The Real Deal with Dietary Supplements

By February 7, 2017 December 28th, 2018 No Comments

As a sports dietitian, I am constantly asked by the athletes, teams, and other active individuals that I work with “what supplements should I be taking to improve my performance?”  The answer I volunteer back is never a popular one – NONE! 

This is especially true for the young athletes that I work with.  Due to ethical reasons, the majority of the research surrounding dietary supplements and ergogenic aids has been on adults, not on young athletes.  Many parents and coaches I work with are quick to suggest supplements to their athletes, but this is not acceptable.  The research just does not support supplement use in young athletes, and due to lack of understanding these products, it is not clear how these youngsters’ bodies will react when taking them. 

So, what is the difference between dietary supplements and ergogenic aids?  Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) dietary supplements are ingested products that contain a “dietary ingredient” intended to add further nutritional value to the diet.  These products can be vitamins, minerals, herbs, amino acids, concentrates, etc.  Ergogenic aids are techniques and products that are intended to enhance the ability to perform.  These items include carbohydrate loading, training at altitude, caffeine, protein powders, muscle builders, pre-workouts, sports drinks, and protein bars.  However, this also includes products like Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and anabolic steroids, which are highly unsafe. 

Another reason I am so adamant about young athletes not using supplements or aids is because if they go on to play in the NCAA, every product is highly regulated and most are banned.  In addition, the NCAA holds the athlete accountable for anything they choose to ingest, so if a banned substance shows up on a drug test, there is little leniency.  Although the supplement industry is demanding and this topic is extremely confusing and ever evolving, there are some resources that can help young students understand what is safe and what is not. 

If you are not familiar with the Taylor Hooton story, you should read it here.  It will make you think twice before suggesting supplements to young athletes.  So, what is safe for student athletes?  When counseling athletes that inquire about supplements I always take a food first approach!

  1. Eat more food – If the athlete’s goal is weight or muscle mass gain the first and best tactic is to increase consumption of healthy foods! 
  2. Increase fruits and vegetables – if an athlete feels the need to take a multivitamin I recommend increasing fruit and vegetable consumption first.  If a physician suggests a multivitamin after that point, then we find a product that is safe and proven to be effective. 
  3. Vegan and vegetarians – a couple nutrients of concern, among others, for these athletes are protein and iron.  If there are deficiencies and diet is not helping, we can work with a physician to decide on safe products to supplement the diet. 

​The goal is always student athlete welfare and keeping young athletes safe.  Therefore, the strategy should always be to assess the diet first, then fill in the gaps with the proper nutrients from real food.  If you are a student or parent that has questions about supplements do not hesitate to reach out to me directly at [email protected].   

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