Young bodies should bulk up with food, not creatine

July 14, 1998|By SUSAN REIMER

MY SON'S buddy, Paul, walked in the front door sucking on a bottle of what looked like apple juice and, because I well know Paul's aversion to any fluids that aren't caramel-colored and carbonated, I asked what he was drinking.

"Creatine," Paul said, beaming. "I'm in the loading phase."

Joe, so cautious about what he eats that he wants a food-taster, shook his head and laughed ruefully at his friend. "Paul ..." he said, his voice patronizing. "Paul ..."

"What?" asked Paul, challenging. "What?"

The "what" is creatine, a synthetic version of a substance found naturally in red meat and fish and stored in muscle cells, a substance that athletes claim gives them explosive energy.

It is called "nature's steroid," because athletes say it allows them to lift more weight longer and recover more quickly from these intense workouts.

Creatine is an exploding financial success. It is so popular among professional athletes that some teams have tubs of the powder in their training rooms, but so controversial that other pro teams have policies disapproving its use.

Home-run hitter Mark McGwire, with an upper body like a cement pillar, swears by it. So does Oriole Brady Anderson, who went from being a singles hitter to a legitimate long-ball threat and gives creatine credit. Once a skinny center fielder, Anderson recently posed half-naked for a muscle magazine.

Shannon Sharpe, tight end for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos, is a spokesman for a company that sells it. Olympic athletes, especially swimmers, believe in it, too, and it was in widespread use during the 1996 Games in Atlanta. Sprinter Michael Jackson swears by it.

Not surprisingly, creatine is also used by college athletes. There was an ad for it in the program for the NCAA Division I wrestling championships. And, of course, it is finding its way into high school locker rooms where boys are in a huge hurry to bulk up.

Creatine isn't illegal. You can purchase it from a health food store or, as Paul did, from the shelves of a grocery store. It comes in pills, powders, liquid, gel or chewing gum form. And many consider it safe, as did the pharmacist who assured Paul's mother when she questioned him before giving in to her son's pleading.

But nobody knows for sure.

The Food and Drug Administration does not require the makers of nutritional supplements to prove that their pills and powders are safe or effective. Nor are they required to label packages with the contents or to provide safety warnings.

Paul could have been mixing chalk dust with water, for all he knew. Or, if he were an Olympic athlete, he could have been consuming some other banned substance without knowing it.

But the most alarming thing about creatine to us mothers of young athletes is that there is no information on its long-term effects on a child's major organs: his liver, kidneys, heart or pancreas.

There are lots of ongoing studies, and there are no alarming results, but the longest of these studies is only four years out. All that means is that Paul probably will not be in renal failure for his high-school graduation exercises.

There are anecdotal reports of unpleasant short-term effects, especially during the "loading" phase: cramps, loose stools, nausea, dizziness. Some trainers and strength coaches fear creatine may cause an electrolyte imbalance that predisposes athletes to dehydration and heat-related illnesses and injuries, such as muscle pulls or cramps, although creatine manufacturers dispute this.

And, like the steroids that allow muscles to lift more weight than the ligaments and tendons can handle, creatine may be the root cause of more serious athletic injuries.

Put all that stuff aside, and answer a question for me.

Where are we going with this?

Creatine for our child-athletes goes way beyond $200 graphite baseball bats or personal coaches.

Few of us parents will be fielding calls from college recruiters desperate for our soccer or lacrosse player. Only one in a million of us is raising a child who will be any more than a weekend warrior when he or she matures, no matter their passion for sports now.

Even if you are nurturing a little thoroughbred, what messages about athletics and sportsmanship and life come in a jar of powdered muscles? That any advantage -- and it is clear creatine is one -- is worth taking regardless of the risk?

Creatine is said by its manufacturers to be safe if taken in recommended doses, but you know kids: "If some is good, more is better" is religious doctrine to them.

The Washington Redskins are the reason Paul's creatine cocktail was eventually tossed down the drain.

In a booklet on nutrition distributed to its players, the team asks if the player is eating breakfast, monitoring his calories and fat, eating from all food groups, including three to five servings of fruit a day. Are they eating vegetables and drinking plenty of water, the team asks?

"If you cannot answer yes to each of [these questions], why take a supplement? Don't expect supplements to replace the need for a daily balanced diet."

Our kids don't need nutritional supplements, they need nutrition -- the kind that doesn't come from a drive-through window or a pizza box. Paul didn't buy that argument, but his mother did and she dumped the stuff.

Creatine may be a reasonable risk for a professional athlete whose livelihood turns on inches or seconds.

But high school kids know less about physical training, conditioning and endurance than they do about nutrition. (Joe kidded Paul that he would watch a movie while drinking creatine and expect to get up from the couch looking like Mr. Universe.)

That is what they need to learn over the next four years -- and that understanding does not come in powdered form.

Pub Date: 7/14/98

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