With the high school and college sports seasons underway, student athletes are understandably concerned about performing their best. And while a healthy diet, regular exercise and practice are enough for some, others choose to take supplements in hopes of improving their performance. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, more than 50 percent of NCAA student athletes who currently use supplements began taking them in high school.

While many of us might assume that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) oversees dietary supplements the same way it does prescription medications – through a clinical investigation of the product’s safety and contents – this is not the case. Supplements are not considered medications but rather treated as food products intended to supplement a person’s diet. As a result, unless the product contains a new dietary ingredient, no independent testing is required to confirm what’s truly in the product, meaning that products containing banned substances can easily make it into the marketplace. 

While not all supplements may pose a problem, some dietary and sport supplements may contain banned substances or compounds designed to mimic a banned substance. In addition to intentional spiking, cross-contamination and poor manufacturing processes may result in trace levels of banned substances in supplements.  Unfortunately, student athletes may unknowingly take these supplements without even realizing the health consequences and risks to their game.

With thousands of supplements on the market, how do you weed out the good from the bad?

First, consult with a physician. While it’s important for people of all ages, it is especially important for high school students whose bodies are still maturing. Share with your doctor why you want to take a supplement as well as any products or medications you are already taking, and then discuss your options. Some additional things to look for when purchasing and taking a sports supplement include:

  • Read the label carefully. Question outrageous claims. As with virtually any type of product, if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. If you’re taking a product and notice any unusual side effects, such as increased acne, baldness or deepening of the voice, there might be some level of steroids in the product.
  • Fast results. Building up muscle and improving endurance take time. If you notice an almost immediate change in either of those areas, there is a good chance that the supplement might contain a banned substance or steroid.
  • Label warnings.  Adverse effect warnings are fairly commonplace on over-the-counter products. If the warning label for a sports supplement lists serious adverse effects — especially when used in combination with other supplements/drugs or by anyone who is pregnant or who may have allergies or any other medical conditions — think twice before purchasing. Student-athletes have tested positive and lost their eligibility, or worse their lives, after consuming some nutritional products.
  • Certification. Look for certification from an independent third party. Programs such as NSF International’s Certified for Sport® are one of the best ways to protect against potentially tainted supplements because of the rigorous testing and facility inspections that certified products must undergo. Lack of certification doesn’t necessarily mean a product is bad for you, but using it is a bit of a guessing game. Certification and knowing the product has been screened for contaminants and athletic banned substances provide peace of mind.

If you choose to take supplements, follow the manufacturer’s recommended usage instructions carefully. Talk with a trusted health care provider or your local pharmacist before taking multiple supplements to make sure they can be taken together and that you won’t exceed the recommended daily allowance for any listed ingredients. Don’t take additional doses of a product beyond what the manufacturer recommends in a single day in hopes of achieving faster results. Consuming too many supplements can have its own adverse health effects.

Clearly, there are sports supplements that perform as they claim, but taking precautions — consulting with a physician, being informed about the supplements before you buy them, and looking for certification — can keep you ahead of the game.

About the Author

Cheryl Luptowski is the Public Information Officer/Home Safety Expert for NSF International, an independent public health and safety organization that certifies products and writes standards in the areas of dietary supplement safety, consumer products, toys, drinking water, and sustainability. Cheryl has been interviewed as a home expert in national print, online and radio and has authored many articles and fact sheets with tips for healthier living. She is the face behind “Ask NSF,” NSF’s online Q & A portal and she chairs the NSF Consumer Advisory Panel.