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Are sports supplements safe for youth athletes?

"Sports supplements” are now found in all shapes and sizes. The industry is continually evolving and with the ever-growing range of products that make claims ranging from revolutionising your health to enabling sporting potential.

As parents, it's hard to work out which ones are really going to help, and which ones aren't.

As the list of ingredients are made up of various concoctions and take on various chemical names (that only seem readable by a chemist), an even bigger question emerges - which ones actually work and are safe to use for our kids.

It can be hard to work out which supplements are useful, and more importantly safe for our young athletes.

As young bodies are growing, it's important to provide them with optimal nutrition to build the foundations for lifelong health. A good nutritional strategy supports normal growth and development, and given youth athletes are putting additional stresses upon their bodies, nutrition becomes even more important to get right.

Many young people or parents of youth athletes can struggle to sustain a well-balanced diet all of the time, and if you’re reading this, I guess you might already struggle. The common barriers for youth athletes can usually be broken down into four main areas:

  1. Lack of education (hopefully if you’re reading this, you’re already tackling this barrier).
  2. Lack of time to prepare healthy food.
  3. Money plays its part, as healthy eating can sometimes cost more.
  4. Selective eating habits, young people can be fussy eaters.

Therefore, some parents decide to introduce a supplement into their child’s diet. However, if you do decide to introduce to use supplements, quality is key.

What are Sports Supplements?

Sports supplements (and dietary supplements) are powdered forms of food, or nutrients extracted from the foods we commonly eat. These supplements are often a combination of essential macronutrients (carbohydrates, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), or isolated single nutrients; all with the aim of supporting health.

All sports supplements and dietary supplements must adhere to strict regulations and law.

Sports supplements are often found in powdered, capsule or tablet form for ease of use. As a general rule you should be able to recognise the majority of the ingredients on the label, however, some chemical names for innocent and safe vitamins can be a little bit overwhelming such as;

  • Vitamin A can be labelled as Retinol,
  • B12 as Cobalamin
  • Vitamin C as Ascorbic acid
  • Vitamin D as Cholecalciferol.

There’s always something that stops it being straight forward! If you're ever in doubt, always ask a professional. Supplements are legal and can be found online and in stores.

 

Are sports supplements performance enhancing drugs?

Performance enhancing drugs (also known as PEDS’s, or anabolic steroids) are not sports supplements.

PED’s are synthetic substances replicating hormones such as testosterone, that are most commonly in tabulated or injection format.

Performance enhancing drugs are illegal and are NOT found in health food stores or easily online (unfortunately there are online sites that sell them).

 

Can sports supplements contain substance from illegal PED’s?

While there have been historic reports in the past of sports supplements that have been contaminated with PED’s, it is rare. Yet, the onus is on the individual if they use a product that contains a performance enhancing drug, and not the company that provides the products. Therefore, due diligence is required when purchasing supplements.

If you are looking to buy sports supplements, ensure that you buy one that has the Informed-Sport logo on it.


Informed-Sport
 ensures that all supplements meet high standards as they are subjected to sample testing to ensure that they contain what they say they contain, and that they are not contaminated with anything (legal or illegal!) - ensuring the safety of the consumer and young athlete. 

What sport supplements are safe and used by young athletes?

The most popular supplements used are protein powders, with a lot of questions asked if it is safe for youth athletes and the questions surrounding its safety. 

Protein powder is the #1 sports supplement on the market, with more and more people using protein powders as a tasty and convenient alternative to snacks and meals. 

Historically, protein powders have been generally associated with bodybuilders. This once niche market has now opened to a broad range of high-protein bars, snacks, meal replacements, and shakes due to the wide range of health benefits and attributes of increasing your protein intake.

This has led protein powders and protein supplement to become widely used and accepted by all age groups and genders. Dietary protein helps to protect muscles from breakdown, increases exercise recovery and helps maintain the feeling of fullness (satiety). Because of the benefits, the use and market has become HUGE!!!

Aside from the large market appeal, protein powders main selling point is how they can aid exercise performance and recovery for those who are putting big demands on their bodies, such as intensive training schedules.

Protein powders add value to intensive training schedules as they provide a super quick and convenient means of getting in quality protein to aid muscle maintenance, prevent muscle breakdown and aid recovery. 

Proteins are made up of amino acids, known as the building blocks of protein. They form strings called peptides that have several physiological functions such as producing enzymes, as well as supporting muscle growth and recovery. Amino acids are required for all bodily functions, with an increased need for those who are active.

There are 9 amino acids (called essential amino acids) that must be obtained from the food we eat. And a following 11 amino acids called non-essential amino acids that our bodies can make (synthesise) from other nutrient combinations.

It is recommended to all active sports people of all ages, that daily protein intake should be around 0.7[1]- 1.2g of protein per kg [2]of body weight.

With the protein sourced from a range of protein rich foods such as chicken, eggs, milk, beef, yogurt, tofu and the use of protein powders for when time is limited, and busy schedules require a quick, convenient protein solution.

Protein powders can come from animal sources – whey and casein (both are milk proteins) that contain all essential and most non-essential amino acids. Protein powders can also come from plants (such as soy, pea, rice and even potato) with varying levels of amino acids present which result in plant based proteins often containing a different types such as pea and rice to ensure all essential amino acids are present. .

What is creatine and is this safe for youth athletes?

Next up is Creatine. Creatine is one of the most extensively talked about sports supplements on the market. Creatine is simply a protein stored in muscles. It is produced naturally by our body and can be found in whole foods such as red meat and fish.

As new research emerges, creatine continues to prove to be an effective sports supplement. It is generally bought in powdered form and helps energy systems to work for longer, therefore, allowing and enabling increased sports performance.

Sounds good, right?! 

However, many questions arise because some of the documented benefits have been wildly exaggerated, making them seem too good to be true. Whilst extreme increases in strength, muscle size and performance are definitely not the case, a small increase in power and strength has been reported in adult strength athletes from using approx. 3g creatine per day [3]- but only when all training factors, such as training and nutrition are met. 

So what about youth athletes...?

Creatine isn’t a miracle supplement and isn’t recommended for general use by youth athletes. Research to support the use of creatine in young athletes is still very limited [4] and the safety of creatine supplementation has not been fully studied in children or adolescents, although new studies are starting to explore this topic deeper [15,16]. There is some research with older youth athletes (16 years plus) where the results of increased strength echo that of the adult athletes, however the research advises caution and more studies required to support its use by youth athletes.

Furthermore, the scientific literature supporting creatine supplementation for adults and older adolescents is only beneficial for those undertaking maximal-intensity weight training. This makes it irrelevant for the majority of youth sports participants.

The takeaway message here is that the use of creatine for younger athletes should only be looked at under careful medical supervision if they are: 

- Involved in serious/competitive supervised training.

- Already consuming well-balanced & performance enhancing diet.

- Knowledgeable about the use of creatine.

- Don't exceed the recommended dose.

 

What are pre workouts and are they safe for youth athletes?

Finally, pre-workout supplements. Pre workouts are an emerging popular supplement on sports nutrition market. Pre-workout formulas often claim extreme results and list ingredients that sounds extreme- enticing those who are seeking a that extra few percent from their training.

When you dig a little bit deeper into pre-workout drinks and powders you soon realise that the main ingredient is high dosage of caffeine, followed by a list of other ingredients such as beta-alanine which gives a tingling sensation and has shown to aid cells to clear toxins and aid endurance.

While they can sound great, it is largely limited and not recommended for young athletes as the stimulant content of the pre-workouts comes with big highs and lows, nausea and lack of concentration- just as you would expect if you were to have lots of espressos within a short space of time.

There has also been recent media attention regarding the health and safety concerns of pre-workout supplements, as they can cause rapid and irregular heart rates – this also spans high caffeinated-stimulated canned drinks.

Pre-workout formulas are not recommended for youth athletes (and have no documented benefit for adults). The best option to aid pre-competition alertness is to ensure hydration is optimal and sufficient carbs have been consumed such as oat bars around 30 minutes pre training. 

Watch our video below to learn the ins and outs of how to ensure proper hydration for your youth athlete:

What sports supplements are designed for youth athletes?

Youth Sport Nutrition products comprise of whole food ingredients that have been carefully selected to aid young athlete’s needs, taste great and add convenience to a busy schedules. The powdered formulas enable quick solubility in water or milk, to form a delicious nutrient packed shake that your youth athlete can enjoyed pre or post exercise- helping aid recovery and increase energy.

Youth Sport Nutrition always recommend to opt for whole foods first as the rule. Supplements such as PRO-TEEN, food powders such as NUTRI-TEEN shakes, and Oat energy bars are a nutritious way to top-up on high-quality nutrients to support parents of youth athletes faced with tight schedules. 

If you want any help with designing a food-first meal plan, you can speak to our nutrition team today.

Author
Natalie Rouse

First-Class Honours degree in Human Nutrition (BSc Hons), Master of Research in Performance Nutrition and Socio-culture (MRES), Registered and accredited Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition (ANutri), and Nutritional Consultant and Nutritional Research Scientist (RSci).  

References 

[1] Microsoft Word - Draft_protein_DRVs_08072011-FINAL.doc (europa.eu)

[2]https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwih6qntkqz2AhVCUcAKHV2TAGkQFnoECAkQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov%2Fpmc%2Farticles%2FPMC4913918%2F&usg=AOvVaw3AZDUHKvZ14PB-65jGmP50

[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12701815/

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6279854/

[5] Jagim AR, Kerksick CM. Creatine Supplementation in Children and Adolescents. Nutrients. 2021;13(2):664.

[6] Antonio J, Candow DG, Forbes SC, et al. Common questions and misconceptions about creatine supplementation: what does the scientific evidence really show? Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2021;18(1):13.

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