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Athletes at risk with dietary supplements

July 15, 2012

For Starkville Daily News

Increasing numbers of athletes report taking nutritional supplements to improve their performance in sports, and the ages of these athletes concern nutrition specialists.

Mississippi State University professor Ron Williams and several colleagues across the United States recently analyzed information in the National Health Interview Survey. More than 1.2 million children ages 10 to 18 reported taking supplements specifically for sports performance. The average age of reported users was 10.8.

“I was shocked that so many children reported that their parents supported their use of supplements -- not based on nutritional needs but specifically to enhance their abilities in athletics,” Williams said. “Children and parents reported a wide use of supplementation, in spite of the lack of scientific research in support of such use.”

Williams said children experience positive outcomes from being involved in sports, but many face pressure to achieve.

“Physical activity is beneficial for kids, not just for their physical health but also for their mental and emotional health,” he said. “They learn to be part of a network and develop teamwork skills. Sports participation provides protective factors, but often it is tied with a push to perform at a certain level, and people believe the claims that certain products will improve their performance.”

The dietary supplement industry has not been regulated by the Food and Drug Administration since 1994, when the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act was passed, Williams said.

“The supplement industry is highly unregulated,” he said. “These products do not go through the same testing that pharmaceutical drugs go through. There is less regulation on manufacturing and production standards. Ingredient labels do not have the same requirements as food products.

“We don’t want to put vulnerable youth at risk, especially when there aren’t any scientific studies involving children to show what the side effects are or if the products fulfill their claims,” Williams said.

Williams said young people and their parents are often swayed by the creative, yet unregulated, marketing campaigns that target children and athletes.

“The word ‘natural’ is a brilliant marketing term often used because people believe that natural means something can’t be harmful,” Williams said. “There are natural products that are good for you, but that doesn’t mean they should be self-prescribed for sports performance.”

If people are deficient in a vitamin or mineral, and their doctors say they should take a supplement for a physiological reason, that is fine, Williams said.

“But to say ‘I’m 15, and I’m going to take something so I can lift more,’ -- I don’t see that the unproven outcome can justify the risk,” he said.

Parents should talk to their child’s doctor before starting any supplements. They should find out whether nutritional supplements are proven to improve health or simply a way for a company to make money.

“Parents and physicians know the most about a child’s health and have that child’s best long-term interest in mind -- not the coach or the parent volunteer focused on the team’s success, and not the salesperson for the product,” he said. “Teaching young people proper nutrition is a better life-long message than ‘eat what you want and rely on a pill to get your nutritional value,’ or ‘it’s OK to take something to make you a better athlete.’”

Williams said a lot of scientific evidence indicates proper nutrition and proper hydration are more beneficial than relying on supplements to improve sports performance.

Lincoln County area nutrition and food safety Extension agent Natasha Haynes said people often think they are hungry when they are actually thirsty.

“So many people start with a snack when they should drink a glass of water instead,” Haynes said. “Water is the best way to hydrate, and especially in Mississippi’s heat, everyone needs to drink a lot of water. Avoid drinks with lots of sugar. Athletes need steady energy, and sugary drinks give you a quick energy boost, then drop you hard and fast.”

For those who do not like to drink water, Haynes suggested adding a little lemon juice or low-calorie powdered beverage mix to it, which adds flavor without adding too much sugar.

“It’s fun to freeze cut-up fruit in ice cubes for a refreshing treat,” she said. “Floating fruit will hold a kid’s interest more than plain water.”

The MSU Extension Service offers a variety of nutrition education programs to all age groups. For more information, call the county Extension office.

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