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The Truth About Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss and Athletic Performance: Some That Work and Some That Don't

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
NIH releases new supplement guide

Are you confused over which dietary supplements really work for weight loss and for improving your athletic performance? Here's the truth about dietary supplements for weight loss and athletic performance that will surprise you on which ones work and which ones don't according to two new NIH guides released.


Getting fit takes a lot of hard work and determination. Losing weight and building muscle for a healthy body is reliant on eating nutritious meals and regular activity. But wouldn't it be great to get some added edge from a safe dietary supplement for those days when you are too busy to fit in a workout or prepare that fat-busting meal? According to a news release from the National Institutes of Health's Office of Dietary Supplements, many people turn to dietary supplements for a boost to their routines to get that edge they feel they need in order to get fit.

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"Dietary supplements marketed for exercise and athletic performance can't take the place of a healthy diet, but some might have value for certain types of activity," said Paul M. Coates, Ph.D., director of ODS. "Others don't seem to work, and some might even be harmful."

To help consumers of dietary supplements get the facts they need to know about popular supplements such as beetroot, tart cherry, branched-chain amino acids, creatine and antioxidants such as vitamins C and E for weight loss and performance enhancement, the NIH's Office of Dietary Supplements has prepared detailed and fully referenced guides on which ones are safe and effective.


Here is what the scientists at the NIH had to say about a few choice supplements:

(For Exercise and Performance)

Antioxidants (vitamin C, vitamin E, and coenzyme Q10)-You breathe in more oxygen when you exercise. As a result, free radicals form and damage muscle cells. Because antioxidants can reduce free-radical damage to muscle, some people think that taking them in a supplement might reduce muscle inflammation, soreness, and fatigue.

Does it work?
No. The free radicals that form when you exercise seem to help muscle fibers grow and produce more energy. Antioxidant supplements might actually reduce some of the benefits of exercise, including muscle growth and power output. Also, they have little effect on aerobic fitness and performance in endurance activities like distance running.

Is it safe?
Everyone needs adequate amounts of vitamin C and vitamin E for good health. Getting too much of these nutrients can be harmful, but the amounts of vitamin C (about 1,000 milligrams) and vitamin E (about 500 IU) typically used in studies of performance supplements are below safe upper limits. The side effects from coenzyme Q10 can include tiredness, insomnia, headaches, and some gastrointestinal (GI) discomfort, but these effects tend to be mild.

The bottom line:
There's little scientific evidence to support taking supplements containing vitamins C and E or coenzyme Q10 to improve performance if you're getting adequate amounts of these nutrients from a nutritious diet.

Tribulus terrestris-Tribulus terrestris is a plant containing compounds that some sellers claim can improve performance by increasing levels of several hormones, including the male hormone testosterone.

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Does it work?
There's limited research on the use of Tribulus terrestris supplements to increase strength or muscle mass. The few studies investigating it did not find that it had any benefit.

Is it safe?
Tribulus terrestris hasn't been studied enough to know whether it's safe. Studies in animals show that high doses can cause heart, liver, and kidney damage.

The bottom line:
There's no scientific support for taking Tribulus terrestris supplements to improve exercise or athletic performance. Some sports-medicine experts advise against taking any dietary supplements claimed to boost testosterone.

(For Weight Loss)

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Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA)-CLA is a fat found mainly in dairy products and beef. It's claimed to reduce your body fat.

Does it work?
CLA may help you lose a very small amount of weight and body fat.

Is it safe?
CLA seems to be safe (at up to 6 g a day for 1 year). It can cause an upset stomach, constipation, diarrhea, loose stools, and indigestion.

Garcinia cambogia-Garcinia cambogia is a tree that grows throughout Asia, Africa, and the Polynesian islands. Hydroxycitric acid in the fruit is claimed to decrease the number of new fat cells your body makes, suppress your appetite and thus reduce the amount of food you eat, and limit the amount of weight you gain.

Does it work?
Garcinia cambogia has little to no effect on weight loss.

Is it safe?
Garcinia cambogia seems to be fairly safe. But it can cause headache, nausea, and symptoms in the upper respiratory tract, stomach, and intestines.

Chromium-Chromium is a mineral that you need to regulate your blood sugar levels. It's claimed to increase muscle mass and fat loss and decrease appetite and food intake.

Does it work?
Chromium might help you lose a very small amount of weight and body fat.

Is it safe?
Chromium in food and supplements is safe at recommended amounts, which range from 20 to 45 micrograms a day for adults. In larger amounts, chromium can cause watery stools, headache, weakness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, dizziness, and hives.

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The NIH encourages people to talk with their healthcare providers to get advice about dietary supplements and can sign-up on the ODS listserv to be notified when new information is added to their website.

The primary message behind the guidelines is that while some supplements can be beneficial, all of that nutritional benefits related to losing weight and improving performance can be gained from the foods you eat instead of a pill.

For some helpful advice on losing weight, here are 5 Steps for Achieving a Sustainable Change in Your Diet and how Eating Carb Dishes This Way Actually Lowers Insulin Levels, Burns Fat and Slims Waistlines.


NIH/Office of Dietary Supplements news release "Will supplements help your workout or diet routine?"

Fact Sheet: Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance

Fact Sheet: Dietary Supplements for Weight Loss

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