Call it precision-guided nutrition: "If you know what you're deficient in or what you want to work on," explains Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., a nutrition consultant based in Philadelphia, "there is likely a product out there to fix it."
Make that hundreds of products. According to the market research firm Datamonitor, the sports-related food, drink and supplement market, a 5.4-billion-dollar industry, is expanding at a rate of 5.8 percent a year; by 2010 it's expected to reach seven billion. But there are drawbacks to this growth and diversification: "You almost need a Ph.D. in organic chemistry or biochemistry to understand the mechanisms behind these products," says nutritionist Amy Jamieson-Petonic, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Here, we break down six scientifically examined comestibles to jump-start your education in performance eating.
Overtraining got you whooped? You may be suffering from more than just sore muscles. A 2006 study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that overworked athletes with recurring illness shared a common immune defect. Thankfully, the study also presented a possible cure: probiotics, live cultures that fight harmful bacteria and may reverse the immune abnormality. "Yogurt products that contain probiotics, like DanActive, have been around for a couple of years; now we're starting to see athletes use them," says Tara Gidus, nutrition consultant for the NBA's Orlando Magic.
Most agree that ingesting protein post-workout can help boost muscle recovery. But according to new research, a shot of it during and after exercise may also improve hydration. A 2006 study conducted at Minnesota's St. Cloud State University concluded that a sports drink containing a four-to-one carbohydrate-to-protein ratio was 40 percent more effective than water and 15 percent more effective than Gatorade at rehydrating athletes. "Now our next task is to find the optimal mix of carbs, electrolytes and protein," says the study's lead author, John Seifert, Ph.D.
The overall health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in cold-water fish and flaxseed, are well documented: They can improve memory and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Now nutritionists are just as bullish about what the acids may do for athletes. Why? Omega-3s--the thinking goes--could help reduce inflammation in other parts of the body just as they do in the heart. "Inflammation is damage at a cellular level. We damage our cells when we exercise at a high intensity," says Gidus. "So there's reason to believe [omega-3s] would help with all cells to keep them more intact."