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What is a supplement?

A dietary supplement has been defined as a ‘food, component, nutrient, or non-food compound that is purposefully ingested in addition to the habitually consumed diet, to achieve a specific health and/or performance benefit’. The reasoning for supplement use is extensive but includes controlling deficiencies, optimising health, preventing illness/injuries, increasing sleep quality, or achieving performance benefits.

What supplements should I be taking?

When considering supplement use to boost a fitness routine, an individual should first undergo a cost-benefit analysis, incorporating their individual need, risk, effectiveness, safety, and reliability of those in consideration. With this, an individual will be able to filter out unnecessary supplements and ensure that intakes of vitamins/minerals only occur when daily recommendations cannot be met through the diet alone, or when the diet cannot be altered to meet these recommendations. Supplements use therefore be through a personalised approach, utilising a ‘food-first, but not food only’ approach.


Some questions to ask may be:

-                Is there evidence for its use?

-                Am I lacking this nutrient in my diet?

-                Is the supplement safe to use?

-                Does the supplement come from a reliable source?

What nutrients may be lacking in my diet?

 As we have spoken about above, the process of deciding which supplements to invest in ultimately comes down to a personalised approach, whereby factors such as allergies, dietary choices, sport, or preference may all play a part. This is where nutritional assessments with a registered dietician/nutritionist are key. Nevertheless, these are some supplements that individuals are commonly found to be deficient in and may consider to help boost their health and performance.


  1. Vitamin D: Many individuals are at risk of vitamin D deficiency at various times throughout the year. Although the main role of vitamin D has been devoted to bone health and immunity, appropriate levels have also been associated with muscle function, affecting strength, endurance, and athletic performance. Although further research is warranted, supplementation should be considered during months when exposure of the skin through sunlight is limited. Between. 1000 – 2000 IU has been recommended to achieve the recommended vitamin D status.

  2. Iron: Iron plays a major role in supporting the function of proteins and enzymes essential for maintaining physical and cognitive performance. Many people are likely to be deficient in iron, as a response to inadequate overall energy intake, menstrual cycles, excess sweating, or dietary choices. Supplements may therefore be warranted to meet recommended daily needs (8mg/d for men and 18mg/d for women)

  3. Calcium: Intakes of 1500mg/d are recommended to optimise bone health however, deficiencies are common, with this linked to low bone density, impaired muscle contraction, and muscular cramps.


  1. Protein-based supplements: Protein is an important macronutrient for our muscle health, accompanied by adequate overall energy intake. Consuming too little protein may lead to reductions in muscle mass, reduced bone health, and an increased chance of injuries/illnesses. For muscle health, around 1.2g/kg – 2g/kg body mass has been recommended to be consumed each day. Supplementation (e.g., bars or powders) may therefore be warranted to help meet these overall daily intakes.

  2.  Creatine: Creatine has been found to increase phosphocreatine synthesis, to help with increasing muscle strength and size. For those participating in strength or explosive power sports, taking daily 3-5g doses of creatine monohydrate can therefore help improve performance. Potential benefits of cognitive functioning have also recently become apparent!

  3.  Caffeine: Caffeine blocks the activity of adenosine, reducing an individual’s feeling of fatigue. With this, consuming caffeine an hour before performance has been shown to improve alertness and power output, whilst reducing your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Watch out for side effects, with overstimulation, anxiety, and nausea all being potential issues with consumption.

What should I look out for when considering supplement use?

Most vitamins and minerals contain a ‘Safe Upper Limit’, defined as ‘the doses that susceptible individuals could take daily, on a life-long basis, without medical supervision.’. Upper limits are based on chronic exposures, meaning that although it is unlikely supplementation will reach these levels and cause toxic long-term effects, some may experience short-term non-serious side effects from consumption (depending on individual responsiveness). It is worth noting that the extensive number of supplements on the market means many have low-quality control standards, meaning contamination may be present, and it may not actually do what it claims.

 The only way to find out if your intake of essential nutrients/vitamins from supplements is to check that your total intake from all supplements consumed does not exceed the SUL. Poor practices (e.g., indiscriminate mixing of many products without regard to total doses) may lead to several side effects including gastrointestinal distress, nausea, anxiety, and urine discoloration. It is therefore recommended to obtain appropriate advice about the need for supplementation, and again follow a food-first approach!

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