The sports supplement industry is booming and promises to help athletes of all ages move faster and grow stronger. But the vitamin and supplement industry is mostly unregulated, leading to a wide variation in supplement quality across the market. This lack of regulation can put athletes and their health at risk – with little or no recognized benefits.
Can sports supplements help teens with athletic performance?
It's unclear whether sports supplements can help teens improve their performance.
"We have limited research about sports supplements on individuals under the age of 18," says Brittany Wehrle, a performance dietitian with the Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS. "Currently, most studies are being conducted with adult subjects. For that reason, we don't have much current research on the safety, dosage or efficacy of sports supplements for teens."
Can teens take supplements for sports?
The lack of research and other factors has led the American Academy of Pediatrics to advise against using performance-enhancing supplements in anyone under the age of 18. The physician organization says the majority of supplements on the market offer little benefit but may carry big risks for teens. Instead, teens should focus on the basics for healthy performance. These include:
- Eating nutritious foods and maintaining a healthy diet
- Drinking plenty of fluids
- Training and conditioning
- Proper sleep and rest
These strategies can offer big boosts to performance with no risks. Sports supplements, however, pose risks to an athlete's health and their ability to play the game.
"There are more than 200 banned and prohibited substances according to NCAA and WADA rules," says Wehrle. "It would be exhaustive for consumers to check the labels for every single banned ingredient. And even if a banned substance is not listed in the ingredients, it does not mean that product is free from those ingredients."
Wehrle says studies have shown that between 12-58% of supplement products tested contain ingredients not listed on the label – putting athletes at risk for unintentional doping.
Even high-profile athletes have suffered from contaminated supplements. Olympic swimmer Madisyn Cox and others failed a drug test when their multivitamins were tainted. College football players have also tested positive for banned substances which may have come from supplements they were taking.
These banned substances can also pose health risks, says Wehrle. High doses of caffeine or other stimulants can cause heart problems. The presence of hormones or steroids can also affect the heart, psychological and hormonal health.
Even taking high doses of a single nutrient, such as iron or zinc supplements for example, can pose problems if you don't have a diagnosed deficiency.
What sports supplements are safe to take?
The best way for athletes to protect themselves from failed drug tests and health risks is to purchase only products that are NSF Certified for Sport. These products have been tested by a third party and found to contain only the ingredients it says it contains, in the amounts it states. These products are also free from banned substances.
"It's important to remember that this certification doesn't indicate that the supplement does what the manufacturer says it does," says Wehrle, "but it does make you less likely to test positive on a sports drug test."
Still, Wehrle says the only way to guarantee your health and strength and not testing positive on a sports drug test is to refrain from supplement use altogether. Teens should focus on a healthy diet to gain all their nutrients and to keep their bodies healthy and strong.
"I would encourage any athlete interested in performance nutrition to work specifically with a board-certified sports dietitian," Wehrle says. "Dietitians who carry the "CSSD" credential are expected to be well-versed in supplements and can help an athlete evaluate whether or not a particular supplement is appropriate. For most athletes, improving their pre-training or pre-competition nutrition is going to make a much bigger impact than taking a supplement."
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