Trend of supplements in young athletes worrisome: Experts

- June 6, 2023

Athletes, including members of the Indian team to recent Asian Youth Athletics, skipped natural food and relied on supplements which could impact their metabolism

SHORTCUT: Members of the Indian team to Asian Youth Athletics in Tashkent, who won medals, have been relying largely on supplements, interviews by Patriot have revealed

Delhi’s former international sprinter Dinesh Rawat has been sharing his vast running experience with young athletes for over a decade. During his leisure hours, he is often seen guiding youngsters either at the iconic Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium or at the Central Secretariat grounds near Chanakyapuri.

Rawat also makes it a point after training sessions to tell teenage athletes to avoid food supplements and trust natural food to recover from hard training sessions.

“Having food supplements at a young age might not be good but the graph of those taking supplements is spiralling each day,” Rawat explains.

“As a coach or a teacher to young athletes, I have to guide them to the right track.”

During his competitive days in early 2000s, Rawat says he never knew anything about food supplements.

“In our time, we depended primarily on normal food and seasonal fruits as the source of energy after training,” Rawat added.

“But now, instead of a normal diet, teenage athletes are relying on food supplements as their main source of energy. The unhealthy trend is worrisome.”

What is the reason behind young athletes taking food supplements instead of natural food?

Busy schedule and quick recovery are the two main reasons behind budding athletes taking supplements, says Rakesh, an athletics coach based in Delhi.

Rakesh oversees a group of 20 athletes in the age group of 17 to 22 years. Some of them have also won medals at the national level.

“Some athletes juggle their part-time jobs with practice. Since they are staying on their own in Delhi and have less time at hand to cook meals, they prefer having food supplements to recover from hard work,” Rakesh explained.

Rakesh said he doesn’t recommend supplements to athletes who are below 18.

“Some athletes avoid while others take it discreetly. Sometimes it is challenging for a coach to check and cross-check at regular intervals,” Rakesh added.

The athletes are spending anything between Rs 3,000 to Rs 7,000 per month on food supplements.

Some athletes are spending even more money, says a college-going national level athlete.

“It is alarming how much money young athletes are spending on supplements,” the national level athlete added.

How the athletes start. It’s all hearsay.

“If one athlete is taking food supplements, the other is also curious to know and wants to consume irrespective of the benefit, if any,” Rawat said.

“Moreover, all the supplements are easily available in the market and over the counter. Athletes can also purchase online.”

The scenario has changed these days. Several food supplement outlets can be witnessed at every nook and corner of the Capital.

“Most of the stuff is also available online,” said Rawat. 

Ashok Ahuja, former head of the sports medicine centre at the National Institute of Sports in Patiala (Punjab) strongly believes that young adult athletes don’t need food supplements in the first place as it impacts the metabolism of an individual.

“Teenagers don’t require food supplements at all. They should focus on having natural food, including fruits,” explained the sports medicine expert.

“In case there is a need, parents and coaches should take the advice of a medical expert.”

According to the sports medicine expert, it is advisable not to take supplements at all without proper knowledge. “Each sport has different requirement of carbohydrates and protein to recover from hard workouts,” Ahuja explained. “Each individual has a different requirement.”

While interacting with 38 members of the national youth (U-18) athletics team that recently won 24 medals in the fifth Asian Youth Athletics that ended on Sunday (April 30) in Tashkent, it came to light that all the athletes use food supplements. Their acknowledgement of using supplements is with Patriot.

Kalyan Chaudhari, the national deputy athletics coach, says supplements are not required at all.

“Athletes in the camps are getting balanced food. But some athletes who practice outside the camps do take supplements.”

The senior athletics coach says that athletes are advised to avoid supplements and take a balanced diet instead.

“Some athletes are dependent too much on supplements and it weighs on their mind when they don’t take,” the Chaudhari added.

The promising athletes are taking supplements on the advice of some coaches or senior athletes.

However, they aren’t aware whether the supplements are from a good company or not.

“My coach gives me [supplements]. Since there is no label on the packet, I can’t reveal which supplements I take,” said one of the Indian team members.

Om Prakash Singh Karhana, India’s retired international shotputter from Haryana, exhorted youngsters to eat normal food to replenish energy and avoid supplements.

“Food supplements are harmful for young athletes because they are not good for the digestive system. There could be benefits of taking supplements but they are temporary,” the Olympian added.

“Seasonal fruits are more beneficial and should be part of the daily diet,” the Olympian said. 

“I firmly say supplements shouldn’t be part of the diet plan.”

Karhana says consuming food supplements has become an unhealthy trend for budding athletes.

He said, “I will never recommend food supplements to youngsters. Supplements should be taken only after the age of 22 or even later.”

The Haryana shot-putter, who is based in Sohan near Gurgaon, believes that young athletes sometimes become victims of contaminated supplements. The only way to prolong a career in athletics and sustain good performances at the national and

international levels, the Olympian added, is to avoid the temptation of taking artificial food substances.

“You should have belief in your strengths as there are no short-cuts to success. Slow and steady performances are far better than sudden, meteoric rise,” he said.

HANDLE WITH CARE: Experts are of the opinion that supplements should be taken only after the age of 22 or even later

During the three-day 18th National Inter-District Junior Athletics Meet (NIDJAM) in Patna in February, the Athletics Federation of India (AFI) conducted a seminar for awareness on doping, food supplements, overage problem among other matters.

“All the stakeholders, including athletes, parents and coaches attended the education seminar on all three days of the competition in Patna,” Adille Sumariwalla, president of the AFI said.

“AFI distributed booklets to all stakeholders to apprise them of the 2023 World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines on prohibited list of substances [which often find their way through food supplements].”