by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP

Limited Self Regulation - A Dangerous Idea

In the first part of this series on supplements and ergogenic aids we discussed the basics of these two areas, learning what each term means, and their application to sports performance. Now, we’ll explore one of the most concerning aspects of supplements….safety regulation.

A Story About Weight Loss

Anyone who was alive in the 1990’s to early 2000’s may recall the spread of weight loss pills and products containing a new miracle ingredient called ephedra. Ephedra was touted as helping increase weight loss and reduce the health risks associated with having high weight. In fact, it was even examined as a potential performance enhancer for athletes. Unfortunately, the reality was a little bit different. 

In 2004 the FDA banned ephedra and ephedra-containing products from sale in the US under the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). The reason for this stemmed from the dangers present in the use of these various supplements and products and the lack of health benefits they provided. While research reviews have noted a moderate increase in weight loss attributed to its use, the health risks present far outweighed this outcome. Serious adverse health effects including heart attacks, strokes, seizures, and death were all reported to the FDA. If these risks were present how was this supplement ever allowed for sale to the public to begin with?

Understanding the Risks

When an individual purchases an item aimed at health or athletic performance, there is an assumption that the product has been rigorously tested for safety (at a minimum) by a third party who can hold the maker accountable if the product does not meet certain standards. This confidence in our purchase is what we have come to expect each time we purchase an over-the-counter (OTC) drug product like acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Unfortunately, this is not the reality for supplements and ergogenic aids. 

While the FDA has specific oversight when it comes to OTC drugs, they have a very different power over supplements. These rules are laid out in the DSHEA (mentioned earlier), allowing the FDA to regulate both supplement products and ingredients under very specific terms. For example, manufacturers are banned from selling products that are adulterated or misbranded, and they are also responsible for evaluating their products’ safety and labeling them to ensure FDA requirements are met. The FDA has the authority to act against products that violate these requirements, but only after a product has made it to market. This means there’s a strong possibility that harmful or misleading products remain on the market before being banned and removed from the shelves. 

What Are You Consuming?

The real issue here is that inadequate regulation in the area of supplements and ergogenic aids results in a delay or failure to address many research studies’ finding issues with the ingredients in supplements. These findings range from a lack of efficacy that the product can meet its claims to not accurately labeling the product in any way. This research brings up a concerning trend of a lack of accurate reporting on not only the effects of supplements but also what is found in them. 

What Can You Do?

Aim to follow a food-first approach. Focus on your general dietary habits as well as your specific athletic food needs prior to reaching for any supplements or ergogenic aids. If you feel you require supplementation talk to a qualified healthcare professional about your concerns. If you chose to use supplements or ergogenic aids, look for products verified by high-quality third-party test labs such as NSF Certified for Sport or Informed Sport. Remember that you, and only you, are responsible for safeguarding your health, especially when it comes to what you ingest for sports performance purposes. 

Learn more about how to safely promote improved sports performance through easy and effective dietary approaches by checking out any of the courses below.   

If you enjoyed this free resource, consider supporting Coeus in our mission to continue producing high-quality resources, accessible for all NICA coaches. Your donation helps ensure NICA coaches like yourself have access to a growing library of educational content and resources relevant to their work with today’s youth athlete. We appreciate your support!