Dietary supplements and athletes: 5 things to know now

athlete dietary supplementAt the 2014 Sochi Olympics, a German biathlete and an Italian bobsledder tested positive for substances banned by the World-Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) — methylhexanamine and dimethhylamphetamine. Both athletes had ingested these substances as part of a dietary supplement they had been led to believe was free of contaminants. However, some banned substances are susceptible to inadvertent use because the manufacturers list them under less recognizable names on the product label.

Both athletes were stripped of their medals.

In other cases, athletes’ use of banned substances is more intentional. Scores of Russian athletes have been banned from competing at the 2016 Rio Olympics following an independent report of a systemic, state-run doping program. (Doping refers to the use of banned/illegal performance enhancing drugs.) Each individual athletic association typically has a list of banned or illegal substances that can be easily accessed by all athletes.

Regardless of whether or not a particular substance is banned, or ingestion is inadvertent or systemic, dietary supplements can present a problem for athletes, coaches and parents.

Diet, dietary supplements and athletes

As a registered dietitian, I meet with dozens of young athletes weekly whose goal is to excel at their respective sport. I work with them to optimize their diets to support healthy development as well as optimal performance and energy balance for sport.

Most adolescent athletes have not yet mastered the proper training and eating behaviors to help them get to where they want to be, which puts them at risk for developing bad habits that can lead to serious health consequences. Many teens are easily influenced by peers and media messages and can be swayed by ads and photos touting the incredible effects of dietary supplements. In a culture that thrives on instant gratification, supplements promising miraculous effects in a short period of time are a true danger to our young athletes.

What are dietary supplements? What are performance-enhancing drugs? How do they differ?

The U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a dietary supplement as a product that contains a dietary ingredient intended to add further nutritional value to supplement the diet. This includes vitamins, minerals and herbs/botanicals. The Dietary Supplement and Healthy Act re-defined dietary supplements as food instead of drugs, therefore shifting the way in which they are regulated by the FDA.

Performance-enhancing drugs differ in that they are products marketed specifically to athletes to improve athletic performance. This term typically refers to anabolic steroids, human growth hormone, stimulants and diuretics taken by athletes with the specific goal of increased strength and performance.

Dietary supplements: 5 facts


Loose regulation

  • In 2007, the FDA established Good Manufacturing Practices (GMPs) — the set of requirements and expectations by which supplements must be manufactured, prepared and stored to ensure quality.
  • The FDA does not have the authority to require supplements be approved for safety before they are marketed.



No need to show efficacy

  • No law requires manufacturers to show evidence of effectiveness before or after a supplement is marketed.
  • Health claims but not therapeutic claims may be made on the label and should contain the following statement. “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”
  • Research varies widely on efficacy of supplements. Most research showing benefit from certain supplements is funded by the manufacturing companies.



Contamination risk

  • Analysis of muscle-building supplements has revealed some contain anabolic steroids or their precursors. Ingredients are often listed under less recognized names that can cause an athlete to have false hope in the safety of a product.


Crowding out of nutrients

  • Dietary supplements can cause teens to rely more on pills and powders and less on foods, so they miss out on other essential nutrients. For example, a male teen may choose to take a muscle-building supplement instead of drinking milk, which contains calcium that is important for bone building particularly during adolescence.


But wait, not all are bad!

  • Some individuals benefit from vitamin and mineral supplements. For example, iron, calcium, vitamin D and multivitamins can benefit growing individuals and/or those who may have a dietary allergy, malabsorption or decreased bone density (to name a few).
  • “Whey is the way.” I often recommend whey protein as a safe product to increase dietary protein intake, especially for those athletes with increased needs. Whey is high in leucine, which is valued for its role in muscle growth.

Dietary supplements: Learn more

Although, I typically steer my athletes away from supplements they may choose to use them anyway. In these situations, I encourage them to double check the product for safety by using one of the below websites:

Eat for performance. Download the Boston Children’s Sports Medicine Guide to Fueling for Performance.


Laura Moretti dietary supplementsAbout the blogger: Laura Moretti, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is a Board-Certified Dietitian in Sports Nutrition. She serves as the dietitian for the Boston Children’s Hospital Division of Sports Medicine and Orthopedics as well as the Female Athlete Program.