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Supplements and Young Athletes: The Risks

Supplement companies are great at selling us on the “proposed” benefits of their products. They often promise a silver-bullet solution for all of our health, physique or performance goals. But when it comes to the potential risks this information is often lost in the fine print. The chance of kidney and liver damage, or a positive doping test, doesn’t sell quite like the promise of ripped muscles.

Athletes should ask themselves: do the benefits of supplements outweigh the risks? Photo: Derek Morrison

In this article we highlight the risks supplements pose to health, growth and development and how that can affect performance and sporting careers. Do the benefits outweigh the risks? This is a question all athletes should ask themselves before taking any supplement.

Are there any health risks with sports foods?

If used as directed sports foods generally pose little risk to our health. However, there are a few exceptions. One being the harm sports drinks, gels or chews can have on our oral health. The high concentration of sugar and acidity of these products can wreak havoc on our teeth. Athletes often overlook oral health as it does not directly impact performance. But if we do not take care of our teeth it can be costly to our health, smile and our wallets.

Another one to be aware of is that some sports foods also contain caffeine. Some gels contain over 100 mg of caffeine per serve – that’s more than a can of coke and many energy drinks. A stimulant for the central nervous and cardiovascular systems caffeine is often used to boost physical and mental performance. The effect of its use and safety are not well known in children and teenagers. However, younger people are thought to have a lower tolerance than adults. High doses can cause nausea, vomiting, anxiety, high blood pressure, increased heart rate, sleep problems and, in extreme cases, seizures or death. Caffeine also affects how the body absorbs calcium, a key nutrient for young athletes while they are busy growing strong bones.

What about dietary supplements?

In Supplements And Young Athletes: The Basics we touched on the appropriate use of dietary supplements for young athletes. To recap, specific vitamins and minerals should only be used to treat or prevent known or likely nutrient deficiencies. In such cases a medical specialist or dietitian will make recommendations on how to supplement effectively and safely. Supplements deliver concentrated forms of vitamins and minerals making it easier to overdose than if we just relied on food sources. Taking doses over and above what is recommended can be toxic and harmful to health, performance and even training adaptations.

Gastrointestinal side effects are a common consequence of overdoing it with dietary supplements. For example high doses of magnesium, vitamin C and zinc can cause diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, while constipation is common with iron supplementation. If that is not unpleasant enough you can also add organ damage to the list of potential consequences. For example, an overload of vitamin A can harm your liver and too much vitamin D can be damaging to your kidneys. Super dosing on one nutrient can often be at the detriment of another as well, because certain vitamins and minerals compete for absorption into our body. Supplemental iron, for example, can interfere with zinc and copper absorption.

Consulting a trained dietitian is the best approach when looking to address nutrient deficiencies. Photo: Derek Morrison
Then there are the ergogenic aids

We must reiterate the point that there is a lack of research on ergogenic aids in young athletes. That means their effect and safety of use are not well known. These performance enhancing aids, along with herbal remedies, carry the highest risk when it comes to supplements. The rules and regulations around manufacturing and labeling are not as robust as those for food or drugs. It also differs from country-to-country. This means we cannot rely on the label to tell us what is in the container. Why does this matter? Supplements are often packed with cheap ingredients or “fillers”. A nifty way manufacturers boost their profits by keeping their costs down.

We must reiterate the point that there is a lack of research on ergogenic aids in young athletes. That means their effect and safety of use are not well known.

On a more concerning note ergogenic aids can be contaminated with harmful, prohibited and/or illegal substances such as steroids, stimulants and other drugs. This can be a deliberate act by manufacturers to enhance their product, or an accident through cross-contamination during production. How does this happen, you may ask? Unfortunately, supplements are not subjected to any pre-market testing. Only once a supplement has shown to cause harm is it investigated. This comes too late for those who have had an adverse reaction and, in some cases, died.

Ergogenic aids have been linked to numerous health problems from dehydration, headaches and anxiety to heart problems, organ damage, seizures, even death. Fat burners, mass gainers and pre-workout supplements are the ones to be most cautious of. For example, mass gainers can be spiked with anabolic steroids which can stunt growth and disrupt reproductive development in young athletes.

What are the risks to my sporting career?

Did you know that taking a supplement could spell the end of your sporting career? Supplements are one of the leading causes of failed anti-doping tests among athletes. Doping is the use of or intention to use performance-enhancing substances or methods that have been banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). An anti-doping violation can see you banned from your sport for years, even a lifetime for more serious violations. Any time away from your sport during the developmental years is going to halt your performance progression. Anti-doping violations are also made public and often snapped up by media channels. A tarnished reputation is hard to come back from.

Supplements are one of the leading causes of failed anti-doping tests among athletes. 

In summary

The only way to completely eliminate the risks and protect your health, performance and future sporting career is to not take supplements at all. There is this common misconception that all athletes need supplements. That kudos belongs to the marketers at these supplement companies. However, even as an elite athlete you don’t need to take supplements to succeed. In fact, there is a growing “food first” movement among some world-class athletes who are choosing to compete “clean”. If you are going to take take supplements then at least make sure you do so safely. There are ways to minimise the risks, which will be covered in another article. Remember, it is about making informed decisions based on what is best for your own health, performance and sporting career.

Click here for the steps a young athlete can take to minimise the risks associated with supplement use

What is WADA?
WADA or the World Anti-Doping Agency is an international independent agency. Their role is to promote, coordinate and monitor the fight against doping in sport. Every year WADA publishes a list of prohibited substances and methods in an effort to keep sports clean and to protect athletes. Substances are prohibited if they meet two of three criteria:
1) It has potential to enhance, or enhances sports performance
2) It represents an actual or potential health risk to the athlete
3) It violates the spirit of sport
The WADA code also states that athletes have a personal duty to ensure that no prohibited substance enters their body and that they are responsible for any prohibited substance or its metabolite or markers found to be present in their samples.
The biggest cause of inadvertent doping is the careless and misinformed use of supplements. You can read more about WADA, the code and prohibited list here.

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