Thursday, November 1, 2007

Supplements - do you really need all those pills?

Vitamin Pills - a waste of money?

As I look back over my years of weight-training, body-building, running and the more general fitness / conditioning stuff that I do now, I must have spent hundreds of pounds on supplements: vitamins, minerals, amino-acids, protein powders, creatine, ornithine, dessicated liver, brewers' yeast.....whatever was in vogue....whatever I thought could make me fitter, stronger, bigger leaner. Nowadays I take a multivitamin once in a while but not a lot. Rarely was it based on science or medical opinion. I was motivated to be better, and so on the basis of a magazine article, an advert, hearsay or rumour I would shell out the cash for the latest potion. Looking back maybe it was daft, but I was always looking for that which would make me a little better and always suspicious that the scientists didn't really know much about "performance" enhancement.

It was the same attitude to training I suppose - you didn't seek the scientifically based protocols, you looked to what the superstars were doing and copied that, wilfully ignoring their superior genetics and ingestion of less legal "supplements".

One one level I think there is an excuse - the scientists often have their own dogma which isn't always consistent with what actually works "in the trenches". For example low carb diets work for fat loss......but the scientists - with some exceptions - do not admit or promote this.

On another level though there is a problem that we athletes do not look at the science (and actually in this context I'd look at the science more broadly, be pragmatic and include a little bit of learning from others' experiences and experimenting on yourself a bit) and critically examine what we do or eat. Too often we rely on rumour or advertising or hearsay and as such we waste money and time. As in the discussions about water and shoes, there are powerful marketing forces at work here!

A study that I came across yesterday made me reflect on this. Basically the scientists reckon that athletes do not generally base their supplement use on any science or medical advice. Plus, given what they want to achieve/the thing that motivates their supplement use, they are often taking the wrong things anyway.

We always need to think. This may not just be academic either - there can be health risks to taking too many supplements. Even the much promoted antioxidants may not be without their risks.

Limited agreement exists between rationale and practice in athletes' supplement use for maintenance of health: a retrospective study


The widespread use of nutritional supplements among athletes is poorly understood. The prevalence of supplement intake and users' knowledge have been researched independently leading to useful, but disconnected, information on supplement use.


The 'UK Sport 2005 Drug Free Survey' data (n = 874) were re-analysed using association [chi-square] and 'strength of association' tests [phi], to discover observed incongruencies between self-reported supplement use and the underlying motives. Results are given for test pairs between 'motive for use' [doctors advice, avoiding sickness, overcoming injuries and enhancement of diet] and each supplement used and these were categorized as strong (phi > .7), intermediate (.7 <> .3) and weak (phi < .3).


The use of selected supplements varied widely as follows: multivitamin (72.7%), vitamin C (70.4%), echinacea (30.8%), iron (29.8%), magnesium (11.0%) and ginseng (8.3%). Associations with motive were found in 8 of the 10 test pairs which were expected from literature precedents, however only weak associations exist. Of these, four were associated with avoidance of sickness [iron (chi-square = 11.94, p < .001; phi = .15, p = .001), multivitamin (chi-square = 6.43, p < .001; phi = .11, p = .011), vitamin C (chi-square = 54.67, p < .001; phi = .32, p < .001) and echinacea (chi-square = 40.34, p < .001; phi = .28, p < .001)]. The remaining 4 associations were: no time to prepare meals with ginseng (chi-square = 7.64, p = .006; phi = .12, p = .006) and multivitamin (chi-square = 9.103, p = .003; phi = .13, p = .003); overcoming injuries with magnesium (chi-square = 6.99, p = .008; phi = .11, p = .008); doctors' advice and iron (chi-square = 35.00, p < .001; phi = .25, p = .001).


These results suggest a lack of understanding regarding supplements and health maintenance, except for vitamin C and echinacea. Furthermore, supplement use is apparently independent of physicians/dieticians' advice, except for iron. This may suggest a widespread circumvention of expert advice in the growing area of supplement use and therefore should be addressed to underscore potential health risks.

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