High school and college athletes are understandably concerned about performing their best. And while a healthy diet, regular exercise and practice are enough for some, others choose to take supplements in hopes of improving their performance. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, more than 50 percent of NCAA student-athletes who currently use supplements began taking them in high school.1
While many of us assume that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees dietary supplements the same way they do prescription medications—through a clinical investigation of the product's safety and contents—this is not the case. Supplements are not considered medications, but, rather, treated as food products intended to supplement a person's diet. As a result, unless the product contains a new dietary ingredient, no independent testing is required to confirm what's actually in that product. This means that supplements containing banned substances can easily make it into the marketplace.
Although not all supplements pose a problem, some dietary and sports supplements contain unlisted ingredients, banned substances or compounds designed to mimic banned substances. In addition to such intentional spiking, cross contamination and poor manufacturing processes can result in trace levels of undeclared ingredients or banned substances in supplements. Unfortunately, student-athletes may take these supplements unknowingly, without realizing the health risks and other consequences to their game.
With thousands of supplements on the market, how do you weed out the bad from the good?
First, consult with a physician. This is important for people of all ages, but it's especially important for high school student-athletes, whose bodies are still maturing. Share with your doctor why you want to take a supplement, and tell him or her about any other products or medications you are already taking. Then discuss your options.
Some additional things to look for when purchasing and taking a sports supplement:
- Read the label carefully. Question outrageous claims. As with virtually any type of product, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you are taking a product and notice any unusual side effects, such as increased acne, baldness or deepening of the voice, there could be some level of steroids in the product.
- Fast results. Building up muscle and improving endurance take time. If you notice an almost immediate change in either of those things, there's a good chance that the supplement contains a banned substance or steroid.
- Label warnings. Adverse effect warnings are fairly commonplace on over-the-counter products. If the warning label for a sports supplement lists serious adverse effects—especially when used in combination with other supplements/drugs, or by anyone who is pregnant, has allergies or any other medical condition—think twice before purchasing. Student-athletes have tested positive and lost their eligibility—or worse, their health, or even their lives—after consuming certain nutritional products.
- Certification. Look for certification from an independent third party. Programs like NSF International's Certified for Sport program are among the best ways to protect against potentially tainted supplements. They submit products to rigorous testing and conduct manufacturing facility inspections. Lack of certification doesn't necessarily mean a product is bad for you, but using it is a bit of a guessing game. Certification and knowing the product has been screened for unsafe levels of contaminants and athletic banned substances provides peace of mind. NSF International's Certified for Sport website and mobile application, available for both the iPhone and Android phones, allows you to search for NSF-certified products at home or on the go.
If you choose to take supplements, follow the manufacturer's recommended usage instructions carefully. Talk with a trusted health care provider or your local pharmacist before taking supplements to make sure they can be taken safely and without exceeding the recommended daily allowance for any listed ingredients. Don't take additional daily doses of a product beyond what the manufacturer recommends in hopes of achieving faster results.
Clearly, many sports supplements perform as they claim, but taking precautions—consulting with a physician, being informed about the supplements before you buy them, reading the label and looking for certification—can keep you ahead of the game.
1. Green, Gary. "Patterns of Supplement Use Among NCAA Student-Athletes." (2002). Retrieved February 13, 2012 from http://ods.od.nih.gov/pubs/conferences/Patterns_of_Supplement_Use_1-02.pdf (see slide 7).
Cheryl Luptowski is the public information officer for NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization that certifies products and writes standards for consumer products, toys, drinking water, dietary supplement safety and sustainability. She handles more than 10,000 consumer inquiries annually on a wide range of consumer health and safety-related issues. She has been interviewed as a home expert in national print, online and radio and has authored many articles and fact sheets with tips for healthier living. The face behind "Ask NSF," she also chairs NSF's Consumer Advisory Panel. Luptowski began working for NSF in 1999 after spending several years in both the public and private sectors. She holds a bachelor's degree in business administration from Cleary University in Ann Arbor and has completed several graduate courses in food science through Michigan State University.
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