Healthy eating: sports supplements vs nutritious food

What’s better when training and racing – ‘real’ nutritious food or sports supplements? Top nutritionist Nigel Mitchell explains how to choose the best products to support your training

Credit: John Hooten / EyeEm / Getty Images

In elite sport it’s all about using food to support performance. Our nutrition should be based on a sound diet and – where appropriate – supported by high quality nutrition products. 


During long hard training and racing, feeding the body carbohydrate helps to support high-intensity performance and I recommend between 60-80g of carbohydrate per hour. This can come from gels, drinks, bars and food.

My overall approach to nutrition for sports people is a ‘food-first’ one – I believe in feeding athletes properly. That said though, I also recognise that there’s a place and requirement for sport nutrition products. 

The best way to understand this is to first explain what we mean by ‘sports nutrition products’. I simply divide these into two categories:

1. Sport foods

This includes bars, gels, sport drinks and recovery drinks. These are all products that replace the use of foods. There’s nothing magical about these, they’re just a lot more convenient than taking on actual food. For example, a good quality recovery drink will contain 20-30g of protein and 20-40g of carbohydrate. The food alternative could be a pint of milk and a banana (providing 20g protein and 30-50g of carbs). You can see that the recovery drink wins hands down on convenience and precise portion control. Not only that, but it travels better during racing without turning to mush!

2. Sports supplements

These are nutrients (vitamins, minerals and fats) that the body simply doesn’t require in large amounts, but that we may struggle to consume in adequate amounts from our diets – especially if we’re following a restricted diet. For this reason, many athletes will take these products as an insurance policy. For example, modern research has shown that many people have inadequate levels of vitamin D, which can affect recovery and overall wellbeing, so for a lot of people, taking a prophylactic dose in the winter can be good idea. Sports supplements belong to a group called ergogenic aids, and includes creatine, beta alanine (to increase muscle carnosine) and caffeine, to name but three. These are the nutrients that the body uses in small amounts, but if taken in super-physiological amounts may help performance in certain situations.

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Safety and quality assurance

Plenty has been written recently about athletes who fail drugs tests and then blame nutritional products. The supplement industry is largely unregulated, and research has shown that there’s a real risk for athletes that taking nutritional supplements could lead to a doping violation. 

The issue tends to be very tiny traces of banned contaminants that get into a product by accident. This won’t provide a physiological effect but could be sufficient to result in a positive test. This isn’t a problem for the majority of triathletes as they won’t be tested, but you still need to be aware that the responsibility for what you put into your body lies with you. 

To be on the safe side if this is a concern, then do your research. Products that have the informed sport logo ( have gone through strict manufacturing guidelines and testing to help minimise the risk of the products containing contaminants. The whole of the range of Healthspan Elite products for example, ( are informed sport-approved.

Intelligent supplement use

The important thing when considering using a nutritional product is to ask yourself why you’re using the product and what the food alternative is. Some things you may want to consider are: Is it to support your overall nutrition programme in a strategic way? For example, if you’re training twice a day, having a protein-based recovery
drink after the first session could provide a convenient, portion-controlled solution to support recovery for the next session.

Secondly, is there a potential gap in nutrition provision? For example, you may not be able to consume regular
oily fish, so a fish oil supplement may help. Or in times of very hard training and when the body is under more stress the body will release an hormone called hepcidin, which reduces iron absorption, so again an iron supplement may help.

Finally, when choosing your sport nutrition products, do your homework – don’t just buy based on cost. As a rule of thumb, and the same applies to your kit, if something’s really cheap then there’s usually a reason for that! If you’re buying products online, email or phone the company and ask them what their quality assurance processes are and if they don’t respond, don’t buy them.


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