Supplements and athletes: Use or abuse?

JONATHAN MCKEOWN
Last updated 13:35 20/02/2013

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OPINION: Many sports supplements are marketed to give you an explosive edge, but some leading scientists say they can be a minefield of potential dangers.

Nevertheless, more college athletes are using sports supplements to help them gain an "edge" in performance.

Local colleges and schools have no supplement-use policies or guidelines and, with an immense variety of product available online without consultation, the regulation of often complex chemical supplements is the sole responsibility of the athlete.

Nelson-based company o2b Healthy manufactures and retails more than 200 dietary supplements and natural-health products.

The company has local adventure racing and endurance world champion Nathan Fa'avae featuring in advertisements on sport-specific media such as Radio Sport.

Danielle Dixon of o2b Healthy, a former personal trainer, says college-aged athletes are a growing market. Typically, college students would use omegas for lung capacity, whey protein for recovery, vitamin B for stress, and general multivitamins, she says.

"It's definitely growing, a lot of college students are now taking more supplements, it seems to be increasing and increasing."

There are restrictions for some supplement use while on certain medications, and a doctor's advice should be sought if this is the case, but otherwise, Dixon says, it is a free market.

"There is not really any restriction as such, but you have got to be careful with each client and make sure you are giving them the right advice."

Professor Steve Stannard is qualified to give advice. The head of School of Sport and Exercise at Massey says college athletes shouldn't be taking supplements.

"The general rule should be, especially for young athletes, unless you really know what you are doing and are taking it under good advice, don't take it because you don't need it," said Stannard.

He says in a recent article published by Massey University that of the thousands of supplements available, only a handful have been shown to have any beneficial effect on performance when an athlete consumes a balanced diet.

"These include electrolyte drinks, carbohydrate supplements, caffeine, and creatine. Even these few will only assist in a few specific circumstances, and if used improperly, can have adverse side-effects."

Stannard says that, in most cases, supplements are used because they are easier to access. Usually, a boiled egg is a better source of protein than whey powder, and a Marmite sandwich with a few glasses of water is essentially the same as electrolyte drinks.

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"A carbohydrate gel is little different to a boiled potato as a fuel source for muscle, but it's a whole lot easier to pack a bunch of gels," Stannard said.

All of the colleges spoken to by the Nelson Mail do not have a policy or guideline for the use of supplements in their college sports teams.

"We haven't felt the need to do that yet," says Tim Tucker, acting headmaster of Nelson College. "I would say sensible use of supplements is quite appropriate."

That sentiment was echoed by spokespeople from other colleges, who said it came down to individual choice.

Though, one area that concerned both Stannard and Tucker was the potential for the habit of supplement use to escalate. They were concerned the practised and repetitive use of a recovery smoothie could provide a gateway for the use of banned substances in search of "the edge" later in their sporting careers.

Is using illegal performance-enhancing drugs just another choice that is seemingly down to an individual?

In a the wake of the scandal over performance-enhancing drugs that hit Australia recently, Stannard said that even most professional athletes are "in the dark" about the risks involved with sports supplements.

Some deer-antler products, endorsed by well-known athletes, have been found to contain Growth Factor (IGF-1), a substance which is prohibited both in and out of competition. Many athletes have been banned while taking supplements they thought were legal.

While o2b Healthy deer velvet did not contain any banned substances, Dixon said, the availability of supplements over the internet from anywhere in the world made it hard to know what you were actually getting.

"There are a whole lot of companies out there marketing different products, but we have quite a lot of tests our products go through before we can put it on the shelf," said Dixon.

Then again, as an alternative, athletes could always go home, have a Marmite sammy and cook some eggs.

- The Nelson Mail

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