Study assesses amateur and elite athlete supplement choices

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | yacobchuk
Getty | yacobchuk

Related tags athletes Sports nutrition

New research suggests amateur athletes are more likely to source information about supplements from less credible sources, compared to elite athletes, due to a lack of access to professionals, suggesting a need for improved education intervention.

Care must be taken when athletes use food supplements (FSs), especially among those who fall within the doping testing pool (those who compete in sports at the national and international level) as intake may lead to unintentional doping.  

The present analysis investigated the use of both FSs and botanical food supplements (BFSs) by amateur and elite athletes in Ireland. The authors chose to highlight BFSs separately because their use has been less well studied and studies that have been carried out have tended to group all these supplements together under the “botanicals” or “herbals” title.

The purpose was to highlight differences in the perception of risks associated with the use of BFSs between amateur athletes and elite athletes.

The authors note that BFSs are often marketed as being “natural/from natural sources”, terms which have been found to be important to consumers, but there is no set definition for what constitutes as ‘naturalness’.

"There may be a belief among consumers of BFSs that these products are better, even though their nutrition and health claims have not been scientifically evaluated as accurate," the authors notes.

"The risk of adverse effects such as being misled, unintentional doping, and potential adverse side effects among the athletic population should be considered by BFS users, as BFS products and their associated nutrition and health claims are not substantiated under EU/UK law, yet they are still permitted for sale on the market."

Their study therefore aimed to quantify and characterize FS and BFS intake among elite and amateur athletes living on the island of Ireland and examine the sources of information and consultation practices employed by these athletes. 

The data reveals that protein, Vitamin D, and Vitamin C are the most popular FSs, while Turmeric, Curcumin, Ashwagandha, and Beetroot extract are the most popular BFSs. It also reveals that amateur athletes are more likely to source information from less credible sources in comparison to their elite counterparts, which the authors note may have potential adverse implications for amateur athletes, such as Gaelic games players, who are included within the doping testing pool in Ireland.

They conclude that nutrition‐based education interventions would be beneficial for athletes as well as practitioners to ensure that competitive athletes are getting the maximum benefits from their nutritional program, with minimised risk of doping violations and other adverse effects.

Data collection and analysis

An online survey was used to collect data from elite and amateur athletes living on the island of Ireland between December 2021 and May 2022

The scope of the survey questions asked included demographics, athletes’ knowledge of BFSs, current BFS intake, reasons for using BFSs, as well as other attitudes and perception questions about BFS use, including perception of risks.

A total of 217 complete survey responses (55 elite and 162 amateur) were recorded, with a relatively even split of males and females.

Protein and vitamins D and C were the most popular FSs among both elite and amateur athletes. Overall, BFS use was reported by 16% of the cohort (n = 32 amateur, n = 2 elite).

The most popular types of BFS reported by amateur athletes were Turmeric/Curcumin, Ashwagandha, and Beetroot extract, Rhodiola rosea and CBD.

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When asked about where athletes would source information about BFSs from, high proportions of both elite and amateur athletes reported “dietitian/nutritionist” as a top source (75% elite, 69% amateur), followed by “fellow athletes” (44% elite, 51% ama‐ teur), and “internet sources” (38% elite, 43% amateur). Findings suggest that amateur ath‐ letes are more likely to source information from their “coach” (40%), a “friend” (14%), or “family member” (12%) in contrast to their elite counterparts, at 26%, 7%, and 7%, respectively.

When asked about any risk concerns, the most frequently reported risk among elite athletes was “may cause a positive doping test” (69%). The top reported risk concern among amateur athletes was “adverse reactions due to interaction with other medication/supplements” (47%).

A similar proportion of elite (18%) and amateur (17%) athletes reported that they “did not believe there are any risks associated with the use of BFS”.

The results of this study suggest that intake of FSs among elite and amateur athletes living on the island of Ireland is common, with almost three‐quarters (74%) of amateur athletes and one‐quarter (26%) of elite athletes reporting use. However, BFS intake was reported in detail by amateur athletes only with overall intake being relatively low (16% of cohort currently using BFSs).

Discussing any concerns raised by the findings, the authors note: "Results suggest that amateur athletes more frequently reported that they would source information from their coach, a fellow athlete, or a friend or family member. This may be explained by the types of sports played by the cohort of amateur athletes, as a high proportion played Gaelic games (football, camogie, hurling), where access to professional nutrition advice at the amateur level is uncommon."

They add: "Given that a substantial proportion of elite and amateur athletes were sourcing information from the internet about BFSs, and indeed an even higher number of amateur athletes were sourcing information from fellow athletes, friends, or family, an education intervention may be a beneficial way of improving BFS knowledge among amateur athletes in particular and preventing BFS mis‐ use, adverse side effects, and potential doping violations"

Source: Nutrients (registering DOI)

Athletes Perceived Level of Risk Associated with Botanical Food Supplement Use and Their Sources of Information

McDaid, B.; Wardenaar, F.C.; Woodside, J.V.; Neville, C.E.; Tobin, D.; Madigan, S.; Nugent, A.P. 

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