Dietary Supplements: Who Takes What and Why?
We hear so much in the media about ergogenic aids and dietary supplements that lots of misconceptions can arise. Through the grapevine, we all think everybody is taking lots of supplements, but is that reality? A Canadian study is one of the first to explore dietary supplement use across a wide range of athletes.
Vast Market and Grey Areas
One of the fastest growing segments of the athletic market in the past decades has been the dietary supplements market. From simple multi-vitamins to complex amino acids to sports drinks, the market has simply exploded in variety. This has been fueled by both marketing forces such as the growth of nutritional retailers, and also be the increase in recreational athletes wanting to get the most from their training.
Unfortunately, the darker side of dietary supplements is the potential to morph into illegal performance-enhancing products. As we all know, there have been many high-profile cases of athletes testing positive for a banned substance where it has been demonstrated to be caused by supplement contamination. This has led to it being the “automatic” defence of any athlete testing positive.
Where this truly becomes problematic is that athletes of all levels become leery of dietary supplement use because of its link with positive tests or doping scandals. We have written a number of stories on dietary supplements in Toolbox, and my position has always been that athletes should be informed about the risks and benefits of supplements, and to use them as appropriate but with clear information.
Erdman et al
So the important question becomes “what do athletes consider a dietary supplement?” and also “who takes what?” A recent study by former national level Canadian cyclist Kelly Anne Erdman in the Feb 2006 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise tackles these exact questions.
In Erdman’s study, 582 high-performance athletes were surveyed for their dietary supplement (DS) practices and opinions, preferred means for DS education, and anti-doping opinions using a validated questionnaire. The breakdown of athletes were as follows:
• 314 males, 268 females.
• Age range 11-42 y (mean 20 y)
• 27 sports activities
• Abilities level: provincial (68), national (101), North America (61), international or professional (89), and varsity (263).
Summary of Results
1. Prevalence of DS. 513 (88.4%) of subjects reported taking DS over the past 6 months, with 3.08 DS’s being used per user. Provincial level athletes tended to use fewer DS than other competitive levels. DS use was common to both training and competition, with most users utilizing a DS daily.
2. Types of DS. Sports drinks were the most common DS reported at all levels, except for international athletes reporting multivitamins and minerals as the most common DS. Next most common DS across most groups tended to be sports bars or multi-vitamin/minerals.
3. Sources of Information. Somewhat surprisingly, the most common source of DS information across ALL competitive groups were “family or friends.” This is somewhat disturbing, as it demonstrates that athletes are gaining a lot of their information through heresay and anecdotes rather than professionals or scientific information.
4. Reasons for DS. A mix of top reasons across competitive levels, with top responses fairly evenly split across “energy,” “health,” and “recovery.” This demonstrates a wide and probably healthy level of motivation for using dietary supplements.
5. Where DS obtained. The most common source for DS across all competitive levels were the plain old grocery store, followed fairly far behind by health food stores except for international/professionals, who are the lucky ones getting freebies.
In reading this study, the biggest surprise and potential concern for me is that family and friends formed the most prevalent source of DS education and information. I find this disturbing because this can easily lead to the “keeping up with Joneses” mentality, where what you hear in the locker room becomes the main driving force and subconsciously motivating athletes to do the same.
Therefore, what this study really screams out for is detailed and objective sources of information and educational initiatives, and that every organization with a stake in promoting the health of athletes, from regional sports governing bodies all the way through to WADA, should make access to information and education concerning dietary supplements and anti-doping a major priority.
1. Erdman KA, Fund TS, and Reimer RAInfluence of performance level on dietary supplementation in elite Canadian athletes. Med Sci Sports Exerc 38: 349-356, 2006.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. He can be reached for comments at [email protected].