Sports supplements can’t outperform a balanced diet

Supplements bought online can be contaminated – and downright dangerous

Change your diet and you may not need to use supplements to boost your health. Photograph: Thinkstock

Change your diet and you may not need to use supplements to boost your health. Photograph: Thinkstock

Tue, May 13, 2014, 01:00

Many athletes use supplements as part of their training or competition routine. This practice may stem from the belief that a normal diet is not sufficient for optimum performance. Unfortunately, there is no substitute for good nutrition and a balanced eating plan. Additionally, an over-reliance on supplements can result in the athlete neglecting their core diet.

There is good evidence that certain supplements may improve the performance of physically mature adult athletes, especially where food intake or food choice is restricted by the type and the demands of a specific sport.

However, sports supplements are manufactured by a large variety of companies and the manufacturing process, labelling and marketing of these products is unwieldy.

Inadequate regulation of the sports supplement industry online means that athletes, particularly the younger and more impressionable ones, can be dazed by exaggerated claims and marketing hype.

Supplements bought online or from a supplier outside Europe might not reach the same safety standards as those permitted in Europe.

In the UK, the product DNP (2-4 Dinitrophenal) has been linked to three reported deaths.

The police, local authorities and the Food Standards Agency are collaborating to prevent further illegal sales of supplements such as DNP, specifically online.

DNP acts by speeding up the metabolism, and harmful side effects such as headaches, an unusually fast heartbeat, excessive sweating, dizziness, nausea, dehydration, fever and vomiting can result. DNP was popular among bodybuilders drawn in by assurances of rapid weight loss.

Sports supplements have also been found to contain ingredients that are not stated on the label.

A recent report by the Irish Sports Council highlighted that a “significant proportion of supplements available on the market are contaminated with substances which are on the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) Prohibited List.

“A scientifically verified study has shown that on examination of supplements bought from various sources, up to 14.8 per cent of the supplements were contaminated with undeclared substances which were on the Wada prohibited list.”

Contaminated products
While the brand names of the contaminated products were not provided in this study, they comprised common supplements such as amino acid supplements, protein powders, and products containing creatine, carnitine and herbal extracts, among others.

There is a suspicion that at least some manufacturers intentionally add ingredients to their supplements to boost the effects and increase sales. This is why it is imperative to know the source and production standards of the company making the supplements you buy.

If you wish to report a supplement or sports food that you have concerns about, you can contact the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Abbey Court, Lower Abbey Street, Dublin 1, for help.

Unfortunately, it’s not an adequate defence to claim you were unaware that the supplement you purchased contained a prohibited substance. If you fail a drug test, you are responsible for any substance found in your body. Under Wada rules, it doesn’t matter how it got there.

If you take prescription or non-prescription medicines as an athlete, you can check them on . This Eirpharm Medicines in Sports Database has been updated to be in accordance with the Wada 2014 prohibited list. It covers medicinal products marketed in Ireland and is effective from January this year.

Rather than taking what everyone else is taking, you should find out what evidence there is to support supplement use at your level and in your sport.

The Irish Sports Council has produced 20 factsheets for athletes over 16 years of age in a bid to help athletes, coaches and parents to understand what supplements may be useful to whom and in what sport.

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