Athletes should tread carefully on food supplements to avoid doping

Kenya’s food supplement industry lacks the necessary regulatory framework for it to be declared innocuous. Couple this with the fact the supplements find themselves into chemists, supermarket shelves and training camps under catchy brand names and you have a recipe for disaster in as far as doping is concerned.

Athletes, especially those not well informed and sometimes on being misled, can easily test positive for performance-enhancing substances upon consuming these products.

The guidelines on the registration of food or dietary supplements and borderline products in Kenya-which were developed in 2012 by the Pharmacy and Poisons Board-define food, dietary or nutritional supplements as products other than tobacco intended to complement the diet. They do not provide any safeguards against contents or usage of these supplements.

The guidelines only cater for labeling as long as the supplement has no medical claims on it. In comparison, manufacturers and distributors of dietary supplements and dietary ingredients in the United States of America are prohibited from marketing products that are adulterated or misbranded.

Supplements to enhance exercise and athletic performance come in a variety of forms, including tablets, capsules, liquids, powders and bars. Many of these products contain numerous ingredients in varied combinations and amounts, most of which are listed as prohibited substances by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

A study conducted in 2017; The Association between Performance and Injury with Dietary Intake and Nutritional Status, among 282 athletes in a training camp in Iten revealed that runners experienced injuries due to inadequate dietary intake of some essential nutrients such as calcium and iron. This could provide a pointer to the reason why supplements are alluring to athletes since they are seen as a quick fix.

The Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK), just like other leading anti-doping organizations the world over, remind athletes that there are no guarantees that any supplement is free from banned substances. They also reiterate that athletes must be fully aware of the risks to their career if they chose to use them.

In other words, the athlete is at liberty to choose whether or not to consume these products on the basis of their understanding of the ‘Principle of Strict Liability’. It states that each athlete is strictly liable for the substances found in his or her body. It is applied in situations where urine or blood samples collected from an athlete have produced adverse analytical results and is not pegged on whether or not the athlete intentionally or unintentionally used a prohibited substance or was negligent or otherwise at fault.

The challenges of doping in sport and the growing use of nutritional supplements by athletes are interconnected to the extent that a large number of supplements contain substances that are banned in sport. This is mainly compounded by the fact most of these supplements do not list their ingredients on their packaging thus making them dangerous to an athlete. Years of research have also proven that majority of supplements also contain substances that are associated with substantial health risks.

So in consuming these products, especially without a physician’s advice, athletes not only jeopardize their sporting status but also their health.
In the government Big Four development program onus has been placed on the achievement of universal health coverage in the country.

Several factors within the health sector have been identified as enablers to the achievement of this development agenda. Food security and nutrition together with the focus on preventive healthcare have been identified as some of the enablers to the realization of this pillar.

However, doping is one of the threats to the achievement of the health pillar of this grand development agenda. A report by WADA released in September 2018 described Kenyan doping cases as serious and ranked the country as one of the top-three countries with the highest doping cases in the world. This implies that dopers are prone to various health challenges such as cancers, cardiovascular diseases and other terminal illnesses. It follows that with a substantial doping population the achievement of universal health coverage will be threatened by the high cost of treatment associated with such deadly diseases.

Scientifically, productivity among a sick population is greatly affected as they cannot optimally contribute to the socio-economic development of a country. In addition, dopers are affected socially and economically, and these two aspects also affect the contribution to good health.

While it is important to acknowledge that supplement use in sports does not necessarily mean an intention to dope, it is also vital to appreciate that unscrupulous traders will go to any length just to make an extra shilling. Athletes must, therefore, be very cautious when tempted to tinker with some of these products, especially in cases where their contents cannot be verified.

Given the negative publicity that is initiated and systematically sustained against the country’s athletes on the eve of a major world championship event, Kenyan sportspeople are safer avoiding supplement use just in case they are used as a basis for insinuating their propensity to dope.

Simon Mwangi
Educator, Anti-Doping Agency of Kenya (ADAK)

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