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Understanding supplements

This is an excerpt from The Athlete’s Guide to Sports Supplements by Kimberly Mueller and Josh Hingst.

Tips for Being a Supplement-Savvy Athlete

The battle for regulatory power is likely to be an ongoing one, but the hope for the future is a dietary supplement industry that provides more scientific, rather than testimonial-based, evidence for the claims being made, and more importantly, one that requires independent testing from a third party to ensure the purity and safety of the ingredients for consumers. This is especially relevant for the athlete wanting to avoid failing a drug test and potential ban from competition. In the meantime, the following tips offer advice for coaches, athletes, parents, and health professionals on how to be proactive and educated consumers by researching the legitimacy of claims as well as any reported risks associated with the ingredients in the supplement.

  1. Talk with your health care provider before making a decision.
    A single online search of dietary supplements will lead to a plethora of information, often conflicting and usually generated by unqualified parties. A trip to the gym may lead to a sales pitch for a variety of supplements. Many fitness professionals are pressured to meet a specific sales quota for a supplement line the gym is carrying or are merely looking for additional income. There are even nutrition clinics sponsored by supplement companies that offer free nutrition coaching, but these are fancy ploys for their sales reps to sell products. Thus, it is important to be extremely selective about where and from whom you are gathering information. Athletes are encouraged to speak to a health care provider, such as a doctor or pharmacist, about dietary supplements being considered prior to using those supplements to establish potential benefits as well as safety risks. This is especially important for athletes with pending surgeries.

For more detailed nutrition and dietary supplement advice, athletes should speak with a registered dietitian (RD), who is the most credible source of nutrition information as a result of extensive schooling and continuing education, completion of a 6- to 12-month dietetic internship, and successfully passing a national examination. A registered dietitian can help customize a menu plan designed to meet the nutritional demands of training and competition. The RD can also help determine the safety and efficacy of dietary supplement use by

  • assessing the nutritional status of the athlete to determine the likelihood of inadequate or excessive intake of vitamins and minerals;
  • evaluating the potential benefit or harm of nutrient supplementation given an athlete’s nutritional and health status;
  • evaluating the safety of a nutrient supplement given the form, dose, and potential for interaction with food, other dietary supplements, and over-the-counter and prescription medications;
  • educating athletes as to the potential benefit of receiving nutrients through conventional and fortified foods;
  • recommending nutrient supplementation when food intake is inadequate;
  • evaluating research regarding nutrient supplementation; and
  • being aware of regulatory, legal, and ethical issues involved in recommending and selling nutrient supplements.

Fortunately, it is estimated that over 50% of university athletic departments as well as professional and amateur athletic teams have either an RD onsite or contract out with one. Many of these professional RDs are members of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), have completed a secondary degree in exercise physiology or sport nutrition, have personal experience in sport, or are Board-Certified Specialists in Sport Dietetics (CSSD). The CPSDA has coined the term sports RD to identify those dietitians working in professional, collegiate, amateur, and military performance settings. The Commission on Dietetic Registration developed a certification in sport dietetics to identify RDs with documented practical experience and successful completion of an examination in sports nutrition. Because of sports RDs’ involvement in these settings and experience in working with sports supplements, they are generally the best source for information. A list of sport-minded registered dietitians in the United States can be found at

  1. Become familiar with reputable online resources for supplements. All parties involved with an athlete, including the athlete himself or herself, should be aware of the resources available. Table 1.2 provides a quick reference guide of credible websites for information on important issues involving dietary supplements.
  2. Look for clean supplements. Independent testing by third-party labs can confirm the ingredients listed on supplement labels. Training the body for peak performance is not something that happens overnight. Athletes spend hours each day over several months to prepare for competition, and coaches and parents spend equal amounts of time in support of an athlete’s performance endeavors. The last thing anyone wants holding him or her back is a failed drug test generated by a contaminated dietary supplement. Thus, any athlete thinking about using a dietary supplement should make sure that there has been a stamp of approval garnered from an independent testing lab.

Dietary supplements that have gone through independent testing via third-party organizations ensure

  • the contents of the supplement actually match what is printed on the label,
  • there are no ingredients present in the supplement that are not openly disclosed on the label, minimizing the risk that a dietary supplement or sport nutrition product contains banned substances, and
  • there are no unacceptable levels of contaminants present in the supplement.
  1. Choose supplements that have scientific evidence of results. While the purity of the dietary supplement can be established through independent testing, the efficacy of supplement claims cannot, which is why it is important for the athlete to opt for dietary supplements that have evidence of results from well-controlled and replicated scientific research.
  2. Learn how to read supplement labels. The dietary supplement label (see figure 1.1) lists essential information about the product in the bottle. Prior to using any supplement, it is critical to always read the label and follow directions for use.
  3. Know how to report fraudulent supplements or adverse reactions. Any athlete who experiences an adverse reaction to a dietary supplement should immediately contact his or her health care provider after which the problem can be reported directly to the FDA by calling the FDA’s MedWatch hotline at 1-800-FDA-1088 or submitting a report by fax to 1-800-FDA-0178.

Learn more about The Athlete’s Guide to Sports Supplements.

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The Athlete's Guide to Sports Supplements

The Athlete's Guide to Sports Supplements

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