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Supplements and Young Athletes: The Basics

Athletes are turning to supplements in the hope of gaining a competitive edge. This is not surprising with the rise of social media “influencers” and ads featuring photoshopped fitness models. The alluring promise of a “silver bullet” to help with everything from health to performance and muscle growth. How do you not get sucked in?

Before you go stocking up on pills, powders and potions though, it pays to be well informed. Supplement use comes with risks to health, growth and development, as well as performance. Information often missing from those alluring ads.

Over this series we are going to dive into this controversial topic, tackling some common questions. What are supplements? How do they work? What are the risks? Should they be part of a young athlete’s diet? No misleading ads here, just the facts so you can make an informed decision for yourself and sporting performance.

For New Zealand swimmer Ben Carr, the food first approach is his best ally. Photo: Derek Morrison
What are supplements and why might an athlete use them?

We generally divide supplements into three categories:

  •    Sports foods
  •    Dietary supplements
  •    Ergogenic aids (ergogenic means performance enhancing)

Sports foods include protein powders, sports drinks, carbohydrate gels, sports bars/chews/wafers, liquid meal drinks and electrolyte tablets/powders. They provide a compact or isolated source of nutrients that are fast and easy to digest. This makes them a good option if athletes need to “top up” nutrient needs during busy training periods, throughout tournaments or when travelling.

Dietary supplements include vitamins and minerals such as iron and vitamin C. They play important roles in all of the complex chemical reactions taking place in our body. A dietitian or medical specialist may recommend supplementation to treat or prevent a likely nutrient deficiency. However, taking them on a “just in case” basis is risky. A supplement is not in the form that nature intended us to get our vitamins and minerals. They provide a more concentrated amount of nutrients than food sources making the chance of taking excessive amounts more likely. If taken in excess or at the wrong time, dietary supplements can negatively impact health, performance and training adaptations. For this reason you should only take vitamin and mineral supplements under the supervision of a medical specialist or dietitian. They can check that the supplement and dose suits your needs.

Ergogenic aids provide concentrated amounts of certain nutrients or food components that are thought to enhance performance. They include creatine, caffeine, buffers (e.g. beta-alanine and bicarbonate), pre-workouts and fat burners. The list of ergogenic aids continues to grow with new “cutting edge” products continuously spilling onto the market. However, only a limited number of these have sound scientific evidence in humans to back them up. Many of the rest rely on theoretical links or studies on animals to support their claims. Adding to this, there is little to no research done in people under the age of 18 years. This means the effects of ergogenic aids and their safety of use for young athletes is largely unknown. This is why athletes should only consider their use when they are fully developed. Additionally, ergogenic aids should only be used under the supervision of a qualified and experienced sports dietitian or nutritionist.

Supplements are the “icing on the cake” for any athlete rather than the first port of call. The primary focus should be on eating a healthy diet based on quality foods.

Regardless of the type, it is important to remember that a supplement is designed to “supplement” and not “substitute” a balanced diet. No pill, powder or potion can replace good food. We still have a lot to discover about how the nutrients in our food help our body function and perform. Think about nutrient “X”. What is that? Nutrient “X” helps you run fast, have great agility and get really strong. It is in foods, but we have not discovered it yet. You can bet your bottom dollar you won’t find it in a supplement as the manufacturers won’t know to add it. It will be quietly doing its thing for you though, hidden in some fruit, vegetable, or legume (or something else). Remember, humans have come a long way on the food our earth has supplied; food works pretty well.

Should supplements be part of a young athletes diet?

Supplements are the “icing on the cake” for any athlete rather than the first port of call. The primary focus should be on eating a healthy diet based on quality foods.

After all, food is where nature intended us to get nutrients from. This, along with training hard, motivation and adequate recovery make up the fundamental base of sporting performance. If this base is not in place supplements will have little to no effect.

The diagram below shows how to build an athlete’s diet to create excellent health and ideal sporting performance:

Although not generally recommended there are certain situations where sports foods or dietary supplements may be beneficial for young athletes. For example, taking a prescribed vitamin or mineral supplement to treat or prevent a deficiency. Or the use of sports foods to top up nutrition needs during periods of busy training, throughout tournaments or when travelling.

Young athletes should be cautious with the use of ergogenic aids. There is little research or evidence of their benefit in this age group. Therefore the effects as well as any risks to health, growth and development and performance are largely unknown. Young athletes will see a much greater benefit from focusing on establishing a fundamental base made up of good nutrition habits (we will teach you all about that), sound training and adequate recovery.

Many of these supplements only become useful when you mature into an elite athlete. Elite athletes already have many years of great eating and training behind them. They have optimised their growth potential and are conditioned to their sport. They have been on this journey that you are now embarking on, learning about the potential of food and how it can help them achieve their sporting goals. Once these boxes are ticked, we can then start to look at other ways to boost performance.

Food first is always a better approach when it comes to supplements. Photo: Derek Morrison
In summary

Just because you’re at the elite level of your sport it does not mean you have to use supplements. There is a growing “food first” movement among athletes with many of our sporting greats choosing to forgo the use of any supplements. Food first is something that the team at Fuel My Potential strongly support. 

We encourage you to use your adolescent years well. During this period your natural hormonal environment will support you to achieve great things for your sporting performance. Ensure you give your body the nutrients it needs; they will all be in foods in many combinations. Grow the best body you can, train hard and hit adulthood with speed, strength and success. Isolated supplements won’t give you that, but good food will.

Click here for part 2 in this series on the risks associated with supplement use in young athletes

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