Supplements: To Use Or Not To Use?

True or False: If a dietary supplement is sold commercially to the public, it is safe and effective.

False! Read below to find out why.

What are supplements?

Supplements are products such as protein powders, creatine, amino acids, mega-dose vitamins/minerals, weight loss aids, energy boosters, and more. Specific examples include (but are not limited to) creatine products, energy drinks like Monster and 5-hour energy, protein powders, and glucosamine-chondroitin.

To use, or not to use?

The addition of supplements to an athlete’s diet is a hotly debated topic. Products in the categories listed above may promise rapid, unrealistic, and potentially unsafe changes in body composition and/or appearance. Athletes – especially those who are young, impressionable, and are concerned with their body image – may be easily influenced by media and become prime targets for nutrition fraud.

Advertisements for supplements tend to target young adults and even kids. The images that are shown in ads are carefully created to send specific messages and are not reality. Just like anything in the advertising business, companies may use deceptive tactics to get consumers to buy their products. Nutritional supplement specialty stores and their employees may not be able to give unbiased, accurate, or reliable information and opinions about their products, uses, and side effects. Employees of these stores also may not have educational backgrounds in exercise physiology, nutrition, and/or sports medicine. Ultimately, be very wary of product advertising.

The Real Danger with Supplements

“In general, the risks of using supplements far outweigh the perceived benefits,” states Dr. Steven Cuff, a sports medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital. “Supplements are often expensive, are unregulated, and in many cases have side effects that can actually inhibit athletic performance.”

Supplements, whether found in grocery stores, nutrition specialty stores, or on-line, are not regulated by the FDA. Therefore, companies and manufacturers of these products do not need to prove they are safe before they are available to the public. Also, there is no organization that holds the manufacturers of these products responsible for the accuracy of the labels and the contents of their products.

A supplement’s label may be deceptive in a few ways:

  • The product may not contain what is listed on the label (Example: a multivitamin could actually be a sugar pill).
  • The product may contain different amounts of the substances than listed on the label (Example: a product that states it has 60 mg of caffeine may actually contain 120 mg).
  • The product may contain (sometimes illegal) compounds that are not listed on the label (Example: a product that claims to be creatine could be laced with steroids).

The amount and type of substances in these products can be hazardous to a young athlete’s performance and health if used even as directed – and especially if used inappropriately. Products may have unhealthy side effects, including unpredictable and dangerous interactions with over-the-counter and/or prescription medications. Many products have been pulled from the market due to adverse and potentially deadly reactions (one of the most prominent examples being Ephedra). It is vital that athletes and parents understand the potential dangers associated with supplement use!

What about Vitamins and Minerals?

Athletes can get closer to their athletic and healthy living goals by properly fueling their bodies with a well-balanced diet first, not supplements. Vitamins and minerals are vital nutrients that are necessary to keep active bodies healthy and functioning optimally. Vitamins and minerals are best gained through a healthy, well-balanced diet. There is also a misconception that vitamins and minerals provide energy – this is not true. They are factors that help to regulate energy production in the body, but these nutrients themselves do not provide calories and therefore cannot provide energy.

What’s the bottom line?

Many athletes are worried about getting optimal nutrition to achieve their goals in physical training. “The best way to correct nutritional deficits and increase energy is by ensuring adequate hydration and consuming a well-balanced diet,” says Dr. Cuff. “Consultation with a registered dietician may be helpful to assess dietary intake and provide suggestions to improve overall nutrition and maximize athletic performance.” If you believe your young athlete would benefit from a multi-vitamin or a supplement, seek out the advice of a physician, registered dietician, or athletic trainer.

Ultimately, be very cautious about supplement use. If it is decided that a multi-vitamin or supplement would benefit your young athlete, do your research. Buy only very well-known, brand name items. Absolutely avoid products that claim they alter the effects of hormones like testosterone, estrogen, and progesterone. And lastly, beware of products that make outlandish claims (example: “Build 25 pounds of muscle and lose fat in two weeks!”). If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.

Where Can I find More Information?

Consult your primary care physician for more serious injuries that do not respond to basic first aid. As an added resource, the staff at Nationwide Children’s Hospital Sports Medicine is available to diagnose and treat sports-related injuries for youth or adolescent athletes. Services are now available in five locations. To make an appointment, call (614) 355-6000 or request an appointment online.