Lives in danger as sports supplements muscle in on fitness industry

Some sports supplement chains have been promoting social media fitness challenges via ‘influencers’ who have no expertise or qualifications to provide advice. Thousands of people participate in these marketing-driven challenges by using the unsubstantiated training, diet and supplements programs given to them.

“The one-size-fits-all instructions on the pill bottle labels can’t make up for the lack of individually tailored advice from a qualified dietitian … there could be underlying medical issues,” says CQUniversity academic and risk management expert Dr Betul Sekendiz.

Dr Betul Sekendiz is a lecturer in Exercise and Sport Management, who has herself competed at high-level international and national bodybuilding and figure competitions.

“People who are striving for unattainable muscle mass or rapid weight loss or 1 percent body fat will reach a plateau through natural means and reach out for a bottle of pills or powder, without seeking qualified training and nutrition advice,” she says. “People are trying to imitate these bodybuilding competition looks and adapt it to their lifespan to look like that all the time, which has nothing to do with healthy living. Some people are using tanning pills to make their skin darker by boosting the levels of melanin, but this could trigger skin cancer longer-term. None of those images of bodybuilders you see in magazines – leaving aside photoshopping – can be achieved through natural, healthy means. I avoided taking the sports supplements including performance and appearance enhancing drugs, which probably cost me a few competition wins. After all, my health is more important than a trophy.”

Dr Sekendiz says sports supplements are now one of the fastest-growing industries in the world as people become more health and image conscious. Australia has been leading the way at an annual growth rate of 14 percent between 2009-14, according to the 2014 Complementary Medicines Industry Survey.

“In Australia, sport supplements, including protein powders, are controlled by the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA),” Dr Sekendiz says. “However, unlike medical drugs, they are listed as low risk products and the manufacturers are not required to show proof of their acclaimed benefits other than demonstrating that they are of acceptable quality and do not present significant safety risks.”

In 2011-16 six organ transplants were linked to use of herbal supplements that can also be found in sport supplements, and recently, a 25-year-old female bodybuilder with a genetic disorder died as a result of inappropriate use of protein supplements. Dr Sekendiz says the social media fitness challenges not only create ‘legal liability’ risks. They also put the health and safety of participants at risk.

“People are strongly advised to be very cautious and always seek advice from appropriately qualified professionals, before taking supplements or embarking on any new or extreme fitness challenges,” she says. “The new Nutrition Advice within Scope of Practice for registered fitness professionals (AusReps) states that they should not suggest, advise or prescribe use of sports, medical or general health supplements, or provide specific nutritional advice relating to a medical condition, or develop a special meal plan for their clients. Instead, the appropriate health professional to refer to is an Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) or an Accredited Sports Dietitian (AccSD).”

Dr Sekendiz says the use of sport supplements and foods by athletes involves potential risks such as adverse health events and anti-doping rule violations. In February 2013, the Australian Crime Commission (ACC) released its report into Organised Crime and Drugs in Sport. The report suggested that inappropriate practices in relation to supplementation pose a threat to the integrity of sport and potentially to the safety of individuals.

“While strict policies and frameworks have been developed by the Australian Institute of Sport against inappropriate use of supplements by elite athletes, the recreational fitness industry has not been paid enough attention,” Dr Sekendiz says.