No Quick Fix

August 24, 2004

Run faster. Lift more. Gain muscle. Lose fat. The promises are made on product packaging and television commercials, enticing athletes -- including teens -- to try the latest supplement and await the results. 
"Society is looking for a quick fix," says Mike Sims, BA '80, MA '82, head athletic trainer at Baylor since 1985. "The improvement in athletics comes from hard work.... There is not a shortcut that you can take, a pill or a product to do better." 
A 2001 study of 21,225 anonymous college student-athletes conducted by the NCAA showed that 29 percent used some type of supplement besides multivitamins. Reasons for usage included improving athletic performance and physical appearance (27.3 percent for each) and weight loss or gain (19.7 percent). 
Supplements, which include sports drinks, powders, energy bars and pills, are intended to augment -- not replace -- an athlete's balanced diet and workout regimen, says Richard Kreider, professor and chair of the health, human performance and recreation department. 
"It's not the foundation," says Kreider, who in 2002 moved his Exercise and Sport Nutrition Laboratory to Baylor from the University of Memphis. "With most athletes, all they need to do is eat right, time their meals and train. For 90 percent of the athletes, that's going to be enough." 
Kreider has been researching supplements since the mid-1980s. "Back then, there were a lot of products out there, but there wasn't any science," he says. "We really challenged supplement companies to 'put up or shut up.'"
His lab at Memphis was the first in the nation to focus on creatine, an energy supplement naturally found in meats and fish that Kreider says helps increase strength, power and sprinting ability. "We now have hundreds of studies on creatine, in all types of populations," he says. "That's a bona fide supplement versus a lot of things out there that just haven't been studied." 
Still, he acknowledges that opinions on the use and effectiveness of supplements vary widely, which can be challenging for parents who are seeking reputable sources of information. 
"There's an effort to lump all nutrition and steroids together, to say, 'Athletes should never take [supplements].' Our position always has been you should be basing your decisions, policies about supplements ... on available science," he says. 
Some supplements have been questioned by the Food and Drug Administration. The agency banned those containing ephedrine alkaloids (ephedra) in April. Other supplements were targeted in the May issue of Consumer Reports magazine, which listed 12 deemed "too dangerous to be on the market" but that still are available to consumers. 
The NCAA bans ephedrine and anabolic steroids as performance enhancers. An eight-year trend studied by the NCAA shows ephedrine and nandrolone (an anabolic steroid) positives as a percent of total positives resulting in loss of eligibility have risen from 13 percent in 1991-92 to 45 percent in 1999-2000 -- more than a three-fold increase. 
"What we try to do is direct parents ... to good, sound scientific review from people who know what they're talking about," Kreider says. "We should be responsibly reporting the results of studies to the public so that they can be making informed decisions."
Sims recommends that parents and physicians bring the discussion of supplements out in the open because teens are being influenced by their friends, coaches and advertisers. 
"Some supplements are good and they can help athletes out, especially if they have some kind of deficiency in nutrition. Some supplements are bad and could cause harm to the body," he says. "Some supplements don't do anything at all." 
The most important thing is for young athletes to consider the long-term effects of supplement use, some of which are yet to be determined, Sims says: "They need to be smart with what they're doing."