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Dietitians warn young athletes of supplement dangers

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Chief sports columnist and associate editor with The Age

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Supplements such as those made topical by the dramas at Essendon and Cronulla football clubs are ''inappropriate and unnecessary'' for adolescent athletes, a symposium in Canberra will hear on Thursday.

''The use of supplements in developing athletes overemphasises their ability to manipulate performance in comparison to other training and dietary strategies,'' says a Sports Dietitians Australia position paper. ''Adolescent athletes and their support personnel should be aware of the risk associated with dietary supplementation.''

A 2007 study found that about 1.2 million Americans under 18 were taking supplements to boost sports performance. A precise figure was not available in Australia, said one of the authors of the report, Dr Ben Desbrow, but anecdotally, the market was growing rapidly, and those most susceptible to it were young athletes looking to advance quickly. ''It's a classic marketing ploy: people create a problem and they've got the solution to it,'' Dr Desbrow said. ''It really does lead an athlete down a path of convenience.''

The position paper says that young athletes take ''performance enhancing'' supplements for the sake of rapid improvement, to meet an ideal of physical health or on advertising-driven impulse.

Even some who did not believe that supplements would sharpen performance believed they could help them to develop strength, for instance. ''Essentially, younger populations have the potential for greater performance enhancement through maturation and experience in their sport, along with adherence to proper training, nutrition and rest regimens,'' it says.

The paper also notes that athletes who use supplements ran the risk of inadvertently breaking the WADA drugs code.

Dr Desbrow, a nutritionist, said it disturbed him that foodstuffs and chemical compounds had become interchangeable in the discourse. ''I walk down the aisle marked 'sports nutrition' in the supermarket - and there's no food there,'' he said. The conference runs for two days.

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