The Risk of Supplements

As an athlete in today’s busy world, it can sometimes be hard to balance a healthy diet alongside a tough training and competition schedule, making time for friends, family and, in many cases, a full time job or study. Whatever your association is with sport, incorporating the principles of sports nutrition to maximise training gains and optimise recovery can often be difficult and time consuming. So, it’s easy to see why supplements could be an attractive choice when they claim to provide total nutrient requirements, help you to recover more quickly, save meal preparation time and, in some cases, even enhance the way you look.

For anyone who plays sport or is a member of a National Governing Body (NGB) that is aligned to the World Anti-Doping Code through the UK Anti-Doping Policy, supplements pose a real and significant risk. Why? Well, in 2012, 44% of athletes banned from sport were linked to the use of supplements. Many claimed that they were not aware the supplement products contained a banned substance, nor had they intended to cheat in any way.

You see, under the anti-doping rules, an athlete at any level – from beginner to elite – is solely responsible for any banned substance that they use, attempt to use, or is found in their system – regardless of whether there was an intention to cheat or not and regardless of how the prohibited substance(s) got there. In anti-doping, there is no sympathy for carelessness.

This leads us to the main challenge with supplements – there is no guarantee that any supplement product is free from banned substances. No matter how well known the brand, or the endorsement, some supplements can pose a real and significant risk to an athlete’s career and their health. Knowing and understanding the risks, such as; contamination, fake products being sold on-line, ingredients listed using a variety of names and that certain supplements contain substances banned in sport is absolutely critical.

If you’re a member of a NGB, UKAD has the authority to test you at any time and at any place, regardless of your sport or the level that you play at. However, as well as your career, supplements also pose a real and significant risk to your health and wellbeing.

This week, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been running a campaign warning consumers about the dangers of buying sports supplements online. In particular, focusing on an ingredient known as 1, 3-dimethylbutylamine, or DMAA, which is now an ‘unlicensed ingredient’, meaning that it is illegal to use it in products that are made or sold in the UK.

DMAA has been highlighted before by the anti-doping community as posing a significant threat to both sport and health. Whilst it is marketed as a way of increasing weight loss and enhancing brain function, the use of DMAA by some individuals has resulted in severe health consequences and even death – DMAA has been directly linked to the death of a runner in the London Marathon. To put this into perspective, the MHRA seized over £500,000 worth of supplement products containing DMAA in 2015 alone.

When it comes to discussing the popularity of sports nutrition products in Britain, the statistics speak for themselves. According to Mintel, consumers spent a whopping £66 million on supplement products in 2015. To put that another way, between April and June 2015, 42% of men aged 16-24 admitted to using a sports supplement in some form or another.

We understand that it can be tough for athletes to avoid supplements. Whether you’re watching TV at home, browsing at the local supermarket or looking for a quick snack after a workout, these days you’re likely to come across a range of vitamins, minerals or protein powders that claim to cater to your every need, whether it’s weight loss, muscle building, meal replacement or performance enhancement. However, before deciding to use a sports supplement, it is vital that athletes are fully aware of all of the relevant factors in order to protect both their health and sporting career.

UKAD’s advice is simple – do everything you can to maximise your nutrition first before turning to supplements. Get your food intake and hydration right, and if you do choose to take supplements, make sure you carry out thorough research first. Remember there are no quick fixes and no short-cuts to success – whether that is a gold medal, better fitness, or ‘the body beautiful’ that you’re after.

So, before you click ‘confirm order’ on the internet, or reach up to grab a tub for your shopping trolley, please pause and take a second to think. Your health and sporting career could be at stake and may be directly affected by the choices that you make.

Here are UKAD’s key messages and top tips for you to consider when making a decision on whether to use a supplement:

Assess the Need:

You should:

  • Remember, ‘food first’ is the right approach. Maximise sports nutrition and hydration techniques first
  • Get advice from a medical professional or SENr registered nutritionist to assess whether you need to use supplement products

Asses the Risks:

  • The risks associated with supplements are; contamination, substances listed differently than how they would appear on the Prohibited List, they contain banned substances and fake products on-line
  • You can find even further information regarding the risk of Supplements via the UKAD website

You should:

  • Undertake thorough internet research to gain a better understanding of a product’s ingredients
  • Only use supplement products that have been batch-tested (screened to check for the presence of banned substances due to contamination) such as those listed on the informed-sport website
  • If you are still not sure, please email us at

Assess the Consequences:

  • Remember if you are bound by the anti-doping rules there is no sympathy for carelessness and no second chances for any serious health consequences you may suffer

You should:

  • Consider whether a four-year ban is worth it
  • Consider the implications before signing on the dotted line of any commercial agreement with a sports supplement company

To find out more about the MHRA’s Fake Meds campaign, visit the MHRA’s Fake Meds website or follow the conversation on Twitter using #FakeMeds


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