Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dietary Supplements 101

As the sporting landscape becomes more and more specialized and ultimately more competitive at a younger and younger age many athlete are looking to improve their performance in any way they can.  Often times this doesn’t mean just improving sports-specific skills and overall fitness through additional practice or training, it may mean considering dietary supplements as part of a daily regimen and diet.  While these supplements may be appropriate in some cases, it is important for parents to understand what their children may be taking.  The dietary supplement industry is a highly unregulated one, meaning choosing the right supplement that is proven effective can be challenging at best, in many cases.  Knowing this, what can parents do to learn more?   

As part of this post today I am going to point you to yet another position statement from the National Athletic Trainers Association:  Evaluation of Dietary Supplements for Performance Nutrition.  Obviously, the intended audience for this statement is athletic trainers who are often the first line of help with athletes who considering supplements, but much of the information is easily understood and appropriate for parents of young (high school) athletes who may be considering dietary supplements. 

According to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) dietary supplements are defined as “products taken by mouth that contain a ‘dietary ingredient’ that include vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and herbs or botanicals as well as other substances that can be used to supplement the diet.”  These supplements can come in various forms:  tablets, capsules, powders, energy bars and liquids.  An important note regarding these supplements is that while the FDA regulates the definition of dietary supplements and labeling requirements, there is no requirement for third-party verification of the content of the supplements (meaning the purity is not guaranteed).

The NATA Position Statement makes several key recommendations regarding dietary supplements.  I always encourage people to read the entire position statement, but in an effort to help you focus on what I believe to be most important, here are key messages parents should be aware of:

  • When helping your child improve their performance the first option should always be to adapt the daily diet through natural food intake rather than supplements.  The body can more effectively use naturally occurring ingredients as opposed to synthetic ones.  Nutritional recommendations are beyond the scope of this post, but finding a local sports nutritionist may useful in some situations.
  • Dietary supplements are not clearly regulated through third-party verification to assure purity.  Safety cannot be assumed because they are sold over-the-counter and in some cases athletes may risk unknowingly ingesting a banned substance.
  • Be aware of the resources available that can help you understand the actual dietary analysis of any dietary supplement that your child may use.  A list of resources is available in the appendix of the position statement.  Utilizing these resources will help ensure the safety, purity and efficacy of a given substance.
  •  If you are a parent that who likes to do research on your own be careful when looking at efficacy data regarding any given supplement since an overwhelming majority of it is done by the company who produces the supplement.  This potential conflict of interest may result in misleading efficacy information regarding that particular dietary supplement.

In the end, it is important that you gather as much information as you can before allowing your child to use a dietary supplement.  The position statement includes a decision-making algorithm that will walk you through all the important questions you should ask before making a final decision.  The appendix includes resources regarding:  1) food/nutrition, 2) regulatory information, 3) safety, 4) purity (third party verification), and 5) efficacy information and fact sheets.  Utilizing these resources should give you some comfort in your final decision.  I would always advocate that any dietary performance improvements be made through your daily food intake, but in some situations dietary supplements are a key addition.  If a dietary supplement is appropriate for your situation I encourage you to do the work to educate yourself to be sure you’re making the best choice for your specific need.

NOTE:  In a future post I will take the time to address the issue of supplement purity and the potential to test positive for a banned substance (particularly for college athletes) as I discuss performance enhancing drug (PEDs) use with athletes.  As a primer check out this information from the Taylor Hooten Foundation.

Submitted by Heather L. Clemons, MS, MBA, ATC


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