According to research, as many as 90 percent of US college athletes use some type of sports supplement, while surveys taken at the Olympic Games revealed 69 percent of athletes in Atlanta and 74 percent in Sydney used them.
According to Kimberly Mueller, a sports dietitian and top expert on supplements, even though exercise may not be a problem for most athletes, a perception remains that dietary supplementation can help offset the consequences of a diet rich in nutritionally empty foods.
“Dietary supplements are often perceived as sticking plaster for poor lifestyle choices, including imbalanced nutrition, lack of exercise and deficient sleep patterns,” Mueller says.
With a growing number of athletes using dietary supplements, many sports governing bodies are laying down ground rules to minimise health and safety risks to athletes.
Although it has been suggested that athletes should avoid dietary supplements altogether, Mueller says this approach is unrealistic and unnecessary. “There are a variety of legitimate reasons for an athlete to use supplements in coordination with a well-balanced diet,” she explains.
In her forthcoming book, The Athlete’s Guide to Sports Supplements, Mueller offers five tips that all athletes should follow when taking a supplement.
1. Talk with your healthcare provider before making a decision. “A trip to the gym may lead to a sales pitch for a variety of supplements,” says Mueller. “Many fitness professionals are pressured to meet a specific sales quota for a supplement line the gym is carrying or are merely looking for additional income.” According to Mueller, athletes must be selective about where and from whom they are gathering information. She encourages athletes to speak with a healthcare provider, such as a doctor or pharmacist, about dietary supplements before taking anything at all. Health care providers can discuss the potential benefits as well as safety risks.
2. Become familiar with reputable online resources for supplements. “A single online search of dietary supplements will lead to a plethora of information, often conflicting and usually generated by unqualified parties,” says Mueller. In her book, she provides a quick reference guide of credible websites for information on important issues involving dietary supplements.
3. Look for clean supplements. “Unfortunately, a legitimate risk to an athlete is a failed doping test due to the use of contaminated nutritional supplements, despite ongoing efforts to improve relatively ineffective or nonexistent regulatory and manufacturing guidelines,” Mueller says. “Several reviews of supplements available from the Internet and retail stores have confirmed that many supplements are laced with steroids and stimulants, which are prohibited for use in sports.” Thus, any athlete thinking about using a dietary supplement should make sure that there has been a stamp of approval garnered from an independent testing lab. Independent testing via third-party organisations ensures that the contents of dietary supplements actually match what is printed on the label, there are no ingredients present in the supplement that are not openly disclosed on the label, and there are no unacceptable levels of contaminants present in the supplement.
4. Learn how to read supplement labels.The dietary supplement label lists essential information about the product in the bottle. “Prior to using any supplement, it is critical to always read the label and follow directions for use,” Mueller advises.
5. Know how to report fraudulent supplements or adverse reactions. Any athlete who experiences an adverse reaction to a dietary supplement should immediately contact his or her healthcare provider, after which the problem can be reported directly to the FDA.
“It’s impossible to ignore the prevalence of dietary supplement use in athletics,” Mueller concludes. “Thus, it’s important for athletes, coaches, and sport performance professionals to be educated on how supplements are regulated and what to look for in a dietary supplement.”
The Athlete’s Guide to Sports Supplements, available August 2013, covers 120 of the most popular supplements and gives readers the tools they need to assess, evaluate, and purchase supplements that fit their specific muscular, cardiovascular and psychological needs.