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Nutrition Quackery

By Bob Seebohar

I am contacted daily by athletes with questions about ergogenic aids/nutrition supplements and whether or not they do what they claim to do and if athletes should use them to enhance performance.

My answer to most: is it a simple case of nutrition quackery or is there sound scientific evidence that supports the claims? My job is to investigate the science and extrapolate the data to athletes, but I will share with you some easy ways to identify nutrition quackery on your own.

Nutrition quackery refers to fake practitioners and products and the deceitful promotion of these products. Untrue or misleading claims that are deliberately or fraudulently made for any product constitute nutrition quackery. This is a big business in our society today. Between 1990 and 1996, supplement sales almost doubled from $3.3 billion to $6.5 billion!

As endurance athletes, we are faced with many new supplements that claim to improve aerobic capacity, buffer lactic acid, decrease muscle soreness, increase power, improve recovery, improve immune function and so on and so forth. The list goes on and on. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is, “Which ones really work?” While there are a few ergogenic aids/nutritional supplements that have lasted the rigors time and well-planned scientific testing and whose claims have been substantiated, a majority of ergogenic aids have no proven research to support their claims.

The following is a 12-step checklist to help you decide if a product is truly worth buying. If you answer yes to any of these questions, then you should be skeptical of such supplements and investigate their value before investing any money.

  1. Does the product promise quick improvement in health or physical performance?
  2. Does it contain some secret ingredient or formula?
  3. Is it advertised mainly by use of anecdotes, case histories or testimonials?
  4. Are currently popular personalities or star athletes featured in its advertisements?
  5. Does it take a simple truth about a nutrient and exaggerate that truth in terms of health or physical performance?
  6. Does it question the integrity of the scientific or medical establishment?
  7.  Is it advertised in a health or sports magazine whose publishers also sell nutritional aids?
  8. Does the person who recommends it also sell the product?
  9. Does it use the results of a single study or dated and poorly controlled research to support its claims?
  10.  Is it expensive, especially when compared to the cost of equivalent nutrients that may be obtained from ordinary foods?
  11.  Is it a recent discovery not available from any other source?
  12. And finally, are the claims too good to be true or does it promise the impossible?

Take into consideration these questions the next time you are looking for that nutritional edge to enhance your performance or health. Not all ergogenic aids/nutritional supplements are useless, but a good majority of them are. There may be some products out there that may help you become a better athlete but do your research first to make sure the product is safe and that it actually holds true to the claims it is making.

One last thing to note is that supplement companies do not have to prove a supplement’s safety, effectiveness, or potency before placing a product on the market. Manufacturers of supplements are not supposed to make unsubstantiated health claims about their products but easily get around this stipulation with the following disclaimer: This statement has not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease. Be careful when purchasing supplements and be sure to do your homework on them first.

Nutrition Periodization for Endurance AthletesBob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a sport dietitian and elite triathlon coach.  He traveled to the 2008 Summer Olympics as the U.S. Olympic Committee Sport Dietitian and the personal Sport Dietitian for the 2008 Olympic Triathlon Team.  He is also Sarah Haskins' personal coach and was a performance team member (sport dietitian and strength coach) for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon Bronze Medalist.

Bob's book, Nutrition Periodization for Endurance Athletes: Taking Sports Nutrition to the Next Levelwill provide triathletes of all levels education on how to structure their nutrition program based on their exercise program. For more information, visit or contact Bob at