Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Supplements and Youth Athletes
In the sports nutrition field, there are constantly new supplements saturating the market. Younger athletes, looking to gain a competitive edge, are often easily enticed by ads and gimmicks toting the miraculous effects of dietary supplements on health and performance. A 2006 study asked adolescent athletes about supplement use and found that 22% of participants were taking dietary supplements, mostly to improve sports performance. Marketing makes dietary supplements seem like the best solution for ensuring one’s health, wellness, and athletic prowess. However, consumers are not properly informed about a supplement’s safety, legality for sport, or effectiveness. Additionally, many of these supplements are costly and can create a significant financial burden. Understanding the supplement industry and a young athlete’s dietary needs can help with determining what, if any, supplements are going to provide benefits.
What are Supplements? Supplements are defined as any ingredient – vitamin, mineral, herb, botanical, amino acid, concentrate, etc. – intended to provide nutritional value. These supplements can come in various forms including pills, gummies, powders, and liquids. Some dietary supplements, such as calcium, vitamin D, and iron, may be recommended when an athlete’s nutrient status is found to be low. Supplements categorized as ergogenic aids, including caffeine and creatine, can supposedly provide performance enhancement. Supplements are loosely regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning that manufacturers are responsible for ensuring the safety and effectiveness of their products. There is additionally no premarket testing for supplements like there would be for a prescription or over-the-counter drug. A 2005 study analyzing the composition of dietary supplements purchased on the internet found that 18% of them were mislabeled and 3 contained an anabolic steroid that resulted in a positive anti-doping test. Therefore, it is essential to look at both the research as well as third-party verification to determine if a product is safe and effective.
Supplements and the Young Athlete The recommendation is that youth athletes meet their energy and nutrient needs through their diet (food first!) and then consider supplements if they are falling short. In the youth/adolescent athlete population, there is little research to support the safety and efficacy of many supplements. Additionally, for those athletes that are still developing into their adult bodies, any supplements that promise increased muscle mass will not be very effective until the later stages of puberty. Many supplements, including BCAAs and glutamine, can be easily obtained from protein-containing foods, so focusing on getting enough protein throughout the day can provide the benefit of these dietary components while additionally providing a host of other essential nutrients.
With any dietary supplement, third-party verification can provide assurance that a supplement contains the ingredients listed on the label and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants; however, these verifications do not ensure safety and effectiveness especially for young athletes.
Athletes should check that supplements are NSF Certified for Sport or are verified as safe by Aegis Shield to prevent the accidental consumption of undocumented stimulants or additives that could negatively affect their health and their eligibility for sport at the collegiate and professional level.
If determined safe, effective, and needed, a dietary supplement can be beneficial for a young athlete. Focusing on obtaining a nutritionally adequate diet and adequate fluids should be the first step for enhancing recovery and performance. A sports dietitian can help determine if an athlete is meeting his or her energy and nutrient needs and determine if supplementation is appropriate.
References: 1. Scofield D & Unruh S (2006). Dietary supplement use among adolescent athletes in central Nebraska and their sources of information. J Strength Cond Res., 20(2):452-5. doi: 10.1519/R-16984.1 2. Mangieri, H. (2017) Fueling Young Athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 3. Dietary supplements: what you need to know. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements Web site. Accessed at ods.od.nih.gov/HealthInformation/DS_WhatYouNeedToKnow.aspx on December 5, 2018. 4. Dietary Supplements for Exercise and Athletic Performance: Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. NIH Office of Dietary Supplements Web site. Accessed at https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/ExerciseAndAthleticPerformance-HealthProfessional/ on December 5, 2018. 5. Baume, N. (2006). Research of stimulants and anabolic steroids in dietary supplements. Scand J Med Sci Sports, 16(1), 41-48. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1600