A first-hand account on sports supplements

Although the image I see in the mirror every day makes it harder and harder to believe, I once was a high school running back. I may not have been a very good running back, but I was a running back nonetheless.

As is the case with most running backs not named Bettis, Dayne or Lane, keeping fit was paramount for me. I’d work out in some form or fashion every day (which I later discovered to be counterproductive) and was an absolute fanatic about what I ate. Ask my poor mother, who had to endure my high-maintenance diet night after night.

“Hey, Craigo, what do you want for dinner tonight? Lasagna? Pork chops?” she’d ask me.

“Anything without fat in it, Ma. I don’t want any of the Devil’s food (my affectionate term for high-fat items).”

Most nights we’d eat grilled chicken salad. But I had extreme periods where I only ate fat-free deli meats and cheese slices. Obviously, like the daily workouts, this was actually worse for my health, but I didn’t see it like that.

I was going to be the best high school running back I could possibly be. Keeping fat and calories out of my body, I thought, was essential to that goal.

Along came supplements
My obsession with fitness eventually led to me looking for some external boosts as well. To my credit, I never tried steroids because I knew about their dangerous consequences. BUT I did try everything I could buy over the counter without knowing a thing about their consequences: protein shakes, amino acid pills, creatine, androstene, fat burners and all sorts of different combinations of them together. I even took pseudophedrine every morning because I heard it increased your metabolism.

By grace alone, I survived all of my supplement experiments without incurring any long-term health damage – at least, that I’m aware of. But the more I learn about supplements as a medical writer, the more amazed I am that I didn’t turn out worse for taking them.

Androstene, which Mark McGwire made famous during his “magical” 1998 home run barrage, was taken off the market in 2004 in the U.S. because it was found to potentially have some of the same side effects as anabolic steroids: testicular cancer, infertility, stroke and an increased risk of heart disease. Several of my teammates and I took it because we wanted to get stronger.

The fat burners, which I took daily, have even led to deaths. As for the creatine and protein shakes, they aren’t nearly as harmful, although both in excess can lead to kidney issues.

Older and wiser (or, at least, better informed)
I don’t obsess about exercise and diet today nearly as much as I did in high school. In fact, I have thought about them so little the past few years that I’m having to re-discipline myself to get in healthy BMI territory. It’s hard. My wife can attest, because she’s now enduring my same narrow diet demands that my mother dealt with when I was a teenager.

I have entertained the idea of using some of the same supplements I used to take, but those ideas don’t last long. I always come back to one main thought: “It isn’t worth the risk.”

Dr. Shane Miller, a pediatric sports medicine specialist at Children’s, agrees, especially in the case of young athletes. Supplements don’t require FDA approval, and no studies have been performed to see their effects on childrens’ bodies.

Moreover, he adds, they really haven’t been proven to increase athletic performance at all. I can personally verify this since all of my supplement ingestion resulted in a whopping ZERO scholarship offers.

“If young athletes are eating healthy and working out, they don’t need supplements,” Dr. Miller says. “The body makes most of the things in supplements on its own, and we also get them from foods in our diet.”

So, if your young athlete insists that he has to have supplements to be a good football player, tell him that he can get all the strength-building nutrients he needs from a balanced diet. Better yet, if he’s anything like I was, tell him to enjoy an occasional hamburger.

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