Performance-enhancing drug abuse is a public health crisis, a medical expert has warned, with many people now taking sports supplements for cosmetic reasons.
Consultant neurophysiologist and physician in sports Conor O’Brien, said sports supplements were often sold as ‘miracle cures’ with no scientific validation.
“They can be contaminated or adulterated with performance enhancing drugs and users of these seemingly harmless agents can be exposing themselves to a potential health risk,” he said.
At a conference in Dublin yesterday hosted by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Dr O’Brien said it was estimated that more than three million Americans were abusing these substances. He said most of the substance abuse was occurring in what he termed as “hardcore” gyms.
“But even in the nice gyms that I go to, people take stuff because they want to get better bang for their buck. Little resources are given to educating the general public on the significant dangers of this common practice, with most being committed to detection programmes among elite athletes,” he said.
Dr O’Brien, who works at the Sports Surgery Clinic in Dublin, called for greater education in schools and among healthcare companies to address the problem of sports supplements.
He also underlined the need for a simple reporting registrar of adverse effects associated with sports supplement use.
Dr O’Brien said there was one very good reason why sports supplements should be avoided — they could be contaminated. He referred to a recent study that found 10% of the products looked at were adulterated. “That’s the real problem that we are dealing with,” he said.
Dr O’Brien said little was known about the supplements because there was no research. “If they work, they probably contain something that is dangerous to your health,” he said.
Chief specialist in public health nutrition at the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, Mary Flynn, said young people were exposed to a significant amount of misinformation on sports nutrition that could impact negatively on their health now and in the future.
Products were sometimes targeted along gender lines, promoting muscle gain in men and weight loss in women. “Young people can be more susceptible to these types of messages,” said Dr Flynn.
“Young teenagers, who are still growing, need to be protected against unhealthy messages that promote a single unrealistic body image as the ‘ideal’ for young people. This weakens self-esteem and leads to unhealthy body image concerns,” she said.
Dr Flynn said evidence-based dietary advice would be helped further by the nearly completed Department of Health-led review of healthy eating guidelines.
Regrettably, she said, sound nutritional advice was often drowned out by misinformation including ‘fat burner’ claims and extreme high-protein diets that lacked many essential nutrients.
Sports dietitian to the Kilkenny hurling team, Noreen Roche, said young people involved in sport could meet their nutritional requirements from a healthy balanced diet, using the food pyramid as a guide.
“Eating and drinking the right food and fluid before and after sport is very beneficial, keeping in mind that key nutrients such as iron, calcium, and vitamin D play an important role in growth and development,” she said.
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