Busted

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Football player Rob Ninkovich announced today that the league has suspended him for four games for taking a banned substance. Ninkovich explained, “Few things are more important to me than my name and reputation. This might call that into question for some, which has me heartbroken. I don’t want to cut any corners. I want to do things the right way, with high integrity, and that’s what I have always wanted to stand for.”

He continued, “Any supplement I’ve ever used was bought at a store. I was unaware something I bought had a substance in it that would give me a positive test because it wasn’t listed [as an ingredient]. One thing I have learned is that if a supplement is not NSF certified there are no regulations that ensure that what is on the label is 100 percent accurate. That is a hard lesson for me to learn at this stage in my career, but I take responsibility for it. It’s a mistake I made and it hurts that I won’t be there for my teammates.”

Patients frequently ask me about supplements, particularly protein powders. Pop culture nutrition is fickle. Not too long ago, we emphasized carbohydrates and feared dietary fat. Today, we are scared of carbohydrates and worship protein. As such, people who are already getting more than enough protein often feel they need even more and turn to a protein supplement.

Protein powders, like other supplements, are largely unregulated. Generally speaking, we have no idea if the contents match the listed ingredients or if the quantities reported on a bottle’s nutrition label are accurate. Back in 2008, I read a study (which I unfortunately cannot find right now) that analyzed actual protein content in various powders and found that most did not contain nearly as much protein as advertised.

Furthermore, as odd as it may initially sound, realize that manufacturers have incentive to add secret ingredients. Competition is fierce; a quick search of GNC.com yielded 512 different protein supplements. Consumers often make their selections based upon the perceived results or testimonials of others. If you are a supplement manufacturer and you want your product to stand out among the rest, to be the one that is perceived as yielding the best results, the one that gets talked about and recommended in the locker room, you may decide it is in your best interest to slip in an unlisted ingredient that produces the desired effect.

Whenever an athlete like Ninkovich gets busted and blames his supplements, the common reaction is to assume they are lying and covering for having purposely taken a performance enhancer. That may indeed be true, but we have to remember that what we often see as an excuse is also a completely plausible explanation.

You may or may not get drug tested the way that many professional athletes do, but the uncertainty of supplement contents can still impact you. Might an ingredient, listed or otherwise, interact with one of your medications, make you nauseous, give you a headache, accelerate your heart rate, or damage your liver? You could have no adverse reactions at all, wind up dead, or anywhere in between. That’s the risk.

If you use a supplement or are considering taking one, think about the potential ramifications, and remember that the lesson Ninkovich apparently learned today is actually an important lesson for us all.

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