Young athletes, eager to be a starting player or earn a scholarship, may be tempted to follow the lead of pros and use performance enhancers to gain a competitive edge.

Dale Brigham, University of Missouri nutrition and fitness specialist, said high school and college athletes are better off focusing on their diet and training, rather than relying on performance-enhancing supplements.

“Eating food is healthier in the long run than taking pills and powders,” Brigham said. “I always emphasize that a healthy diet, a good training plan, rest and a good attitude are the best bets for getting to where you want to go in terms of your athletic and sports and personal fitness goals.”

News reports about the role of performance-enhancing substances in professional athletes have focused on steroids and other illegal substances banned by most sports.

But, Brigham said, there are many legal performance enhancers, and parents and coaches should be concerned. Sold as sports nutrition supplements, these substances are readily available in stores and online, and, though they are legal, they may be harmful. At the very least, Brigham said, they may not help.

Many of these over-the-counter products contain megadoses of essential nutrients. “Just taking more of an essential vitamin or mineral will not improve the performance or the fitness level of an athlete or someone who is exercising,” Brigham said. “That's been established by decades of research.”

Colleague Stephen Ball, an MU Extension nutrition and fitness specialist, said claims about sports nutrition products generally lack scientific backing.

“Dietary supplements don't go through the same quality control that food products do,” Ball said. “That's why you'll see these outlandish claims. They don't really have to prove it.”

One exception is creatine, a naturally occurring compound found in the muscles. Research has shown that creatine supplements will increase body weight, strength and muscle mass, Ball said. And while the substance does not appear to cause adverse health risks, he said, athletes should not consider it to be safe.

Creatine has a number of side effects, including nausea, diarrhea, cramping and dehydrationa serious concern for athletes, Ball said. It can also have adverse effects on people with kidney problems.

Another concern for parents and coaches is the link between legal and illegal substances. Studies have found that users of legal substances are more likely to take illegal performance drugs, such as anabolic steroids. Researchers call it the “gateway theory.”

“They start to think this is a magic pill: ‘I'm seeing all these gains; let's do something more because I really want to get better,’” Ball said.

That attitude often is reinforced by professional sports.

“The message from watching the baseball scandals and these other sports is if you take these things, your performance is going to go up,” Ball said. “A lot of young athletes have the mentality that ‘I'll do whatever it takes,’ and if that means ‘I need to take something that's illegal,’ they're very willing to do it.”

Brigham said athletes who take anabolic steroids to build muscles can suffer long-term detrimental effects. “They're something our bodies are not used to in large quantities. The risks include an increased risk of heart disease, liver and other organ failure and outward appearance problems, such as hair loss and acne.”

Recent large-scale studies of high school students have found the highest use level is about 3 percent for males involved in sports where strength and power are premium, Brigham said.

To put that figure into perspective, Brigham said that in a high school with 500 male students, up to 15 athletes might be taking anabolic steroids. “That prevalence would result in a significant chance that any high school would have at least one person taking anabolic steroids,” Brigham said.

On the positive side, the same study found that “most of the kids, close to 90 percent, have a very negative feeling toward people taking anabolic steroids or other illegal performance-enhancing substances,” he said. “If we keep on reinforcing the fact that it's unhealthy, it's unethical and it's illegal to take these substances, I think we'll keep them on the right track throughout their young lives.”