Should young athletes take supplements

The energy demands placed on a young athletes body can be incredibly high – sufficient energy is needed for growing, building new muscle tissue, developing bones to peak mineral density, meeting a high energy output from training demands, and recovering from the stress and impact of training. All of these things in addition to the stress of juggling school, training and competitions can impact growth and development, increase fatigue, and increase the risk of getting sick if nutritional needs are not met.

In an ideal world, nutrient needs could be met from consuming whole foods alone. We recommend that young athletes follow a food first approach, and not resort to supplements simply due to laziness or convenience.

Knowing calorie requirements in athletes are so high, filling those needs by consuming a diet rich in fruits, veggies, dairy, lean meats, whole grains and healthy fats should provide all the nutrients essential for growth and peak performance.

With increasingly tight time schedules and priorities other than nutrition, many families will inevitably resort to quick-to-prepare convenience foods or store bought meals. These are generally more processed and less nutrient dense, thereby reducing the variety of nutrients that could be consumed compared to the “ideal” diet. 

So where do supplements come into the equation? And where do we draw the line between what is suitable vs. what should be avoided for youth athletes

What to avoid:

  • Pre-workouts
  • Fat burners
  • Any product with “fat burning” ingredients (e.g. Yohimbine, Synephrine)
  • Mass gainers
  • Pump products (such as NO2 boosters)
  • Testosterone boosters

There are however, a few supplements that can be included in a youth athlete’s nutrition regime, when it is difficult to meet needs from food alone (such as being time poor, having a small appetite, managing fussy eaters, travelling away from home often, eating away from home often due to busy schedules or multiple sports activities).  

Protein Powder

Protein powder is generally thought of as something gym junkies skull down after an intense workout to “get big”, and this stigma often leaves parents unsure of whether such powders are safe to consume.

Whey protein powders are derived from milk, and processed into a powder. This is similar to the way in which skim milk powder is made, but contains less carbohydrate. A simple whey protein powder (beware of added fat burning ingredients) is perfectly fine for youth athletes to consume, and is an easy way to meet protein requirements after training sessions, especially when there may be a significant amount of time before getting home to cook a meal.

Protein is essential for muscle growth and development, and to help repair tissues that are put under constant load with heavy training sessions. Protein is broken down into amino acids to provide the building blocks that repair muscles that have been used during exercise, thus preventing injury, fuelling growth and increasing strength. Inadequate protein intake puts a child at risk of injuries, poor performance, and stunted growth – without enough of the building blocks, there is nothing to support an active, growing body.

Food first approach to increasing protein intake: include plenty of lean meats, eggs, seafood, milk, yoghurt and cheese

Sports drinks and hydration powders

Young athletes will often train or compete in sessions that last for longer than 90 minutes. In these cases, it is likely that water is probably not enough to adequately hydrate an athlete, especially if training is of a high intensity.

Sports drinks and hydration powders contain carbohydrates and electrolytes to help rehydrate cells faster, and are typically thought of as a sports food rather than a supplement. Rehydration drinks are important during these training sessions, especially for individuals that sweat a lot, or when it is extremely hot.

Water can be used as the beverage of choice during sessions that last <90 minutes, or for sessions that are low intensity (e.g. light skill sessions). However, smart pre and post workout nutrition choices will ensure that you are both pre-hydrated, and account for any losses not met by water alone. This can be achieved by drinking milk (which contains some carbohydrates and electrolytes), or drinking a few cups of water alongside a meal containing both carbohydrates and sodium.

Omega 3 Fish Oil

Western diets are typically much higher in omega 6’s (pro-inflammatory) than omega 3’s (anti-inflammatory). Athletes should focus on adjusting this ratio to assist with reducing inflammation following heavy training sessions, and also to assist with cognitive development. Concentrating at school can often be difficult when an athlete is juggling multiple extracurricular activities, or waking up early to train.

For most, it is difficult to incorporate omega-3 rich foods into the diet on a daily basis. Therefore, a good quality supplement is recommended to ensure daily needs are being met. Regardless of whether you decide to take an omega-3 supplement, it is important to incorporate omega-3 rich foods into your diet where possible due to the additional health benefits of consuming the whole foods – additional protein, healthy fats for long lasting energy, and fibre to keep you full.

Food first approach: Incorporate salmon, tuna, fatty fish, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and soy beans where possible.

These three supplements are generally what I could recommend for athletes <18 years. At a young age, it is much easier to adapt to intense training sessions, make improvements and grow stronger. It is best to drive adaptations to training by focusing mostly on good food choices, rather than having to rely on supplements for improved performance. Supplements can then be included as an athlete grows older, when it becomes increasingly difficult to recover, build muscle mass and grow stronger.

For more information relating to this articel, nutrition guidance for your kids, or improveing your diet and nutirion plan, please contact us at Precision Athletica and our expert team will be ready to help.

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