Sports Nutrition    

by Dante Dettamanti, BS, MS

Sizing Up Nutrional Supplements: Part 1

The discussion of diet and nutrition for water polo players would not be complete without talking about nutritional supplements. This will be a three part series, with the first part focusing on why athletes feel the need to take supplements, looking at the reliability and claims of the supplement industry (what can you believe?), and then talking about common food supplements found in today’s sports world like sports drinks and sports bars. The second part of the series will focus on vitamin/mineral supplements, anti-oxidants and the regulatory system that monitors the distribution and safety of these kinds of supplements. The final part of the monthly series will analyze many of the other food supplements that are available in today’s sport market place, such as energy boosters, performance enhancers, muscle builders and fat burners, what benefits they have for athletes, if any, and their reliability, possible side affects and long term effects.


Athletes have always tried to gain an edge over other athletes. This was also true in ancient times; only the athletes involved were warriors who fought each other on the battlefield. Aztec warriors often ate the hearts of their foes in the belief that it would add to their own bravery and give them an advantage in their next battle over their opponents. This seems like a crazy idea, but some of the supplements on the market today are based on similar logic. Athletes train hard, but will search for a supplement to give them the edge over the opposition. If performance improves after taking the supplement, it is easy to assume that the supplement did all of the work. The same goes for the Aztec warrior. If he won his next battle, then it was because of the heart of his foe that he had eaten.  If the Aztecs had modern marketing, they would have posted a big billboard on top of one of their pyramids, advertising the fact that all warriors would win their next battle by eating the diet supplement of their opponent’s hearts.

Of course, in modern times a scientist would step in and remind us that improvement or winning a battle is not proof that the supplement (heart) “worked”. It may just be a convenient coincidence. What about all of the warriors who ate hearts and lost their next battle? They weren’t even around to challenge the claims of the first warrior. “Proof” only comes when the same result can be repeated time and time again, using proven scientific methods; not just hearsay and the testimony of one warrior.


It’s well known that that just giving an athlete a pill can suddenly have a good result. The question remains: What caused the change or improvement? The supplement or the psychology?  Manufactures of most nutritional supplements make claims about how their product will improve your performance; using the testimony of a famous athlete as proof. As soon as any athlete believes in that testimony, the placebo effect may come into play as a psychological aid, and that athlete’s performance may improve.

Scientists try to separate the true physiological effect of a supplement from the perceived effect. This is best done with a “double blind” trial in which athletes are given either the supplement, or an inactive placebo that looks and tastes like the supplement. Neither the scientists nor the athletes know what is being taken (hence “double blind”). When the results are analyzed, if those taking the supplement show significant improvement over those taking the placebo, then that is proof that the supplement works, If both groups improve, then it is likely to be “in the mind”, or just the effects of regular training.


Unfortunately, the supplement manufacture does not have to prove that his product works. Manufactures can make any claim that they want and not have to show proof that it works. Simply making a statement about their product in a brochure, or putting a claim on their label does not constitute proof. Some manufactures will state that “ scientific studies show that this product works” or,  “Olympian J. Smith used this product to win a gold medal” without providing the name of the study, or the proof that the product helped produce a gold medal. 

As soon as you see this kind of testimony about the product, you have to start asking questions about the claims that are being made. Ask the manufactures to name the scientific study, and provide proof of the results, that are published in a reliable scientific journal under the guidelines of a “double blind” study, as described above. They will not like your asking questions because they will not have a credible answer. We also know that the athlete “testimony” as described above does not prove a thing. That athlete probably used the product; but it was probably the effects of hard training and talent that produced the results, not the supplement.

Remember that the athlete is not providing his testimony for free. He is probably being paid very well to endorse the product. He may even believe that the product worked for him. That is not proof that it will work for you or anyone else. As an athlete, you should never take any kind of product, or supplement of any kind, without doing some research and asking questions. At least your decision to use or not use the product will be an informed one. Blindly ingesting something into your body because someone told you that it worked; or you read a brochure describing the product, is a sure path to possible side affects and problems that could affect your health and your career. Be prepared to be disappointed when you don’t get the results that were promised.

An athlete should be leery of any claim made by a manufacture of any supplement that you have to put into your body. In most cases, the supplement has not been scientifically proven to work, the product has not been tested on young adults, the side effects are not known, and long-term effects are also unknown. The manufactures are taking advantage of a certain need that athletes have to improve, and will do anything to gain an advantage over their competitors. In other words the athlete will believe anything, or take anything to win the “gold”; and the manufacturer will say anything, or do anything, to sell the athlete their product.


Typically, the argument for use of most products that are sold by many manufactures is based on flawed logic. A good example of this logic is royal jelly. It is assumed that what is good for the queen bee is also good for humans. The queen bee is fed royal jelly by the worker bees. As a result she grows twice as large and lives 50 times longer than other bees. That is fine for the bee; but who is to say that it’s any good for humans? Yet, manufactures of royal jelly espoused the great benefits for humans without any proof that it worked, charging great sums of money for their products. This was one of the biggest rip-offs in the history of the food supplement industry. Unfortunately this is the way that many of the manufactures of supplements for athletes market and sell their worthless products. Supplements such as royal jelly are often better at making profits for their manufacturers then they are at enhancing sports performance.

When it comes to deciphering health claims, a healthy dose of skepticism and a bit of common sense can help an athlete steer through the maze of products that are offered. You want to question whether the supplement in question is LEGAL, SAFE and EFFECTIVE and what the SIDE EFFECTS and LONG TERM EFFECTS are. Common sense tells you that securing this information requires looking past the promotional hype, advertisements and anecdotal reports put out by the manufactures. If they cannot provide answers to your questions, then it would be foolish, and sometimes dangerous, to take their product.

The facts are that manufactures do not have show proof that a supplement works, they do not have to proof that it is safe, they do not have to show long term effects, they do not have to list all of the ingredients in the product, and they do not have to conform to any standards of how much to take or how often to take it. They simply decide for themselves based on what makes a profit for the company. Typical approaches used include presenting information that may not be accurate, or that has been taken out of context, failing to provide scientific research when asked (it’s “ongoing” or not available to the public), relying on testimonials from athletes and authority figures ( eg, “research scientists” or Dr. Van Hamburger) who are most likely paid to endorse the product, or conducting and reporting their own research without having it published in journals where other scientists have a chance to evaluate it.

Be leery of general, broad claims such as “slows aging” or “speeds up your metabolism,” that promise to have a positive effect on a complicated, multifaceted process in the body. Be alert to “miracle,” “secret,” and “effortless effects” like “have six-pack abs with only one minute a day on our electrical stimulus machine,” or “eat all you want and lose weight at the same time.” When “scientific” mumbo jumbo appears, read it more closely. Be a bit curious about the percentage of people who “may” be deficient and why you “may” be deficient, rather than “are” deficient. Be wary of he “health assessment” or “fitness program” that is designed to find faults in your health that can only be rectified by one or more supplements. Contact the manufacture for more information about alleged benefits and request copies of, or references to, scientific articles reviewed or published in reputable medical journals. Better yet, contact experts in the field such as doctors or athletic trainers, and specialists in the field of sports medicine and exercise physiology.


What started out with Gatorade in the 1970s, PowerBar in the 1980’s, and expanding in the 1990’s with gels such as Gu, has rapidly grown into a multi-billion dollar sports fuel industry; with literally thousands of choices available for every possible dietary need. Deciding on which commercial fuel product to use can be confusing and overwhelming to a young athlete. However, by choosing a product(s) to meet specific needs and knowing what to look for can help the young athlete to choose what is right for him/her. Certainly there is a time and a place for engineered sports fuels. Just remember that they can be effective when used as a convenience, rather than as a necessity. They should be used to help supplement a healthy diet to meet specific needs when the occasion arises; not to completely replace food in its natural form.

Natural food is still the best choice for improving health, preventing disease, optimizing healing and enhancing performance. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, lean meats, low-fat dairy products, nuts and legumes are all rich in a combination of the important vitamins, minerals, fiber, protein, fat, carbohydrates and antioxidants that athletes need on a daily basis to train and compete in their sport. The purpose of this section is to help the water polo player wade through the plethora of confusing information and understand the appropriate situations for choosing engineered sports foods and vitamin supplements.

* A word to the wise when using sports fuels. Everyone’s stomach reacts differently to different sports drinks, bars, etc, especially during competition. Gastrointestinal distress such as nausea and diarrhea can occur with these products. Never use any of these kinds of sports fuels without trying them before, during and after practice sessions. Only then can the athlete know how their body will react to certain products. Consuming a sports fuel for the first time before competition is not a good idea!


Sports drinks should only be used for replacing fluids and electrolytes that have been depleted during practice or games, and to help replace carbohydrates burned during practice and games. Plain water is also excellent at replenishing fluid in the body; but sports drinks have the advantage of also providing carbohydrates and electrolytes, like sodium, for the athlete. On very hot days, sports drinks should be provided to athletes during training and games; even for water polo players. Just because the water polo athlete performs in the water doesn’t mean that he/she doesn’t sweat and lose body fluids.

Drinks that contain carbohydrates (sugars) can be helpful to the water polo player in different situations to quickly help replace carbohydrates that have been burned up by exercise. The carbohydrates in sports drinks empty quickly from the stomach and are absorbed into the blood. Do you need a boost before a very early morning workout and you don’t have time for breakfast: then try a sport drink? Just finished a grueling practice session and you won’t be eating dinner for a while, then have a sport drink immediately after practice. You have just have completed your first game in a tournament and you have another game coming up in 3-4 hours. Have a sports drink immediately after the game before you have a chance to eat something solid. Remember, that the half hour after exercise is the time that the body is the most receptive to absorbing necessary carbohydrates.

The carbohydrates in sports drinks, mainly in the form of glucose and sucrose, helps delay fatigue by topping up blood glucose levels to provide glucose for the active muscles. How much sugar is enough? You have to remember that one of the other purposes of the sports drink is to replace body fluids, so that you can avoid dehydration. Too much sugar in the drink will drastically slow down the absorption of water from the stomach. Learn to read the label on your sport drink. 8 grams of sugar per 100 ml of fluid is the maximum level for replacing blood sugar and providing the fastest absorption of fluids from the stomach. Fluid replacement drinks formulated for use during exercise such as Gatorade, Cytomax and Powerbar Endurance are generally tolerated best.

If an athlete is well hydrated and needs a quick carbohydrate boost before and after a game or practice, then liquid food supplements such as UltraFuel and Extran could be a way to help build up muscle glycogen stores quickly. They provide a concentrated dose of 40 to 50 grams per 8 ounces of fluid. Again, this should be tested before and after practice before they are used before a game. Possible side effects include gastrointestinal problems and dehydration, nutrient deficiencies if routinely used to replace foods in meals, and weight gain from consuming excess calories.

Other products such as Ensure, Metabol Endurance and EnduroxR4 also provide protein and fat as well as carbohydrates. Not enough research has been done on these products to determine the effects of added protein and fat, or whether they are even needed in a normal diet. Some studies have shown that a little protein in a manufactured energy fuel helps the body to take on and better utilize the carbohydrates present in the product. A 4 to 1 or 5 to 1 ratio of carbohydrate to protein seems to work best for taking in and utilizing the most carbohydrates. Liquid food supplements such as these should only be used to replace or add carbohydrates, not as a source of fats and proteins. They certainly should not be used to replace a healthy meal that is part of a diet that provides other nutrients and fiber, in addition to the carbohydrates, fats and protein. If you are not sure what is contained in an energy drink, be better informed on what you are ingesting by reading the label.

Don’t confuse “energy” drinks for “sports” drinks. Many energy drinks (like Red Bull) contain excessive amounts of caffeine and sugar. A lot of sugar and caffeine is not what you need in your sport drink, especially if you also need fluid replacement. The pros and cons of caffeine consumption for athletes will be discussed in next month’s article. Carbonated drinks are also not recommended as a sports drink for athletes, because both the carbonation and the high sugar content will also slow absorption from the stomach. Drinking a soft drink during a meal is also not recommended, because of the “filling” affect in the stomach that keeps you from eating enough of the natural foods needed for optimum performance.


During exercise lasting 90-120 minutes or longer (triathlons and marathons), endurance athletes need to consume at least 30-60 grams of carbohydrate per hour to perform at their best and to prevent precipitous dips in blood sugar. Energy gels are small packets of concentrated sugar that can be consumed during the competition. They contain about 25 grams per packet, compared to energy drinks (14 grams) and food bars (20-40 grams), as described below. In deciding what kind of product to use, the endurance athlete has to consider 1) the effect of the product on the stomach that can cause gastrointestinal distress and 2) the effect of the high sugar concentrations on necessary fluid absorption. All of these products have to be tested during long practice sessions, and well before competition, in order to figure out what the athlete can tolerate during a race. With both energy gels and food bars, plenty of water has to be drunk, at the same time, to help minimize the effect on the stomach.

Water polo players certainly do not need to use energy gels during competition that only lasts an hour plus. Perhaps if the water polo athlete is in a situation of low blood sugar and glycogen depletion, then energy gels or bars might be used as a one-time carbohydrate boost. Sports drinks, under the guidelines mentioned in preceding paragraphs, are probably the best bet for the water polo player under most practice and game situations. 


Although your regular meals will provide the majority of your carbohydrate needs, other products besides sports drinks will help supplement the carbohydrates in your diet. Food bars can be a good source of carbohydrates, before or following an event, when eating a meal is not possible. Food bars are marketed as sports bars or energy bars; but these are not as magical as they might imply. Although they are generally a good quality product and low in fat, you can usually get better value and the same amount of carbohydrates from a wisely chosen muesli bar, fruit smoothie or a banana and low fat yogurt. Remember that food bars are NOT a substitute for meals; just a quick and handy snack to have in your backpack or sports bag, to tide you over to your next meal. Use the 4 and 20 rule of food bars: any bar providing less than 4 grams of fat and more than 20 grams of carbohydrate is a good choice.

Experiment with food bars on practice days, just as you would a sports drink; and be sure to drink plenty of water along with the bar to prevent any gastrointestinal problems. Many specialty bars claim to encourage body fat loss or increase your endurance or strength. These bars will not be able to perform any singular benefits beside what you already get from the fat, protein, carbohydrates and added nutrients. Beware of food bars that claim to “mobilize” body fats or increase the amount of fat used as muscle fuel. There is no evidence to support their claims. Food bars should be used by athletes for one reason only; to provide a quick source of carbohydrates when food is not available. There is an attraction to food bars promising you other results; but they are no substitute for good wholesome eating and hard training.


While there is a time and a place for many of these products as described above, especially if you need fuel and fluid during or after intense exercise, these engineered products are more about convenience than necessity. They are neither magic nor better than natural foods.

Your job as an athlete, and as the person that will use the product, is to educate yourself about the products listed; and then to experiment with products during training to determine how they affect you. Sometimes just plain water during practice and a game,  and “sports foods” like orange sections, bananas, defizzed cola, tea with honey and chocolate milk will do as good a job, at a lower price and with a better taste.    

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]