5 Things Parents and Teens Need to Know About Supplements
Has your young athlete expressed an interest in using nutritional supplements to improve athletic performance? Aggressive marketing from the supplement industry has adults and kids convinced they need supplements to perform at their best, but there are some important considerations parents need to keep in mind when talking to young athletes about supplement use.
Supplements are Unregulated
Whereas medications are rigorously tested and regulated to ensure they are safe and contain appropriate ingredients, the Federal Drug Administration does not regulate the nutritional supplement industry. This means everything from vitamins to protein powders and herbal supplements are less rigorously tested for efficacy and safety. Supplements may contain ingredients not listed on the label, may not contain inconsistent amounts of specific ingredients, and may even contain prohibited substances considered performance enhancing drugs.
Supplements Encourage Incomplete Nutrition
When athletes rely on supplements in place of real food they miss out on the variety of nutrients found in food. Protein powders are a great example. When an athlete consumes eggs, dairy products, meat, and legumes they take in protein as well as the carbohydrate, fat, vitamins and minerals found in those foods. Dairy products are a major source of calcium for young athletes. Red meat provides iron crucial for red blood cell production, and legumes deliver folate, zinc, iron, calcium, and other valuable nutrients. In contrast, protein powder is often isolated whey protein and contains far fewer vitamins and minerals.
Supplements May Contain Excessive Stimulants
The active ingredients in many “fat burners” and energy supplements are powerful stimulants, including caffeine and caffeine-containing ingredients including guarana, green tea extract, yerba mate, kola nut, and cocoa nut. Overuse of stimulants can lead to nervousness, jitteriness, nausea, and even heart arrhythmia. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under the age of 12 should not consume caffeine, and that adolescents older than 12 should limit caffeine intake to 85-100mg/day. For perspective, some energy drinks contain 250mg of caffeine per serving and are often packaged to contain multiple servings in a single container.
Supplements Encourage ‘Shortcut Mentality’
The choice to rely on supplements instead of or in addition to real food, hard work, rest, and proper nutrition encourage young people to look for the ‘easy way’ rather than the ‘right way’. Being an athlete requires discipline, commitment, and hard work. Eating right takes time and focus, but delivers great benefits in terms of complete nutrition and healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.
Supplements Are Largely Unnecessary for Youth Sports
Supplements are most often utilized to provide an athlete with an advantage above and beyond what he or she could achieve on their own. With youth sports and school-age athletes, skill acquisition, cognitive development, and physical maturity have far more to do with an athlete’s performance than the effects of any supplement. Strength and speed develop naturally with physical maturity, but skill acquisition and an understanding of teamwork are areas for improvement at any age.
Athletes who hit puberty earlier and reach physical maturity at a younger age frequently become star athletes early on because of their superior size, strength, and speed. However, athletes who focus on skill acquisition, sound training techniques, and smart tactics and strategies fare better in the long run, because eventually everyone catches up in terms of physical maturity. Athletes who rely on supplements may miss out on this valuable skill acquisition period and, although they might see short-term improvements, are likely to see their performance superseded by athletes who developed at a more natural pace.
Supplements have a place in sports and sports nutrition, but mostly to correct a deficiency or provide necessary nutrition during a time of extreme physical demand. In youth sports and scholastic sports, the physical demands of training and competition can be almost always be met through a varied diet rich in whole foods.