Approximately 86% of Americans take dietary supplements, according to a 2019 survey conducted by the American Osteopathic Association. Yet, fewer than a quarter actually need them. While it’s true that athletes have special nutritional needs, sports supplements are not always necessary.
Creatine, protein powder, amino acids, and other sports supplements have proven benefits. Protein, for example, facilitates muscle growth and repair. When used as part of an exercise program, it may also improve body composition, or fat-to-muscle ratio. Ideally, athletes should aim for about 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight per day, suggests the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The question is, do these recommendations apply to high school athletes, too?
Certain supplements can help teens recover faster from training and perform better at their sport of choice. The problem is that teenage athletes often go overboard. An earlier study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine reports that 22.3 to 71% of teen athletes use supplements.
So, does your child need these products to reach peak performance? What’s safe and what’s not? Here’s what you should know about the safety and effectiveness of supplements for high school athletes.
Are Sports Supplements Necessary?
High-school athletes need more protein, carbs, and other nutrients in their diets than the average teenager. For this reason, they often turn to whey protein, creatine, BCAAs, and other sports supplements. But as their name suggests, these products are meant to supplement your diet and not to replace real food.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, for example, states that young athletes should get 10 to 30% of their daily calories from protein. The recommended daily allowance is 52 grams of protein per day for teenage boys and 46 grams per day for teen girls. Yet, many young athletes consume two or three times more protein than what’s recommended, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Three ounces of chicken breast provide about 24 grams of protein, according to the above source. Cooked salmon, on the other hand, delivers approximately 21 grams of protein per serving (3 ounces). Lean beef, eggs, soy, Greek yogurt, cheese, and legumes are rich in this nutrient, too. If you have a balanced diet, you should be able to get enough protein from food alone.
A 2017 study published in Pediatrics found that nearly 70% of sales reps recommended creatine to high school athletes. About 40% made this suggestion without even being asked about it. Approximately 10% of them also recommended testosterone boosters. The truth is, you don’t really need any of these products—especially those that could interfere with hormone production. Unfortunately, many teens fall for the hype.
Creatine, for instance, is generally safe for athletes of all ages, states the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. When combined with a balanced diet and regular exercise, it can speed up recovery and enhance physical performance. The problem is that most teenage athletes are misusing it, according to the Pediatrics study. On top of that, there isn’t enough evidence to confirm its safety for adolescents.
Other supplements, such as testosterone boosters, may pose health risks for young athletes. Testosterone levels peak around age 19 or 20 and start to decline by about 1% per year after age 30. When you’re a teen, your body produces sufficient amounts of this hormone, so it doesn’t make sense to use testosterone boosters.
Not All Supplements Are Created Equal
Another aspect to consider is that not all supplements live up to the claims. Some can actually do more harm than good. Unlike medications, these products don’t require FDA approval before they are released on the market. Therefore, they are not subject to the same safety regulations governing drugs. Some may contain ephedrine, ostarine, and other ingredients banned by sports organizations. Others contain too much or too little of the active substance.
For example, a 2020 study published in Clinical Toxicology analyzed 17 weight loss and sports supplement brands. Most products contained varying amounts of deterenol, octodrine, phenpromethamine, and other potentially harmful stimulants. Deterenol has been linked to a higher risk of cardiac arrest and other adverse reactions.
Testosterone boosters may contain anabolic agents, growth factors, or peptide hormones. Pre-workout supplements are often high in caffeine, which can increase the risk of side effects. Some fat burners contain ephedrine, diuretics, and other ingredients that may not be safe.
In a 2010 survey conducted on elite athletes, 57% of respondents said they didn’t know about the side effects of their go-to supplements. More than 60% of them could not name the active ingredient. High school athletes are even less likely to know these things.
Also, note that many supplements contain large amounts of sugar, caffeine, or fillers. When consumed in excess, caffeine may cause mood swings, irritability, heart palpitations, and gastric ulcers in young athletes. Too much sugar, on the other hand, can lead to weight gain, metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Some protein bars contain just as much sugar as a Snickers bar!
Should Teen Athletes Use Supplements?
NSF International recommends that teen athletes avoid supplements containing ephedra, synephrine, caffeine, or substances that could affect their hormones. Ideally, stick to natural products, such as a multivitamin, whey or plant-based protein powders, fish oil, and amino acids.
Pre- and post-workout supplements are not really necessary. However, if you decide to use a pre-workout, choose one with little or no caffeine. Meal replacement bars and shakes can be a good choice when you need a quick source of fuel. High school athletes, especially those involved in endurance activities, may also use electrolyte supplements and carb supplements, such as dextrose.
All in all, sports supplements can help teens reach peak performance and get the most out of their training time. The key is to choose high-quality products and research the ingredients used. But first, make sure your diet is in check. Protein powder and other sports supplements cannot replace a healthy diet or compensate for bad eating habits.