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Denis Boucher's Blog: Are nutritional supplements necessary?

Tyler Seguin takes part in the NHL draft combine in May, 2010. (Photo by Claus Andersen/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Tyler Seguin takes part in the NHL draft combine in May, 2010. (Photo by Claus Andersen/NHLI via Getty Images)

In sports, performance matters. As athletes and coaches hear about new supplements that can provide a competitive edge, they are easily tempted to try them. Since the power of perception is more persuasive than the pure and perhaps less exciting logic of science, if you think a product can help improve your performance, you will try it, even though science may have a different point of view.

In fact, some nutritional supplements are necessary, others are useful, but many of them are a complete waste of money. In this confusing world, the “basic rationale” is sometimes forgotten too quickly. And what is this “basic rationale?” Simply this: you need to eat enough calories, meaning you must eat as many calories as your basal metabolic rate and your daily energy expenditure (including training and competition) require if you want to perform. If you don’t give your body the energy it needs, your performance will decline, recovery will slow down, fatigue becomes chronic and you’ll never be able to improve your fitness level.

Here are some numbers that can help illustrate this “basic rationale.” Imagine that you spend 5,000 calories per day, but you eat only 2,500 calories (a situation I often see with young athletes). Do you really think nutritional supplements will help you improve your performance if you don’t fuel your body with enough energy? Absolutely not! Before thinking about taking nutritional supplements, you must accurately evaluate the number of calories you need to consume each day. Then, with regard to the sport you practice, you must identify the amount of proteins, carbohydrates and lipids you need to consume.

For example, let’s say you need to eat 5,000 calories per day. If you play hockey, you need to build muscle mass, but you also need good cardio. So let’s assume that 20 percent of your energy must come from proteins, 60 percent from carbohydrates and 20 percent from lipids. You must then know that one gram of protein provides four calories, one gram of carbohydrates provides four calories and one gram of lipids provides nine calories. Therefore, if you distribute your 5,000 calories among these three categories (20 percent proteins; 60 percent carbohydrates and 20 percent lipids), you will need to eat 250 grams of protein, 750 grams of carbohydrates and 111 grams of lipids.

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When a sport requires the development of cardiopulmonary endurance, eating a large amount of protein (25 to 30 percent of your total caloric intake) does not appear to be a good idea since it takes more energy to digest proteins. Each sport has its particular requirements…

Now that you’ve done the math, give your body what it really needs to perform. Only then should you think about taking nutritional supplements. But which ones? For what type of performance? In what quantity? And, since timing can be important in some cases, at what moment should you take the supplement?

Glucose supplementation has been studied extensively and represents one type of supplement I would consider necessary. Creatine can be useful, but not for all sports. Antioxidants are useful, but not in all cases and taking large quantities will actually impede your performance. Too much of a good thing always ends up having the opposite effect.

One thing is certain, when it comes to nutrition (your most important asset in terms of performance) and nutritional supplements, talk to a professional who can provide you with proper guidance. Please don’t believe everything you hear. And, coaches, when you’re talking nutrition and nutritional supplements to the athletes you are working with, make sure you know what you’re talking about. If you’re not sure, once again, ask a professional. Performance is important, but the health of our athletes is far more important…just keep that in mind.

If you follow this “basic rationale,” you’ve done 99 percent of the work.

Dr. Denis Boucher holds a Ph.D. degree in experimental medicine. He manages an exercise physiology laboratory in Quebec and a human performance consulting company in the United States. He has conducted the pre-season on-ice fitness evaluation program for the Philadelphia Flyers. His clinical expertise is in the fields of exercise physiology, nutrition and sport performance. He currently hosts and produces a weekly radio show on XM172 entitled ‘The Little Scientific World of Doc Boucher’ (in French). He will blog for THN.com throughout the season.

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