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Get Fit Installment #11: Supplemental Caution

Posted Dec 3, 2013

For those who have joined the UnitedHealthcare Get Fit! initiative with the Bucs, dietitian Kevin Luhrs returns with some additional advice regarding last week's topic of supplements

[Editor's Note: Tampa Bay Buccaneers Team Sports Dietitian Kevin Luhrs is part of a rotating panel of Buccaneer experts who are providing advice all season to those who have taken the UnitedHealthcare Get Fit! Pledge. In the 11th of our weekly installments, Luhrs steps to the plate for a third time, offering some words of caution on the topic of supplements meant to improve athletic performance.  Visit the UnitedHealthcare Get Fit! Iniative page for more information on how you can get involved and potentially win game tickets and other prizes.]

Hello again, and congratulations to all of you who have succeeded in making healthy changes to your lifestyles during this football season.  Hopefully you established some concrete goals at the beginning of your new regimen and have seen the type of results you were looking for.

Like you, I've been reading the advice offered by my colleagues in this space every week, so I know you've been getting some very good guidance along the way.  Last week, I read Karen's recommendations on natural supplements that you could add to your diet, and I thought that was a topic I could add some direction to, as well.

Karen focused on things such as multivitamins and fish oil, but that's not what a lot of people think of when they hear the word "supplement."  The supplement business is a billion-dollar industry with very convincing marketing, and so there are many products out there that people believe in.  In reality, the results and the health effects can vary quite a bit.

I work in professional sports, and in that business you hear a lot about supplements like Creatine.  And, in fact, I might recommend a supplement like that to a professional football player, but for an average person simply pursuing a fitness regimen and a healthy lifestyle, I wouldn't necessarily recommend the same thing.  I know I'm not the only person on this panel who has stressed the importance of setting and understanding your fitness goals; for many of you, those types of supplements are not really necessary to achieve your goals.

-- Buccaneers Team Sports Dietitian Kevin Luhrs helps S K. Tandy prepare for a game
The reason I bring this up is that I want to caution you about supplements.  I'm mainly referring to supplements that are designed to increase high-intensity athletic performance, but you should even exercise caution when choosing the types of supplements that Karen spoke about last week.  What you need to understand about the supplement industry is that it is not regulated by the FDA.  As long as a company does not make a claim that its product can cure or prevent a disease, it can say almost whatever it wants on the package.  It's a very reactive approach to regulation, rather than preventive and proactive.  It's only when an issue arises with a supplement like, say, Hydroxycut – things like liver damage and even some deaths – that the FDA steps in and starts regulating it.  That's an unfortunate set-up, but that's the way it is, and that means you have to be careful as the consumer.  Even if you've read the label to make sure the supplement doesn't have a particular substance you're avoiding, it could still be contaminated with that substance.  And it doesn't take much to cause a problem.

That’s why it's my recommendation that, for the most part, you probably don't need to include those types of supplements in your regimen.  That's especially true if you haven't laid down the foundation of eating well and incorporating things like fruits and vegetables more thoroughly into your diet.  A lot of people will run to the vitamin shops and think, "Okay, this supplement will help me lose weight, this supplement will help me gain weight, this supplement will help me get shredded."  They look to the supplements before focusing on what they can actually do with whole foods.

That's even a huge part of my job here with the Buccaneers.  When I work with players, we look at how we can meet our goals with food, and then if we need to supplement, we supplement.  We actually cannot provide supplements to the players as a team.  However, I have my own list of supplements that have been tested for banned substances and what I feel are credible supplements.  Since it's likely that you do not have access to such a list, I think the best approach is to focus on how you can meet your goals through your diet.

Banned substances can even show up in the vitamins that Karen was speaking about; there was actually one instance of that happening this year.  Look at the product label – if it says "Supplement Facts," it has not been regulated by the FDA.  If it says, "Nutrition Facts," then it has been regulated by the FDA.  I am certainly not telling you to avoid vitamins and fish oil and the like.  When it comes to the multivitamin, I would simply add this advice: Try to get it from a very well-known source, like a Centrum.  If it is marketed as a "whole food" or "natural extract," that doesn't necessarily mean that it's better.  With a multivitamin, you want to look at the label to see what the "DV," or daily value, numbers say.  If those are in the thousand-percent ranges – 2,000 or 5,000 – that's too much.  You want to look for a multivitamin that has DVs of 100%.

The fish oil does a couple things, as Karen mentioned.  It's an anti-inflammatory, it helps with blood cholesterol levels, it even helps with brain activity.  Karen also mentioned Vitamin D, which is especially useful for athletes in more northern climates during the winter, as they are exposed to less sunlight.  There are a lot of athletes who are Vitamin D-deficient, and that can lead to injury because of reduced bone density.

My main point, again, is that you need to be careful with all supplements.  Obviously, you need to show more caution with something like a weight loss pill than a multivitamin.  When it comes to the types of supplements I mentioned earlier, I'll stress again that a lot of your goals can be met through the foods that you eat.  For instance, protein supplements are popular, but I think people would be surprised at how much protein you really need.  The amount of protein you need in your diet is about a gram per pound of body weight per day; a lot of people go crazy with protein supplements throughout the day, and it's not really necessary.  If you do choose to add a supplement to your regimen, do your research first.

Thanks, and good luck!

- Kevin Luhrs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Team Sports Dietitian