Expert cautions soldiers on use of nutritional supplements
Some products may cause side effects
VICENZA, Italy — Before you pop that pill, mix that shake or rub on that gel, do some research.
That was essentially the message that Mike Perko, an expert on nutritional supplements, delivered Tuesday and Wednesday at Caserma Ederle.
"My tale is one of caution," he said before addressing a few dozen soldiers in the post theater. Perko is a professor at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
"I’m not going to tell you not to use them. Because they work," he said.
"But if you’re going to be buying them on the open market, be careful. Because you don’t know what’s in them."
That’s because the supplement industry — which generated $22 billion in profits in 2005 — is largely unregulated, Perko said. The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for monitoring the food chain that feeds most Americans, was directed to stay away in a 1994 law called the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act, he said.
So that product that seems to be helping you gain more muscle might also cause you to flunk your next urinalysis test. Or it might pose a serious health risk. Or cause side effects.
Perko, the first speaker in a series this fall in Vicenza sponsored by the Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, said he agrees with the assertion that servicemembers are akin to professional athletes.
And supplements are used widely in all professional sports.
His slideshow featured a series of triumphs and tragedies endured by those who used — and sometimes abused — supplements or drugs.
He said it’s important that servicemembers report bad experiences with particular supplements to a doctor.
And not only for their own health.
"We’re not trying to catch anybody," he said.
"We’re trying to weed out those products that are crap."
He estimated there are 30,000 supplement products currently on the market and no one can keep track of all of them.
And while the FDA requires prescription drug makers to conduct an array of clinical tests on their products, no one does so for those making supplements.
Perko said while some companies might be reliable and test products in good faith, others don’t.
"There have been hundreds of companies who have come and gone in the last 20 years," he said.
Many didn’t last because their products either didn’t work or were found to be harmful.
He said anyone looking to take supplements should consult with a nutritionist or doctor. Or better yet, just eat food that’s good for you.
"My advice is you don’t need [supplements]," he said. "But that’s not the Army’s advice."
Soldiers have been taking supplements since the dawn of time, Perko said. Ancient warriors ate specific animal parts in an attempt to boost their prowess. Roman gladiators downed mixtures to keep them fighting in the arena.
Soldiers since World War I have taken stimulants to keep them awake.
In a slide show, he presented information from an Army study that indicated 58 percent of male soldiers and 71 percent of female soldiers said they are taking nutritional or dietary supplements. Asked where they received information on the supplements they were taking, 90 percent listed friends, magazines or the Internet.
"Doctors don’t even register on there," he said, pointing to the chart. "Because it was a minimal number."
Perko suggested that those looking for specific information on specific supplements, check out consumerlab.com or medwatch.com.