Sports Nutrition    

by Dante Dettamanti, BS, MS

Supplements - Final Word

In past articles on sports nutrition, we have focused on some of the common food supplements that are found in today’s sports world, such as sports drinks, food bars and vitamin and mineral supplements. This final part of the monthly series will look at other so called “performance enhancers” that are available in today’s sport market place, such as antioxidants, energy boosters, muscle builders, immunity boosters, bone and joint protectors and fat burners, and what benefits they have for athletes, if any.

Taking supplements is nothing new, and probably goes back to ancient times where athletes were warriors; and they fought in battles instead of competing in games. In fact the first Olympic games in Olympia, Greece consisted of events that prepared warriors for fighting in wars. Even then warriors tried to enhance their diets with supplements that they thought would give them an advantage in battle. In a past article, I have mentioned that Aztec warriors would eat the heart of their victims to make them stronger for the next battle.

Even in more modern times, athletes try to gain an advantage over their opponents. Being stronger, faster, more skilled, and having better equipment than their opponent is sometimes not good enough for the modern athlete. As late as 1993, Ma Jun Ren, Chinese athletics coach prescribed to his athletes, who were under stress and wanted to perform better, to drink the blood of soft shelled turtles, which only he himself had beheaded. Sounds crazy? Not logical? Yes, but this is typical of the logic and hype that companies who manufacture supplements use to try and sell you their product. Just as supplements in the ancient world didn’t always deliver on their promise (except in the mind of the warrior), most often than not, the same holds true in the modern sports world.

Unfortunately, the extraordinary drive that athletes possess to improve and excel, can leave them particularly vulnerable to the lure of supplements. The supplemental industry capitalizes on this weakness by spending vast sums of money to market the latest promise of the day, including vitamins, minerals, herbals, botanicals, amino acids, creatine, and other substances such as phytochemicals, extracts, metabolites and glandular concentrates. The marketing of ergogenic aids (items claiming to increase work output or performance) is an international, multi-million dollar business that preys on the desires of athletes to be the best; and when one item does not work, or is discredited by research, another comes along to take its place.

Whether a supplement works or not may be hard to prove. As with many supplements, the scientific evidence doesn’t yet exist to rule definitely on what effect, if any, taking a particular substance may have on an athlete’s health or performance. Unfortunately, more often than not, supplements don’t deliver on their promises. So, what’s the harm in trying? Well, on top of the fact that you are spending a lot of money, time and effort on something that you are not even sure works, or what it contains; you are putting something into your body that could prove to be harmful to your health, does not have to be proven that it works, can hurt your performance, or can result in your disqualification from competition. Are you willing to take that chance? For the outside possibility that it might help you? Why not just train harder, eat better, and learn the skills to play the game better? You know for sure that these things will help you to perform better. There is no pill in the world that will do that for you! After all, vitamin T (where T stands for Training) is the most important vitamin of them all.

Supplements fall into a special category that lies somewhere between food and drugs; but because of laws written by congress to protect supplement manufactures, they do not have to meet the same tough standards set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding health claims, manufacturing processes, and product safety that apply to all other foods and drugs.

Fact number one: Proof that a supplement works is not required. How did this come about? In the United States, the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 allows supplement manufacturers to make claims regarding the effect of products on the structure/function of the body, as long as they do not claim to “diagnose, mitigate, treat, cure, or prevent” a specific disease. As long as a special supplement label indicates the active ingredients and the entire ingredient list is provided, claims for enhanced performance—be they valid or not—can be made. Take a guess on which lobbyists helped write the final bill, and influenced congress to vote in their favor? The supplement-manufactures of course!

Fact number two: Supplement manufactures do not have to prove that their products are safe. The purpose of DSHEA was to allow supplement-makers to market the health benefits of their products, with or without scientific proof. Instead, the FDA must prove a supplement harmful by providing documentation from clinical trials or multiple case reports in court - a tedious process. The bottom line here is that while supplement-makers do not have to provide any scientific proof for the claims that they make on their product, the FDA must conduct years of costly research to prove that the supplement-makers claims are wrong, and to have the products taken off the market.

Imagine the time and effort that it takes just to get one product off the market, let alone the thousands that are out there. Just as soon as one product is disqualified by the FDA, a new one is produced to take its place; starting the whole process all over again. The advent of the Internet means that a greater variety of products are even more readily available to athletes, increasing the pressure on the experts to keep up-to-date on both the science and the claims of these ergogenic aids. It is virtually impossible to stay up with the multitude of products that are out there and available to athletes. As a result, there are many products that do not do what they claim to do, contain ingredients that are illegal and not included on the label, have not been around long enough to know long term effects, and in fact can have side affects that bring harm to the athlete.

But research is not the only threat to supplement industry marketing. Integrity is, too. Supplement companies are supposed to follow good manufacturing practices that govern product content and safety. With the FDA pretty much out of the business of supplement oversight, these run on the honor system. The result? As long as nobody gets seriously ill from eating apricot pits (which contain arsenic), no regulator is going to pay much attention to them. Consider that it took the FDA 10 years to get Ephedra (ma huang) off the market, despite at least 30 deaths and hundreds of reports of illness among young people who were taking it as an "upper" or to lose weight. The FDA could only institute a ban after Ephedra appeared to be implicated in the 2003 death of Steve Bechler, a young pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles.

Fact number three: Supplement manufacturers can put any health claim on their label. As long as a claim does not promise that the supplement will prevent or cure a disease, almost anything goes. For example, claims that do not relate to disease such as “increases your endurance”, “for muscle enhancement”, “maintains a healthy circulatory system” or “helps you to perform better” are allowed without FDA approval, or without any proof that the claim is valid.

Fact number four: Supplements do not have to conform to any manufacturing standards. In other words, just because the label says that the product contains certain ingredients, doesn’t guarantee that it does. Nor does it guarantee that undisclosed substances couldn’t have been deliberately added and not appear on the label. No sports governing body or the FDA can guarantee the purity or potency or what the product contains; so anything that you take is at your own risk. Some supplement manufactures add banned substances such as prohormones, to boost the effectiveness of supplements.

Don’t assume that you can resolve safety issues by buying high-priced versions (they all cost a lot) or sticking with “natural” or “herbal” remedies. “Natural” on a label doesn’t really have any meaning, and can be just as dangerous as something that is not natural. The same goes for herbs. They fall under the same regulations as other dietary supplements; which means that they may not be adequately tested to determine how safe and effective they are, or what the long term effects are.

With herbs, you may not be getting what you pay for. For example, one study found that 6o percent of pure “ginseng” products sold in this country were worthless because they were so watered down with cheaper herbs. Be careful of herbal remedies that have been “used in China for centuries by ancient people”, or are made in China, or come from other Asian countries. The laws in some of these countries governing the safety of their herbal products are almost non-existent. There are no guarantees of potency, effectiveness, safety, or that you are getting anything close to what you paid for.   

The ethical issue of using performance-enhancing substances that are not banned has not been resolved. Currently, the use and recommendation of ergogenic aids to athletes is controversial. Athletes should not use nutritional ergogenic aids until they have carefully evaluated the product, and only after careful examination of the product for safety, efficacy, potency, and legality. and discussed the use of the product with a qualified nutrition or health professional. In most cases, not even your coach knows for sure. Nutrition advice, by a qualified nutrition expert, should only be provided after carefully reviewing the athlete’s health, diet, supplement and drug use, and energy requirements.

So, what does an athlete do if he/she wants to try a supplement? My recommendation is “don’t do anything’ at all, except perhaps satisfy in your own mind that the product will not work for you. There is really no need for the water polo player to take supplements. Why take a chance on something that can harm you, and will not make you a better water polo player? There are no magic pills that will make you perform better. Nothing can replace the years of hard training, and learning how to play the game that will make you a better player; certainly not a pill of any kind.
If you succumb to the hype, or hear from a friend or a famous athlete that tells you about something that you can take that will “magically” make you a better athlete, think twice before you fall for it. Remember the saying, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is”. If you rely on your body to perform, I recommend learning as much as possible about the substance that they are promoting. With knowledge comes the power to help you resist the temptation, or to help refute the testimony of the friend or famous athlete.

Remember that many athletes that promote magic potions or pills, were already great athletes before they started taking the supplement, and will still be great after taking the supplement. The supplement has nothing to do with how good they are. Genetics and training have more too do with their abilities than anything else. They also are being paid handsomely for endorsing the company’s product, many times without knowing whether the product does any good, or not, for the average athlete. By using athlete testimonials, the company wants you to believe that their product made him the great athlete that he is, and you can be just like him if you take the product.

Anytime you hear of something like this, approach it with a healthy dose of skepticism and a bit of common sense, in order to help you sidestep potential minefields. Because there aren’t any watchdog agencies in the government, and because there aren’t any laws that control the sale of these products, you are on your own when it comes to dietary supplements. Now comes the big question. How can you tell whether a supplement does what it claims to do? In other words, will you have more energy, bigger muscles, lose weight, swim faster, jump higher and throw harder? Be leery of anything that makes these sorts of claims, just by taking their product. Don’t fall for general broad based claims such as “speeds up your metabolism” or “improves your performance” or “increases muscle strength” that promise to have a positive effect on a complicated, multifaceted process in the body.

You may simply believe that a product works, or may have a friend that showed improvement when taking the product. Perhaps you, or your friend, took the product during a period of natural improvement that occurred because of other factors, such as improved training or better psychological preparation. Maybe you just experienced a placebo effect, (you think that the supplement is helping you) which you just as well could have received from taking a sugar pill. You may even excel in spite of something that you take.

As mentioned in previous articles, there are some supplements that are proven to help you in certain situations such as:

  1. Taking sports drinks as a quick energy boost, or as a fluid replacement before and after practice, in between games, or as a way to boost your carbohydrate stores before a game or competition. The same goes for high carbohydrate sports bars and liquid drinks such as fruit smoothies; as long as they are only used to supplement carbohydrates in an already balanced and nutritious diet. They should never be used to make up for a poor diet or as complete meals. Athletes who don’t eat well, but take a lot of supplements will only end up with a well-supplemented poor diet, lacking in the essential nutrients and fiber that can only come from food in its natural form.

  2. As covered in the last article, if you have been diagnosed with a nutrient deficiency such as iron deficiency anemia, then taking a supplement prescribed by a doctor will certainly help.

  3. Taking a daily multi-vitamin just to make sure that you cover all your bases. Although there really is no need to take vitamins of any kind, or high doses of any specific vitamin, mineral or anti-oxidants (they could be toxic) if you are eating a balanced diet of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, low fat dairy foods, nuts and legumes; all rich in the important vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, fiber, protein, carbohydrates and fats that athletes need on a daily basis to stay in the game.

Even if certain substances are shown to be of some benefit in improving athletic performance, keep the gains in perspective. Your inherited talent, mental attitude, training methods, experience and eating habits all play a far greater role in your success then could any dietary supplement. Even if you are just looking for an edge, don’t let taking supplements keep you from doing what you really need to do, such as revamping your training program, working harder in practice, learning new skills, or improving your diet.

[Click Dante's photo to learn more about his water polo experiences
and Click the water polo ball to learn more about Dante's books.]