“Is there anything I can take that can help me grow a moustache?” the boy asked him. His friends were developing muscles, getting taller and, yes, developing facial hair, and he was getting left behind. Was the answer in a pill or a drink, he was wondering.
“After that day, I made it my mission to protect kids’ health because I knew the promises of these products were empty,” says Dr. Mike Perko (Public Health Education). He wanted kids – not to mention coaches and parents – to be informed of the potential adverse effects …. to put their health first, rather than performance.
In 1986, he wrote his first paper about steroids. A few years later, he was testifying before the New York state legislature on the topic. The US Congress passed a law in 1990 controlling steroid use.
Nevertheless, the desire for sports performance enhancement in our society remains high, and it starts at younger and younger ages, says Perko.
Dietary supplements, which are not regulated by the FDA as some may believe, are typically combinations of ingredients, and some can be mixtures of powerful substances, he says.
He has written the books “Taking One for the Team: The New Thinking on Dietary Supplements and Young Athletes” and “Can You Win Without Supplements?”
And just last month, he co-wrote an article detailing research he and several others have conducted. “Dietary Supplement Use by Children and Adolescents in the United States to Enhance Sport Performance: Results of the National Health Interview Survey” appeared in The Journal of Primary Prevention.
They analyzed one of the largest samples ever for this population – over 73 million children and adolescents – and looked at dietary supplement use for sports. Roughly 1.1 million kids, with a mean age of 11, reported taking something to try to improve performance, he says.
“We need to be concerned with potential health consequences,” he explains. And there’s something else. “Since these kids are probably not driving themselves to get these products at the store, we need to be looking at mom and dad and coaches who may feel these products are needed.”
Perko, who served as an NCAA expert in this area, is trying to get this message out there. In 2006, he appeared on ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” to join in on the debate on the health effects of performance enhancers on athletes. He says he wants coaches and parents, as well as the young athletes, to understand the real issue is not really the product but the process.
“[T]he big question is what makes these kids put their health at risk to be bigger, faster, and, yes, want to speed up mother nature to grow a mustache,” he explains.
“I do this to keep athletes healthy and safe; I really don’t care about an 11-year-old’s performance.”