Do you KNOW if the supplements you are taking (or your parents are giving you) are…
- Could be obtained through food?
- Are Safe?
- Are Effective?
Supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration like medications are regulated.
You never *really* know what’s in a supplement unless it’s been subjected to third-party testing, and there are different degrees of stringency between different third party labs.
For general consumers, there are several third-party verification labs that are just fine for everyday vitamins, minerals, etc.
For elite or collegiate gymnasts, the rules are stricter in terms of testing so only a few select third-party labs are acceptable.
Ultimately, if a gymnast takes a supplement (or protein powder, pre-workout, vitamins, etc) that has tainted (contains banned) ingredients, they are responsible and can lose their eligibility or be disqualified/banned. This represents thousands of dollars and hours of blood, sweat, and tears so certainly not worth the risk.
Do Gymnasts Need Supplements?
“Food first” is the tag-line of sports dietitians. We are not “anti-supplement”, but there’s a lot to be said with focusing on what you can “add” to the diet to get different nutrients. You will get many benefits from whole food sources versus just supplementing a diet that is overall lacking in nutrient density. Many nutrients have what’s called “synergy” with one another, meaning they work better together.
But, some nutrients just can’t be consumed in adequate amounts or need to be repleted due to insufficiencies and deficiency that are often related to high levels of intense training as an athlete. These would be things like calcium (if an athlete has a milk allergy or is vegan), iron, vitamin D, and often magnesium.
There are several very effective supplements I use with my high-level athletes or my athletes whose diets are lacking, or lab tests have shown to be insufficient/deficient.
Top Supplements For Gymnasts
Before considering supplementing a gymnast’s diet, you need to make sure they’re eating ENOUGH and eating the right things to fuel performance.
Then the appropriate lab tests need to be conducted to monitor for specific nutrients like vitamin D and iron.
A thorough nutrition assessment should be conducted to see if there are any gaps in the diet or inadequacies in certain nutrients that typical lab tests won’t pick up on, taking into account current health status, age, injuries, etc.
What you’re left with is likely ensuring there is enough calcium (through food or supplement if unable), vitamin D and iron (test, don’t guess), and possibly magnesium or other vitamins that would be dietary pattern specific (like B12 for vegans).
Are Your Gymnast's Supplements Safe?
Collegiate (NCAA) and elite gymnasts are subjected to random drug testing through the NCAA and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), respectively.
Because supplements are not regulated as stringently as medications, gymnasts need to be super careful.
The NCAA has recognized several third-party laboratories as the “gold standard” for product testing, two of those include the NSF for Sport certification, and Informed Choice for Sport. Products that have been certified by one of these entities are generally recognized as “safe” although there are no guarantees. Minimal or no supplements is the least risky, but sometimes supplements are needed and that’s OK.
Other third-party labs that are pretty safe are United States Pharmacopeia (USP) or Informed Choice, but their testing is not as stringent for college or elite gymnasts.
Supplement companies will often advertise “Clean”, “NCAA Compliant”, or “Third-Party tested”, but when you actually check to see if they’ve been vetted by the appropriate labs, they have not.
While many over the counter vitamins and minerals are “likely” safe, you can’t guarantee what’s in it especially if it’s not been third-party tested.
Are Your Gymnast's Supplements Effective?
Another issue with supplements is efficacy. Supplement claims are not well regulated, so you can’t always believe what the product label says.
For instance, Juice Plus+ is super popular vitamin/antioxidant supplement in the gymnastics community and endorsed by former Olympic gymnasts like Shannon Miller. This multi-level marketing company suggests taking several fruit and vegetable powder gummies each day to get “over 30 different fruits/vegetables”. The claims they make about health improvement are outrageous, not backed by sound research, and just don’t make sense when you really stop to think about them. Why could you just simply take 6 sugar gummies a day and somehow miraculously improve your health? Nutrition just isn’t that simple.
Another good example is the plethora of turmeric supplements on the market. What most consumers don’t know is that curcumin or curcuminoids are the active anti-inflammatory ingredient of turmeric and most supplements are not in a well-absorbed form (which just makes expensive waste products). But again, most consumers don’t know this so they buy an expensive curcumin supplement off the shelf at Whole Foods hoping it will solve their aches and pains.
Outside of absorption issues is another issue related to “active ingredient” quantity. Omega- 3 supplements are a great example. Omega 3’s are one of the most researched nutrients in terms of muscle soreness and inflammation in athletes. But, the actual active anti-inflammatory component comes from the specific omega 3’s EPA (eicosapentanoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Many omega 3 supplements will claim to have 1000-2000 mg of omega 3s, which a low dose to see anti-inflammatory benefit, but the actual EPA and DHA content may only equal 25% of that, so you’d have to take four times what the label says to have a proper effect.
The Bottom Line About Supplements For Gymnasts
The bottom line is that the supplement industry is the “wild west” when it comes to product claims and you have to be really careful. Focusing on getting your gymnast to eat enough (and avoid RED-S) and fueling workouts/recovery appropriately are the “big rocks” of nutrition that will get you pretty far in the sport.
To learn more about how to fuel your gymnast for optimal performance, hop on the waitlist for The Balanced Gymnast Method ™, our online parent course for fueling the competitive gymnast.