In the competitive world of youth sports, particularly at the high school level, many teenaged athletes are looking for an edge that might help them cross the finish line a little sooner or hit the baseball a little harder. And that has led some of them to turn to dietary supplements whose manufacturers promise greater strength and endurance—but often deliver only potential health risks.
These so-called performance-enhancing pills, powders, bars, and drinks are widely available in drugstores, gyms, and health food stores. They also are sold at many gyms and are advertised in bodybuilding magazines. But because they are supplements, not drugs, the Food and Drug Administration does not require them to be tested for safety or effectiveness, nor are their claims as tightly regulated.
There are a lot of claims about these products, but very few are supported by scientific studies; in fact,almost no research has been conducted on these supplements in teenaged athletes. Manufacturers of a popular supplement called creatine, for example, claim that it can provide short bursts of high intensity muscle activity; but these studies only show a 3% to 5% improvement in performance. This is trivial when compared with gains athletes will make with normal growth and development.
Other products are associated with serious problems like decreased height, acne, and baldness. In addition to worries about safety, there are other concerns as well. When you read the active ingredients on the bottle, you expect them to be accurate. But when independent laboratories have evaluated these supplements, they have found that some do not deliver the ingredients that have been promised. To complicate matters, certain supplements may contain small doses of stimulants that can cause athletes to test positive for banned substances. Consumers shouldn’t ignore the cost of these products. They are much more expensive than the same amounts of nutrients like protein and carbohydrates found in food.
Some of the highest risk supplements are illegal, particularly anabolic steroids, which are synthetic hormones. Some boys and girls in high school and even middle school still use anabolic steroids despite their illegal status. They are associated with severe liver disease, heart disease, behavioral changes (like marked mood swings), and many other side effects. They may also interfere with sex hormones and sexual function, and may damage sexual organs. Some of these changes may not be reversible.
The American Academy of Pediatrics discourages these supplements. The best and safest approach to improve sports performance is by following a properly supervised exercise routine and good nutrition.