amino acid, a dietary substance for use by man to supplement the diet by increasing the total daily intake, or a concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combinations of these ingredients ” (click here to learn more)


Albeit unknowingly, this broad definition has led to exponential growth of the DS industry. As described by DSHEA, products may consist of a single entity or a vast mixture of chemical components. Ingredients having little or no nutritional characteristics like botanicals and hormones are also included under this legislation. Supplements may be distributed in powder, capsule, tablet, or liquid form. They may also be purchased everywhere from GNC to Wal-Mart to online! Where do you get yours?


Surprising to most Americans, FDA regulation of DS is in stark contrast to over-the-counter (OTC) or prescription drugs. Drugs undergo stringent product testing for safety and efficacy prior to formal FDA approval. Manufacturers of DS, on the other hand, do NOT need FDA approval to produce, market, or distribute their products. However, by law, they are responsible for ensuring their products are safe before going to market. The problem is that there is NO independent testing required.


The FDA’s role in protecting consumers truly begins when a product hits store shelves. Once a DS is on the market, the FDA must provide evidence that a product poses a “significant or unreasonable risk of illness or injury” before it can be removed.  Also, there are no federal regulations demanding a product be effective, just safe.


Are Supplements Safe?

Fortunately, the majority of DS consumed by Americans are safe. For example, millions of people take a daily multi-vitamin with no adverse effects. However consumers need to be wary because many supplements contain ingredients that are biologically active, similar to conventional pharmaceuticals. Some DS, especially when taken in high doses, may be toxic. Even when taken as directed, DS may interact with other supplements, over-the counter medicines or prescription drugs to cause harmful effects.  One example, Yohimbe, an a2 adrenergic blocker has been investigated for decades due to its pharmacologic effects. Not only is it marketed to consumers as an aphrodisiac but also to improve exercise performance and promote weight loss. However, Yohimbe is known to rapidly increase blood pressure and heart rate. It may also interact with other prescription medicines. Another example is St. John’s Wort.  It can reduce the effectiveness of some medications used to treat heart disease and depression. Check here to see the latest FDA DS recalls.



Data on dietary supplement safety can be hard to find. One independent testing group is Consumer Labs ( I recently got access to information (at a conference) from this company. In 2010, a review published in the Journal of Nutrition (Maughan, 2013) found potential issues that included absence of active ingredients, poor manufacturing practices, and inclusion of unwanted or harmful substances. More specifically, Consumer Labs found 31% of selected protein powders failed quality testing, including 2 for lead contamination. YIKES!!  Unfortunately there are thousands of other products that are just as bad if not worse!



It is difficult to keep up with the changing DS landscape. Athletes continue to spend billions of dollars each year on DS. Your goal should be to make an informed decisions about DS use based on the current research.  In Part 2 of this series, I discuss 5 ways to become Supplement Savvy.






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Learn the exact steps I used to become a 9x Ironman finisher, ultramarathoner, and Boston Qualifier. Take the guesswork out of race-day nutrition.

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