On Exercise, Dietary Supplements and Doping

When I'm walking down the street, people often stop and ask me (not really): Do you take supplements?

All athletes, whether world class or TOJs, are always alert for anything that makes them stronger and faster, or enhances endurance, or speeds recovery. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, there are the notorious, professional athletes who used illegal substances to enhance performance, like Mark McGuire (baseball), Marion Jones (track), or Floyd Landis (biking).

But the truth is most of us are separated from them by a thinner line than we like to admit. We all have our manias, whether running a 10K in a certain time or living to be 100 years old. In North America, we spend $16.4 billion a year on vitamin/dietary supplements, which is amazing given so little is actually known about them regarding their effectiveness and long term effects.

Consider these questions about supplements that have incomplete answers:

  • Do supplements actually do what the companies marketing them claim they will do?

    Fact: Few supplements have been subject to the rigorous double-blind studies to which medicines are tested to make these determinations. Because most supplements are derived from bountiful, natural sources, they are not patentable, therefore not attractive as investments to Big Pharma.
  • If so, have the correct dosages of these supplements been determined based on weight, age, health and other factors?

    Fact: No, for the reason above, though they are marketed by health food stores or multi-level schemes whose marketing materials clearly imply they have medicinal or health-enhancing properties. They are able to do this because the supplement industry, using the political machinery in Washington (e.g., Orin Hatch, who represents Utah, home to large supplement manufacturers) to protect it, have managed to fight to keep supplements classified as foods rather than medicines and avoid FDA regulation.
  • Do the supplements you buy contain the actual ingredients listed on the labels of the bottle?

    Fact: http://www.consumerlab.com/, which provides actual laboratory analyses of vitamin and other widely marketed supplements for a minimal fee (note, however, for a limited number of brands) says it finds about one in four products do not contain what is claimed. More alarming, many of the ingredients are made in China (the prosecution rests).

The key unresolved question is if the chemical compounds in these supplements, assuming they can be helpful, are not best acquired by eating good food. However, the supplement industry, not completely without justification, claims that due to soils being over-worked and depleted by industrial agriculture through overuse of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, long refrigeration, etc., healthful levels of these vitamins and minerals are missing. Hence we need to pop pills.

In December 2008, I blogged about the challenges facing a TOJ trying to figure out what's best to eat/swallow. I recommended people interested in the topic of supplements to read Dan Hurley's Natural Causes: Death, Lies, and Politics in America's Vitamin and Herbal Supplement Industry. In the interest of self-disclosure, this TOJ is hostile towards the diet supplement segment of the industry because my family suffered a tragic loss from the unregulated use of ephedra.

All this said, athletes place unique stresses on their bones, lungs, hearts, muscles and immune systems. Some supplements do show promise to ameliorate the inflammation that follows hard workouts, and help the body to resume anabolic processes (cell building) and resist opportunistic viruses like colds and flu.

So, in answer to the question: Does this TOJ take supplements? Yes, a few. More later on which ones and why. I take them based on a formula of 20% faith and 20% science, mixed with a 60% dose of healthy skepticism.


Robert Campbell said...

Recommended reading "Bad Science" by Ben Goldacre will definately give you the backing to your arguments against the health food junkies.

tuffoldjock said...

Robert, thanks for the book tip. While not a junkie, I think there's good science to support lots of fruit, veggies, and lean protein. Supplements? The jury is still out.