UKAD’s Science Officer offers advice on supplement use

New polling released during UK Anti-Doping’s (UKAD) Clean Sport Week in May revealed that 87% of British adults who take sports supplements receive no medical advice prior to popping the pills or swigging the shakes.

The UKAD polling showed that over a fifth of adults (22%) who exercise and have taken a supplement, have taken weight loss/fat burners, and 15% have taken pre-workout supplements, yet the vast majority don’t seek advice, or get the products checked, by a healthcare professional such as a pharmacist or dietician - and 20% don’t get any advice at all.

Some of these products can contain stimulants which may result in athlete bans from sport, but for those not competing, and simply taking the supplements to aid muscle growth, fat loss or recovery, there can still be severe health implications, from insomnia to cardiac arrhythmia and even heart attacks.

UKAD Science Officer, Ellen Gregson, is an expert in nutrition and supplements – and a former Personal Trainer to boot – and she has some top tips for PTs and gym instructors who want to steer their clients away from synthetic products.

For decades, the use of supplements by athletes to enhance their performance has been a widely accepted practice. More recently, the market has expanded to the general population seeking quick fixes and easy alternatives to a well-balanced diet.

With misleading advertising claims, alongside the ever-increasing image pressures of today’s social media driven society, the supplements industry can be potentially confusing for athletes, never mind the general gym-user. 

There is an increasingly wide range of supplements and sports foods that are easily accessible to the general public.

It is of primary importance for personal trainers to have a thorough working knowledge of the various sports foods and supplements to be able to provide the appropriate advice related to possible benefits, potential side effects and risks associated with use.
Dietary supplements can be broadly defined as products containing a concentrated source of nutrients or of other substances that have a nutritional or physiological effect.

Dietary supplements come in many forms, including the following:

1. Functional foods

All foods serve a function – e.g. to sustain life – but so-called functional foods are those “that contain whole foods and fortified, enriched or enhanced foods which have potentially beneficial effects on health when consumed as part of a varied diet on a regular basis.”
This includes foods enriched with additional nutrients or components outside their typical nutrient composition (e.g., Vitamin C enriched orange juice).

2. Sports foods

Products providing energy and nutrients in a more convenient form than normal foods with the aim of enhancing sports performance (eg, sports drinks, gels, bars).

3. Dietary Supplements

Though these may seem to serve the same purposes, functional foods look like food, while dietary supplements appear more artificial or drug like.

4. Herbal / All-natural Products

Dietary supplement manufacturers will often try to advertise products as being ‘natural’ with many consumers perceiving these products as being ‘healthier’ and safer compared to synthetic versions.

The rise in social media has led to many new dieters or gym goers believing they are able to buy their bodies from a bottle and that this will lead them to quick fixes and fast results. This has resulted in many people using these products as a substitute and not a supplement.

Ultimately it is your client’s responsibility to make the final decision about their decisions to use a supplement or not. Nonetheless this needs to be an informed decision, and your role is to help guide your clients to adopt safe, evidenced-based use of supplements on a needs basis.
1. Assess the need for a supplement
2. Assess and recognise the risk of the supplement
3. Reduce the risk – can they take a food first approach?
If you believe your client has questions that you do not feel comfortable in advising on, do not be afraid to refer them to a qualified dietician.

For UKAD’s full findings on supplement use, please click here.