Do your athletes know why they are taking supplements?

Your weekly research review

James Morehen

By Dr. James Morehen
June 10th, 2020 | 4 min read

Contents of Research Review

  1. Background & Objective
  2. What They Did
  3. What They Found
  4. Practical Takeaways
  5. Reviewer’s Comments
  6. About the Reviewer

Original study

Jovanov, P., Đorđić, V., Obradović, B., Barak, O., Pezo, L., Marić, A., & Sakač, M. (2019). Prevalence, knowledge and attitudes towards using sports supplements among young athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition16(1), 27.

Click here for abstract

Background & Objective

Worldwide, most professional athletes use sports supplements either during training and/or performance. With this, many young athletes (15-18 yr) who aspire to be professionals, also now take supplements, but do they really know why they are taking them?
Considering this is one of the fastest growing industries in food and beverage, with many companies paying athletes and offering sponsorship deals for young athletes, the authors of this study wanted to:

  1. Determine the prevalence of sports supplements.
  2. Determine the source of information regarding supplementation.
  3. Assess beliefs and attitudes towards the use of supplements.
  4. Estimate the level of knowledge with specifically defined survey questions and the reasons for taking supplements.
  5. Identify trends or differences between categories of supplement users.
  6. Obtain an insight into young athletes ethical dilemma about the misuse of sports supplements.

What They Did

The survey was conducted between March and November 2018, with the inclusion criteria of athletes being aged 15-18 yr and who have competed at international level. In total 348 athletes from Serbia (39.4%), Germany (23.0%), Japan (20.1%), and Croatia (17.5%) took part in the survey representing 18 different sports. The survey included twenty questions which were split into four parts:
⇒ Simple demographic and personal information.

⇒ Information regarding the usage, importance, source of information, safety, and procurement of sports supplements.

⇒ Test the athletes knowledge about the correct timing, dosage, and reason for use of each sports supplements
⇒ Investigation of athletes’ beliefs and attitudes towards the use of sport supplements and possible anti-doping rules violations.

What They Found

The survey showed 82.2% of athletes used supplements, of which 60.6% were male. 82.2% of athletes used one-two different supplements at the same time, 62.1% two-three, 35.9% three-four, and 14.7% used four and more supplements, with kayak, swimming, and karate identified as the sports with the highest number.

Whey protein was the most popular supplement, with 54.5% consuming it among ten other supplements. Unfortunately, young athletes appear to lack proper knowledge about the use of creatine (11.1% of athletes responded correctly), beta alanine (20.0%), amino acids (20.0%), nitrate oxide (22.2%), glutamine (37.5%), protein (38.5%), and carbohydrates (48.3%). Yet they seem to have more knowledge about sports drinks (50%), caffeine (61.8%), and vitamins and minerals (71.0%).

The main reasons athletes wanted to take supplements was for an improvement in performance (35.3%), with 72.1% of athletes being aware of a certain health risk, 14.9% thought they were risky, and 12.9% of athletes considering them to be safe. Additionally, the coach appeared to be the main source of information regarding the use of creatine, carbohydrates, amino acids, caffeine, sports drinks, glutamine, nitrite oxide, protein, beta alanine, vitamins, and minerals.

Finally, this study revealed that 55.5% of athletes had access and were familiar with the regulations of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

Practical Takeaways

⇒ Protein supplements are widespread among young athletes, and so education around the correct timing type and total amount should be provided to athletes.

⇒ The coach seems to be the main source of information about supplementation practices and, therefore, highlights the importance of us as practitioners knowing the right information
⇒ The enhancement of athletic performance is the main reason young athletes use supplements.

⇒ Young athletes show inadequate level of knowledge about the proper and intended use of sports supplements, thus highlighting how important it is to implement education strategies for our athletes.

⇒ Ongoing education to all coaches and athletes about sports supplements is necessary for improving performance and minimising the risk of positive doping results. This will result in a much safer environment when athletes take supplements.

⇒ Insufficient knowledge causes ethical dilemma about the misuse of sports supplements.

Reviewer’s Comments

“Although this study utilised a survey, rather than implementing an intervention or mechanistic procedure, I really like it as it highlights some very important points for practitioners working with young athletes. Whether you like it or not, young athletes are taking supplements (which is discussed in the podcast below), and worryingly with not many of them knowing the complete reason why or how to take them properly.

In my own practice, I try to follow a – where possible – food first approach with all the athletes I work with, but inevitably with time constraints, world-wide travel, and ease of access, the results of this study have once again highlighted to me how important it is to educate those that will probably end up taking them anyway. In particular, it appears that the younger the athlete is, the more likely they are to listen to the guidance of the coach, which therefore underlines how important it is for us, as coaches, to know why and how to take each supplement. Follow the International Olympic Committee decision tree info-graphic for guidance (see below).

Finally, although this study was only performed across four countries and not in the UK, I do think we would see similar results in the UK to that which has previously been shown in UK junior national track and field athletes in the article below.”

Want to learn more?
Then check these out…

Read this article
Read this infographic
Listen to this podcast

James Morehen

Dr. James Morehen

Dr. James Morehen is a Performance Nutritionist for Bristol Bears Rugby Union. He is a SENr registered performance nutritionist and works privately with both elite athletes and individuals through his business Morehen Performance Ltd.

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