You want the burn to be worth it, and you want to make the most out of every ounce of sweat, but think twice before you reach for that protein shake. From the potentially dangerous additives and mystery ingredients, to the excess of amino acids, some experts insist pre- and post-workout supplements are unnecessary and unhealthy.

“It is a rarity that any of us need to consume sports supplements,” said Nicole Kerneen, a sports and clinical dietitian for the Froedtert & MCW health network. “Supplements are often doing more harm than good, and we can all get the nutrients our bodies need for sports and our workouts from whole foods.”

Spread Servings to Avoid Too Much Protein

Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) — such as leucine, isoleucine and valine — can promote muscle protein synthesis (MPS), but Kerneen says you can, and should, get the BCAAs your body needs from following a healthy, balanced diet. Common food sources of BCAAs are beans, poultry, cheese and dairy, meat, fish and eggs.

“While these amino acids are key for rebuilding muscle, there is no need to consume them in excess or isolate them,” Kerneen said. “You should spread out your servings of protein throughout the day.”

Research has overwhelmingly shown the sweet spot for MPS is 20 grams of protein per meal. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association of MPS in young and elderly subjects after consuming a 113-gram serving of lean beef (about 4 ounces) and a 340-gram serving of lean beef (about 12 ounces) showed the moderate size (113 gram) portion of beef “represented an equally effective and more energetically efficient means of stimulating muscle protein synthesis than the three-fold larger serving.”

The body has no way of storing protein for later, so consuming too much at one time can cause the liver to convert those amino acids into carbohydrates. The protein your body doesn’t need is converted to body fat.

Watch for Safe Supplement Ingredients

Nutrition labels should provide you with the breakdown of macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins and fats) per serving and the percentage per serving of each ingredient in the product. For Kerneen, a red flag is any supplement product made with a proprietary blend because the specific amount of each ingredient is not listed.

According to a report funded by the National Institutes of Health, “there is a lack of quality control for dietary supplements which is troubling because an adulterated product could compromise the product’s safety.”

Dietary supplements are not regulated by the FDA, so it is up to the supplement company to ensure the supplement is safe.

“We really don’t know what else is in these products,” Kerneen said. “And a lot of them are manufactured overseas and are not ‘clean.’ They can contain harmful chemicals like lead and arsenic.”

Some companies pay for testing by independent organizations, such as NSF International. The NSF tests certify “what is on the label is in the bottle” and ensures the product “does not contain unsafe levels of contaminants, prohibited substances or masking agents.”

Healthy Snacks Help Regulate Nutrition

Mixing powder in water might seem easier than remembering to pack a healthy pre- or post-workout snack (like string cheese and fruit or Greek yogurt and fruit), but Kerneen says it is the best way to have control over what goes into your body.

“Our society wants what is quick and easy,” Kerneen said. “But there’s no magic drink, powder or pill that will help you reach your goals. It comes down to a balanced diet and nutrient timing.”

Learn more about nutrition evaluation for athletic performance enhancement.