Senior Milton Braasch has always been big. He threw kids to the ground during fourth-grade tackle football, almost broke a kid’s nose in third grade with an overthrown dodgeball and at recess, the teams would be “Milton vs. everyone else” – he was bigger, faster, stronger.
Now, facing the Division 1 recruiting process, he’s noticed he’s not the biggest anymore.
He sees other athletes posting Twitter announcements about their D1 commitments. They weigh in at well over 215 pounds. After his junior season, he weighed in at 190.
To compete at the next level, Braasch felt he needed to bulk up.
In his junior year off-season, he completed nine or more circuit workouts every week and devoured upwards of 8,000 calories a day, rather than his normal 4,000. And after researching health pros and cons with his trainer, Braasch added a “mass gainer” shake to his regiment of whey protein and creatine shakes after workouts. The two mass gainer shakes he drank per day – containing 3,200 calories and 150 grams of protein – were intended to stimulate muscle growth, to put on weight and to make sure he was getting the best results out of his workouts. In less than four months, Braasch gained 40 pounds.
Amid the pressures of high school athletics, 39 percent of 187 student-athletes who answered a Harbinger poll* reported having used legal dietary supplements to gain an “edge” – supplements such as protein powders and mass gainers sold at stores like GNC. And while experts continue the debate about supplements’ content, lack of federal regulation and actual benefits, athletes like Braasch feel the potential results are worth it.
According to sports psychologist Dr. Andrew Jacobs, the pressure to perform is causing students to look towards dietary supplements for a competitive edge.
“There’s a fear of not being able to live up to the pressure of competing and feeling like everyone else is [using supplements], so they need to too,” Jacobs said. “There’s an insecurity issue that goes on, a need to find something to get themselves an edge over everybody else.”
For Braasch, supplements have become one more routine that can give him an advantage over his competition – just like his workout schedule or his rigorous recovery regiment of ice baths and muscle stimulator massages.
But Randy Evans, a nutritionist who specializes in youth athletic nutrition at the KU Department of Integrative Medicine, believes that the potential reward is not worth the risk of taking dietary supplements.
“In reality there is little advantage to be gained, especially with a young person,” Evans said. “And a real concern with the supplement industry is that they’re so highly unregulated.”
According to Lyndsay Meyer, the press officer overseeing dietary supplements at the Food and Drug Administration, supplements are not regulated by the FDA before appearing on the market to the level that a pharmaceutical drug would be.
Senior Ben Dollar has been using mass gainer for the past year to put on weight for basketball. Hoping it will help make him stronger and more dominant on defense, Dollar drinks a shake that “basically taste like glue” every day after he works out. Dollar knows the products aren’t always regulated by the FDA, but he feels like he’s done his research and isn’t worried about health concerns.
Dollar’s gained almost 20 pounds in the past year. He said he’ll continue to use the mass gainer which he believes is a key part of his recent weight gain.
But Evans believes bodybuilding supplements like mass gainers are not responsible for these kinds of results, and may be counterproductive to building muscle. According to Evans, many youth athletes have a misconception that higher protein intake will result in increased muscle formation.
Evans said that most commercial proteins contain processed “crap,” that can cause inflammation and fluid retention, giving a false impression of muscle growth.
“A lot of the protein supplements that are on the market are so over-processed that the protein becomes unusable and the body spends all of its time trying to wash them out,” Evans said.
Meyer said that despite the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act, which requires manufacturers to file a claim with the FDA for all new supplements on the market, whether some companies are actually following the act is in question.
“The problem is that we believe most companies do not do this when they are supposed to be doing this,” Meyer said. “We believe that there are thousands of new dietary ingredients and supplements that are on the market that have not gone through the only pre-market review opportunity that the agency has.”
According to Meyer, the FDA finds products on a weekly basis that claim to be dietary supplements, but actually contain unapproved and hidden drugs. Meyer said that the FDA is constantly investigating claims from consumers about potentially harmful or mislabeled supplements, but due to lack of resources, there are still challenges in regulating the market according to Meyer.
“The truth of the matter is we’re talking about a $40 billion a year industry, and the team at the FDA that’s responsible for overseeing dietary supplements is about 2 dozen people with a $5 million budget.”
Gabe Wilson, a Ph.D. in nutritional science and head of research and development at a bodybuilding supplement manufacturer called Maximum Human Performance, urges consumers to purchase supplements through reputable wellness stores like GNC.
“We work with the top companies in the business including GNC, Vitamin Shoppe and bodybuilding.com,” Wilson said. “These companies require us to submit full documentation of all our products and ingredients in regards to their regulatory status.”
Wilson said these kinds of stores have internal policies that require more in-depth verification and safety guarantees than those required by the FDA, which according to Wilson can protect those taking the supplements from potentially harmful ingredients.
On top of health concerns, dietary supplements may pose a risk for NCAA athletes’ eligibility, athletic director Debbie Katzfey said.
The NCAA does not ban the use of supplements, but on their website under the list of banned substances they issue a warning about possible contamination from the use of dietary supplements.
Katzfey encourages athletes to talk to their coaches before using supplements, and believes it is an athlete’s responsibility to research health risks and NCAA eligibility rules – a similar stance to the one taken by the US Anti-Doping Agency.
“We continue to urge athletes to be cautious of what they put in their body to ensure they don’t consume any prohibited substances that may have been placed – intentionally or inadvertently – in a supplement,” said Brad Horn, communications & media relations director for the US Anti-Doping Agency. “The reality is that using any dietary supplement is not only a risk to an athlete’s eligibility but health as well.”
Braasch has never been worried about taking supplements. He’s always checked with his trainers and his mom, a certified personal trainer, before taking a supplement. After meeting with a set of trainers from 20/20 Fitness this past offseason, Braasch is now moving towards only “clean” plant based protein that limits ingredients to the bare essentials.
Evans thinks that these kind of clean alternatives that limit preservatives and unregulated chemicals can be a good tool for young athletes.
“Not all supplements are bad, but the goal is to find clean ones,” Evans said. “We don’t want any of that muscle builder crap.”
Evans still believes supplements like “clean” protein bars and shakes can be a good way to help balance a high school athlete’s diet during a busy day – he keeps a tub of ProMix protein and bars in his house for him and his son.
But he still believes that eating a healthy, protein-heavy diet is a better way to ensure safe growth.
“The body usually does a pretty good job on it’s own,” Evans said. “If you’re getting essential fats and essential amino acids in your meals and you’re eating pretty good, you shouldn’t need [supplements].”