Elite adolescent athletes’ use of dietary supplements: Characteristics, opinions, and sources of supply and information

Journal Title (Medline/Pubmed accepted abbreviation):Int. J. Sport Nutr. Exerc. Metab.
Year: 2012
Volume: 22
Page Numbers : 165-174

Summary of Background and Research Design

Background: Dietary supplement usage among elite, adolescent athletes is widespread, with many athletes using more than one dietary supplement regularly. Interactions between supplements and contaminants in supplements could potentially be dangerous.

Study goal: To gauge the usage habits, attitudes, and opinions of elite adolescent athletes about dietary supplements and to characterize the athletes based on the type of supplements used and the sport they play.

Subjects: 1,138 German elite adolescent athletes from all Olympic sports (winter and summer) born between 1992-1995, males (56%) and females

Experimental design: cross-sectional

Treatments: N/A (no intervention)

Protocol: Supplements were divided into 3 classes:
1) “Short-term supplemental function”: dextrose (sugar) and energy drinks
2) “Long-term supplemental function”: vitamins and minerals including vitamin C and zinc, complex carbohydrates
3) “Medium-term muscle building function”: protein and creatine.
The authors assessed common dietary supplement usage, which groups the supplements came from, and which sports the athletes played.  They also assessed the reasons that the athletes took the supplements and their attitudes about them, for example, to avoid sickness or because it is necessary for high performance.  Lastly, they assessed where the athletes get supplement information and where they acquire the supplements themselves.

Summary of Research Findings
  • In total, 91.1% of athletes surveyed consumed supplements at least monthly.
  • Of the athletes that responded, 26.8% of them used supplements daily.
  • Males (83.4%) used supplements more frequently than females (71.4%).
  • Endurance athletes, athletes involved in power sports, and athletes involved in week-long activities were the most frequent users of supplements.  The greatest percentage of athletes that didn’t use any supplements was in the aesthetic sports category (ex. gymnastics).
  • Some athletes were required by their sporting association to take supplements (sports not stated), so these athletes had a greater instance of usage, accordingly.
  • Supplements that were consumed most often in the “long-term supplemental function” category.
  • The top five supplements used at least once per month were: magnesium, dextrose, energy drinks, vitamin C, and calcium.
  • Athletes got most of their information on supplements from coaches (36.5%), family (29.7%), physicians (29.3%), and nutritionists (13.9%).  There were 15.6% that reported getting information from the media.
  • The majority of the athletes got their supplements from parents (51.2%), coaches (20.3%), general practitioners (16.4%), or purchased them themselves (35.6%).
  • Frequent supplement users tended to agree that “without supplements I am sick more often”, “regular intake of supplements is not harmful to my health”, and “to improve performance I need supplements”.

Key practice applications

It was known that teenage athletes use supplements, and this large, overarching study confirmed these beliefs.  It is important the teenage athletes are educated about supplements, specifically their recommended usages and doses.  It is also crucial that athletes understand that supplements are not a substitute for healthy practices such as a complete, healthy diet and adequate rest.  Because there is no go-to source of supplement education at this time, it is important for coaches, parents, trainers, and the athletes themselves to take responsibility to assure that objective educational materials are readily available to athletes and their peers.


The definitions of dietary supplements are not universally clear.  For example, “herbal supplements” or “protein” may not be considered dietary supplements by some people.

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