Supplement Use Among Athletes
Nutrition supplements are concentrated sources of nutrients and other substances that have a nutritional or physiological effect on the body. Nutrition supplements are distinct from illicit drugs, which are substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), a governing body that regulates substances for Olympic Athletes. Additionally, various professional and amateur sports governing bodies, such as US Soccer, USA Track & Field, USA Wrestling, and others, provide regulations specific to their sports. Collegiate athletes fall under the auspices of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which has its own list of banned substances. See Table 7.1. Depending on how supplements are defined, reports of supplement use among athletes vary widely. In a study of elite Canadian athletes ( Erdman et al. 2007), supplement use has been reported as high as 90 percent, while significantly lower intakes have been reported in other populations, such as a report of supplement use by 28 percent of Brazilian runners (Salgado et al. 2014). Among different population of athletes, rate of supplement use, as well as type of supplements used will vary according to the level of play and desired physical attributes associated with success. In general, elite-level athletes tend to have a higher reported use of supplements than recreational athletes. Younger athletes generally have a lower reported usage than older athletes, though younger athletes participating at the elite level report higher consumption of supplements (Dietz et al. 2014). Women are more likely to use supplements to address nutrient or medical deficiencies (real or perceived), whereas males are more likely to seek out supplement usage for strength, speed, and performance gains (Erdman et al. 2007). Further, individual sport athletes are more likely to use supplements than team sport athletes (Giannopoulou et al. 2013).
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The most commonly reported supplements used are sports drinks, sports bars, multivitamins and minerals, protein supplements, and vitamin C. These supplements and others that athletes consume will be examined later in this chapter; with the exception of sports drinks and sports bars, as these have been discussed in Chapter 4. Energy drinks are another popular product that falls under the category of dietary supplements, and given their popularity among younger athletes, these will be highlighted in Practical Applications at the end of this chapter.
There are many reasons athletes choose to take dietary supplements. Supplements may be taken to improve overall health and to optimize immune function or they may be taken to address nutrient deficiencies, whether real or perceived. Additionally, many athletes seek a competitive edge and seek supplements to improve strength, speed, endurance, or decrease recovery time. There are athletes who feel pressure to take supplements because of marketing schemes, such as the use of professional athlete testimonials. A sport nutrition professional should be aware of supplements that are being taken by an athlete, why they are taking them, the brand and dose being consumed, and length of consumption. The more the practitioner understands about an athletes supplement use, the better they can guide the athlete on appropriate and safe consumption of these products.
A good practitioner needs to have at least a basic understanding of the current state of weight loss supplement research. The nutrition professional who rejects the use of all supplements may be dismissed by athletes who are seeking credible information. Rather, weight loss practitioners should provide unbiased, research-based information to athletes regarding supplement use. Ultimately, it is the decision of the athlete as to whether or not a supplement is appropriate for them and worth the money as well as any potential risks, but athletes can only make informed decisions when given access to credible resources.
A significant concern with supplement use is that many athletes (up to 85 percent of supplements users in one study) report to have very little knowledge of side effects of the supplements, including potential health concerns and possible negative nutrient interactions (Dietz et al. 2014; Erdman et al. 2007). Athletes are generally unaware that the supplements that they are taking may contain more or less or different ingredients than what is listed on the label, not to mention potential contamination with illegal substances or other contaminants. These risks illustrate the importance of educating athletes on supplement use by a weight loss professional.