As winter approaches many of us reach for over-the-counter vitamins and herbal remedies, such as Vitamin C and Echinacea, in a bid to ward off illnesses and improve health. But the vast array of supplements available and lack of industry regulation make it difficult for the average person to make an informed choice about taking supplements.
Now a report published in Nutrition Journal suggests that even athletes, who should be well informed as to how to stay in peak physical condition, frequently take supplements without realising the potential benefits or side effects.
A research team, led by Andrea Petróczi of the School of Life Sciences at Kingston University, in South West London, UK re-analysed surveys filled in by high performance athletes, representing over thirty different sports, for the 'UK Sport 2005 Drug Free Survey'. Three-fifths of athletes questioned took nutritional supplements, but the reasons given for taking them did not generally match up to the supplements' actual effects.
Not surprisingly, given this result, the team also found that relatively few supplement users appeared to be taking supplements because of medical advice.
The results are worrisome because high doses of some supplements may damage health and contaminated products may even cause athletes to fail drug-screening tests. To help remedy this, the article recommends that education about the use of nutritional supplements should become a required part of the accreditation process for all sport coaches. Indeed, previous research has shown that the more information athletes have on supplements, the less likely they are to take them.
"Incongruence regarding nutritional supplements and their effects is alarming," says Petróczi. "Athletes seem to take supplements without an understanding of the benefits they can offer, or their side effects, suggesting that supplements may be used by high performing athletes without a clear, coherent plan."
Journal article: Limited agreement exists between rationale and practice in athletes' supplement use for maintenance of health: a retrospective study Andrea Petroczi, Declan P Naughton, Jason Mazanov, Allison Holloway and Jerry Bingham, Nutrition Journal (in press)
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