Reasons to avoid dietary supplements






You’ve probably read about tennis athlete Maria Sharapova using a banned substance, meldonium. This substance was only recently added to the World Anti-Doing Agency (WADA) banned substance list, and Sharapova said she had been taking it for many years.  It is used to treat heart problems, but it also can enhance exercise performance and has been under watch by WADA for a while.


USA Swimming as a strict regarding dietary supplement use and tells all swimmers that if you take supplements you “take at your own risk.”


Even though the policy is clear, and we always take a “food first” approach to fueling performance, I get a lot of questions from parents and swimmers asking for advice on supplements that will help them gain weight, get lean, reduce fatigue and swim faster. So, besides discouragement from your sport governing body and stories of athletes, like Sharapova, losing eligibility and endorsements, here are my top reasons why young athletes should avoid supplements:


1. The International Olympic Committee recently published a consensus statement on athletic development in young athletes saying that optimal eating patterns should not only support demands of sport but also health and normal physical and mental development. Using dietary supplements can undermine that goal of good health because some supplements can contain dangerous ingredients.


2. An estimated 5-20% of dietary supplements contain prohibited substances. The banned ingredients can be in products unintentionally, due to poor hygiene in making the supplement, or intentionally by adding unlabeled substances, such as anabolic steroids.i  


3. Dietary supplements are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, but not as well as many sports scientists would like to see. People are still surprised to learn that the supplement industry does not require manufacturers to provide evidence of product purity, safety, or efficacy prior to introducing a product to market. 


4. Recalls of dietary supplements with unapproved pharmaceutical ingredients is increasing. Between January 2009-December 31, 2012, the FDA recalled 274 dietary supplements (about ½ of all FDA recalls since 2004 involve dietary supplements). Even after an FDA recall for banned substances or unlabeled drugs, 66.7% of recalled supplements were still available for purchase at least 6 months after the recall.ii 


5. Dietary supplements for muscle-building and weight loss are among the most at risk for contained unlabeled drugs and banned substances. For example, in 2015 the FDA posted a voluntary recall of SmartLipo365 capsules, a product marketed for weight loss. The FDA found the Smart Lipo products contained undeclared sibutramine, desmethylsibutramine, and phenolphthalein. Sibutramine, an appetite suppressant, was withdrawn from the U.S. market in October, 2010. Phenolphthalein, an ingredient previously used in over-the-counter laxatives, is not approved for dietary use in the U.S. because of concerns of carcinogenicity. These undeclared ingredients make these products unapproved new drugs for which safety and efficacy have not been established.


6. Supplement use may give young athletes a false sense that there is a short cut to improved performance. Supplements cannot make up for poor food choices or lazy training. And, supplement use may make the jump to performance-enhancing drugs (PED) use easier. Athletes who use dietary supplement progressively view doping more favorably than non-users.iii 


To be sure, there are times when an athlete needs a vitamin-mineral supplement or may be advised to take iron supplements to treat a deficiency. However, when it comes to performance-enhancing supplements, remember, “take at your own risk.”