Differences Between Supplements and Food Supplements

Although there are exceptions, supplements are often used for sports purposes, while food supplements are used to prevent and treat some conditions.
Differences Between Supplements and Food Supplements
Saúl Sánchez

Written and verified by el nutricionista Saúl Sánchez.

Last update: 21 March, 2021

Supplements and food supplements are products that have gained a lot of importance in today’s diets. Their aim is to cover deficiencies or increase the intake of certain substances or nutrients. In this way, the risk of developing pathologies or creating an ergogenic effect can be reduced.

We’re going to explain the differences between these two terms and talk about the ones that are most effective in achieving a certain objective. Keep in mind that some only make sense in a sports context, as they have no effect on sedentary people. Other supplements and food supplements are suitable for almost everyone.


Supplements are dietary products that are normally included within ergogenic aids. Their aim is usually to benefit sports performance by means of the administration of a substance or nutrient in doses that are higher than the dietary one.

In general, they don’t cover deficiencies, but, rather, their aim is to increase the presence of certain elements in the body, as these have been shown to be of benefit.

Although supplements were designed with a focus on performance, these days you can find products intended for consumption by healthy people. An example would be melatonin, which helps to increase the circulating values of this hormone, thus generating beneficial effects on sleep.

We’re now going to discuss which are the most common supplements and what the science says about them.


This is a substance that is naturally present in meat and which acts as one of the main energy substrates of anaerobic metabolism.

Its exogenous intake, in doses higher than dietary ones, is capable of producing benefits in the performance of athletes in anaerobic disciplines. This is evidenced by a study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Creatine is a sports supplement with very few short-term adverse reactions.
Creatine supplements are among the most used ones in the sports world.

Thanks to an intake of 5 grams (0.2 oz) per day of this substance, it’s possible to delay the onset of fatigue in maximum and submaximal efforts, as well as creating a considerable increase in muscle strength.

Creatine supplementation generates an increase in weight derived from intramuscular fluid retention, which will disappear once the intake protocol has been suspended.

Caffeine, one of the supplements that causes the most disagreements

Caffeine is an alkaloid capable of temporarily increasing cognitive and sports performance, as pointed out by the most recent research.

It can be used in the context of aerobic and anaerobic sports. It creates greater resistance to work, delaying the onset of fatigue. In addition, within endurance sports, it stimulates the oxidation of lipids, making this process more efficient.

Pre-race dosages of between 150-180mg are typically used to experience the best effects. In any case, it’s important to emphasize that chronic consumption of such high amounts is not recommended, as it can generate tolerance and its subsequent effects are reduced.

Given this situation, it would be necessary to suspend the intake for at least 1 week to regain sensitivity.

It should also be noted that a very high consumption of this alkaloid can lead to toxicity. We’re talking here of an intake that’s greater than 300 mg in a single dose or greater than 600 mg throughout the day. In this case, you could experience tachycardia, problems falling asleep, and general discomfort.

Proteins, the most common supplements

Protein supplements are used to increase the daily intake of this macronutrient. A higher consumption is associated with a greater ability to develop muscle mass, which generates an advantage in most sports disciplines. In addition, catabolism derived from aerobic endurance work can be prevented.

There are even articles that state that a high protein intake could influence the ability to exert force, improving both athlete performance and their recovery.

In this way, the intake of at least 20 g (0.8 oz) of protein after training is recommended in order to maximize muscle supercompensation and physiological adaptations to exercise.


Hydroxymethylbutyrate (HMB) is a metabolite of the amino acid leucine that, in certain amounts, is capable of influencing body composition and the ability to exert force.

According to a study published in the journal Biomolecules, this supplement shouldn’t be combined with creatine on a chronic basis, as it could generate a hormonal imbalance that could end up causing muscle catabolism.

The results are not yet confirmed and there’s no consensus in this regard, although everything seems to indicate that the administration of both substances separately is more beneficial.

However, HMB supplementation as such in the sports context is capable of generating significant benefits. It’s very useful for athletes who perform tasks of maximum strength or muscular power.

Melatonin – one of the trendy supplements

Melatonin is a neurohormone that’s synthesized in the pineal gland and that regulates the sleep and wake cycles. After the age of 50, its synthesis slows significantly. For this reason, older people tend to sleep less. However, it’s possible to provide a solution, through melatonin supplements.

The nutritional supplements have several presentations.
Many nutritional supplements are available in easy-to-consume capsules.

These products aren’t only beneficial for older people, but they have also shown benefits for young people. They are capable of improving rest, controlling inflammation, and reducing oxidation. In fact, its regular consumption is associated with a lower risk of developing complex pathologies.

Most supplements of this substance contain a maximum of 1.8 mg of the active substance. However, the most recent scientific literature shows us that better effects are achieved at higher doses. For example, for the treatment of fibromyalgia, the need to consume between 20 and 25 mg daily is recommended.

Food supplements

We’ve talked about sports-related supplements, and now we’ll show you what food supplements are. This type of product has been developed with the aim of increasing the intake of a certain nutrient and meeting daily requirements.

It’s clear that maintaining a nutritional deficit will lead to the development of illnesses. However, in many cases, a person’s diet isn’t able to meet their needs.

In this case, it’s necessary to include a supplement in the diet, in order to achieve the appropriate doses of each substance.

The most common ones are the following.

Vitamin B12

Vitamin B12 is essential for the differentiation of the cells that carry oxygen through the blood. A deficiency of it favors the appearance of megaloblastic anemia, according to a study published in The Medical Clinics of North America.

From this situation, it’s common to experience chronic fatigue, as oxygen isn’t supplied correctly to the cells and tissues.

Deficiencies of this nutrient don’t usually occur, except in the case of people who follow a vegan diet and in certain gastrointestinal disorders.

Vitamin B12 is exclusive to foods of animal origin, and a diet that restricts these products will require a food supplement to order to prevent certain illnesses and conditions from developing.

Calcium, one of the supplements indicated for women

Calcium is one of the minerals that can help to ensure proper bone health. It’s part of the tissue that makes up the bones. Its regular intake has shown to be capable of preventing bone fractures in the medium term, according to current evidence.

Normally, the needs of this nutrient are satisfied without any problem with a normal diet. However, there are cases where reinforcement is necessary.

For example, women are more likely to suffer from osteoporosis due to the hormonal changes that occur after menopause. If calcium intake during the previous stages hasn’t been adequate, then health may suffer.

It should be noted that a bone fracture can radically alter our lifestyle, and so it’s something that should be avoided. The best way to do this is to ensure you take this mineral along with vitamin D, which is necessary for its proper absorption.

Zinc, one of the least used food supplements

Zinc is one of the minerals responsible for regulating the immune function. It participates in the differentiation of many of the cells that belong to this system, as stated by research published in Nutrients.

A deficient supply of it can condition the incidence of infectious pathologies and the development of various complex diseases.

This nutrient is found in meat and plant foods such as nuts. However, a large dose of dietary fiber can limit its absorption.

Diets with very little variety are also a risk factor as far as acquiring a deficit is concerned. For this reason, there are several situations in which it may be necessary to introduce a zinc supplement in the diet.

Vitamin C, one of the most useful supplements for preventing colds

In the same way as in the case of zinc, vitamin C is a nutrient that plays an essential role in the functioning of the immune system. Maintaining adequate levels of the nutrient in the body reduces the risk of colds and infectious diseases.

In addition, it’s capable of reducing the duration of symptoms, allowing for a more efficient recovery.

The best approach, according to the experts, is to consume about 1 g daily. Experts have speculated on the need to ingest larger amounts to experience better results.

Be that as it may, many people fail to meet this requirement through diet, as it’s a vitamin that’s found mainly in vegetables. For this reason, the inclusion of food supplements may be useful, with the aim of increasing the intake of the nutrient and preventing deficiencies.

Supplements and food supplements: beneficial products

As you have seen, there are supplements and food supplements on the market that are responsible for correcting deficits or providing greater amounts of a substance.

In this way, health status can be improved and the incidence of many complex pathologies can be reduced. In addition, it’s also possible to increase sports performance, provided that the right products are chosen in the right doses.

The good news is that most of the supplements and food supplements that we have talked about don’t have side effects, even with high doses.

Only caffeine can cause toxicity if administered uncontrollably. Creatine, if consumed chronically, could also affect its endogenous production of it. However, these are specific cases and on the extreme end of the scale.

The supplements that are marketed are considered to be safe for health and, in many cases, beneficial. However, it’s always advisable to go to the specialist before starting to consume them.

In this way, we can receive advice on which is the most suitable product in each individual case, thus making the most of its potential. We’ll also find out about optimal doses.

Bear n mind that diet isn’t only based on food, and that there are other compounds that can increase its quality.

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  • Grgic J., Mikulic P., Schoenfeld BJ., Bishop DJ., Pedisic Z., The inflluence of caffeine suplementation on resistance exercise: a review. Sports Med, 2019. 49 (1): 17-30.
  • Fernández Landa J., Fernández Lázaro D., Calleja González J., Caballero García A., et al., Long term effeect of combination of creatine monohydrate plus b hydroxy b methylbutyrate (HMB) on exercise induced muscle damage and anabolic/catabolic hormones in elite male endurance athletes. Biomolecules, 2020.
  • Green R., Miltra AD., Megaloblastic anemias: nutritional and other causes. Med Clin North Am, 2017. 101 (2): 297-317.
  • Vannucci L., Fossi C., Quattrini S., Guasti L., et al., Calcium intake in bone health: a focus on calcium rich mineral waters. Nutrients, 2018. 10 (12): 1930.
  • Wessels I., Maywald M., Rink L., Zinc as a gatekeeper of immune function. Nutrients, 2017. 9 (12): 1286.

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