The industry is completely unregulated
Sports and exercise physician, Dr Krishant Naidu has had patients ask him for everything from caffeine to human growth hormone and anabolic steroids as they strive to get bigger.
You may think over-the-counter supplements are far less dangerous than anabolic steroids, but Dr Naidu says the real problem is the total lack of industry regulation. To put it simply, the powder you mix for a pre-workout boost or an after-workout bulk-up isn’t necessarily what it says it is.
“Unlike pharmaceuticals, there’s no requirement for manufacturers to prove the safety of the supplements they sell,” he says. “Or even guarantee what’s in them.”
The great supplement heist
International manufacturers can have components mixed together in some chemical factory offshore and then send this to another factory for branding as an appealing wild-berry-flavoured workout product. And if you order these online they won’t go through any testing in Australia before you consume them.
On the other hand, supplements made in Australia are subject to “batch-testing” which means the risk of contamination is low and they’re likely to contain what they claim – making Australian products much safer to use, says Dr Naidu.
So if you are keen on taking some kind of supplement, either pre- or post-workout, at the very least go Australian made.
Even ones that work may cause health problems
Creatine is marketed to improve performance and there’s some evidence supporting its effectiveness. Although Dr Naidu stresses the research looking at creatine is limited.
And its use can cause serious kidney damage even in people with healthy kidneys – especially if you’re dehydrated.
Supplements containing protein and carbohydrate are commonly marketed to gym-goers to increase their energy and improve recovery.
Dr Naidu says there’s good quality evidence that taking carbohydrates and protein together, in the first 30 minutes after a workout, will provide the best conditions for muscle gain.
But, he says, there isn’t any compelling evidence that carbohydrates and protein from supplements are any more effective than from a good diet.
Still other supplements that claim to help “shredding” often contain stimulants not listed in the ingredients to aid weight loss, says Dr Naidu. And these are usually derivatives of the drug ephedrine that can place the heart under considerable stress – even if they do work to drive weight loss and improve muscle definition.
A dangerous addiction
Former gym devotee, Mina, 35, who doesn’t want his surname published, knows first hand the risks of using supplements.
His fitness motivation morphed from being healthy and fit to being driven by image, one where bigger was better.
Mina was using so many stimulant-based supplements that he needed ever-increasing doses for the same effect. He recalls regularly having to pull over on the way to the gym after taking pre-workout “supps” because he had tremors and heart palpitations.
“The older formulations were incredibly dangerous,” he says.
Focus on the real issues
Mina’s use of supplements and other aids was also a money pit. At his peak, he says he was spending more than $600 a fortnight – not including gym memberships.
He’s now completely off it all and says “not a single minute” was worth it.
Dr Naidu’s message to anyone considering adding in supplements as a boost to reach their end goal is simple: focus on your health, not your looks.