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Teenagers and Performance Supplements

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The term ergogenic aids derives from the Greek words ergon (work) and genes (born), and mean any way of improving energy production. Competition is intense in the athletic world, and it can be hard to avoid the lure of sport supplements that promise improved physique and enhanced performance. A recent study revealed that 98% of teenage athletes use some form of dietary supplement, so this is a reality for any parent of a young sportsman.

Some supplements act as performance supplements, with the aim of directly improving performance; some as sports foods, providing nutrients you could otherwise get from food; and some act as medical supplements to treat clinical problems. Today we address performance supplements. 

When addressing ergogenic aids, we need to answer 5 questions: 

  1. Does it really work? 
  2. Is it safe?  
  3. Is it necessary? 
  4. What is the correct dosage and regime and 
  5. Is it legal?

Being able to discern which ergogenic aids really work is made more complicated by aggressive marketing by sports nutrition companies that isn’t necessarily factually true. The teen desperate to build muscle, lose weight or improve performance can easily be tricked into spending a small fortune on products that really have no scientific support at all. To help us out with this, the Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) have grouped supplements into four categories: Group A are those that have sufficient evidence to support their use and can be recommended in certain situations, Group B are those that may have benefit but there isn’t enough evidence to support, Group C are unlikely to be beneficial, and Group D are those that are banned outright. It is advisable to stick to only Group A supplements that have strong scientific support and are legal – so these are the ergogenic aids we will focus on!

Creatine is a supplement that has been proven to improve performance, strength, and muscle mass, and is very popular with young athletes. It is considered safe for adults, but what about teenagers? Creatine should be safe if your teenager is over 16, has already gone through puberty and is involved in serious competitive training. If not given in recommended dosages, however, excess creatine can damage the kidneys, cause fluid retention, and be broken down in to the toxin formaldehyde. So there are some basics to consider before adding creatine to your teenager’s regime – firstly, she should be following a well-balanced, adequate diet; secondly, the regime should be supervised by a professional and the correct dosages should be followed; thirdly, a good quality creatine supplement should be used.  Of course, creatine isn’t strictly necessary – a good balanced diet with meats provides enough creatine for health.

Another supplement that has good research behind it is β-alanine, which has also been shown to increase muscle, especially in combination with creatine, and is safe in adults. Unfortunately, there has been no research on under-18’s, so we really don’t know if it is safe in the developing body. If at all, only take this supplement after puberty, and in recommended dosages as supervised by a professional. Again, this supplement is not essential – your child can increase natural sources of this nutrient in his diet, such as chicken or turkey.

Bicarbonate provides a buffering system for acid that is created in the body during exercise, helping with sustained or repeated bouts of high-intensity performance.  It has been proven to be helpful in both adults and children. There is a risk of tummy upsets if no used correctly, so as always, use with supervision of a professional.

Caffeine is a favourite for adult athletes (and non-athletes!) as it has been shown to increase the ability to perform in cardiovascular activities such as running, cycling or swimming.  Children are the fastest-growing consumers of caffeine, from sources such as soft drinks, energy drinks and coffee, and a recent study showed that 27% American teenagers use caffeine for sports performance. The problem is, we are not sure if caffeine works for teenagers as well as it does for adults. There have been no studies that show that caffeine improves aerobic activity in children, although one study showed that caffeine may improve strength in youngsters.  And the big question – is it safe? Again, there are not enough studies to be sure, although we have seen that taking caffeine before exercise elevates blood pressure and lowers heart rate in children, which may aid performance. 

It is very important to note that caffeine has a diuretic effect, and in some bodies, may cause diarrhoea, so caffeine may contribute to dehydration which in turn will impair performance rather than improve it. Excess caffeine also leads to tremors, headaches and impaired coordination, which isn’t helpful for sports at all! In general, we recommend that all under-18’s consume no more than 2.5mg/kg, which is the equivalent of about a cup of coffee a day for a 50kg teenager.

Beta -Hydroxy-Beta-Methylbutyrate (HMB) has been shown to reduce muscle damage and improve recovery from training, with no known adverse side effects. Studies have been done on teenagers with good results and no adverse effects on hormones, but optimal dosage has not been established for children so HMB should be used with caution with a professional’s monitoring. There are good meal replacement shakes on the market with HMB added. If you do decide to place your teen on HMB, make sure not to confuse it with the sedating gamma hydroxybutyrate (GHB)!

Although all these supplements have good track records, they need to be used in correct dosages, at correct times and in the correct form, to yield desired results. There is no point spending hundreds on a supplement only to use it incorrectly! Make sure you manage to get the most out of your supplements while staying safe by checking in with a sports professional such as an educated coach or sports dietitian.

Navigating the world of sports supplements can be overwhelming. While some supplements have been proven to provide physical support for the training body, others can be, at best, a waste of time and money; at worst, detrimental to health, especially for the teenager with a still-developing body. The situation is not aided by perpetual advertising from manufacturers of sports products, who often employ smoke-and-mirrors science for their personal gain. Most of these companies are not even legally obligated to justify the claims on their labels! The solution to this pandemonium is good, solid science which reveals just how beneficial or detrimental these products are. To save us the trouble of doing all the research ourselves, sports institutes have grouped supplements into four categories: Group A are those that have sufficient evidence to support their use and can be recommended in certain situations, Group B are those that may have benefit but we aren’t quite sure yet, Group C are unlikely to be beneficial, and Group D are those that are banned.

Sports drinks, sports gels and electrolyte replacement are all proven, safe, and often necessary in sport, including in teenagers and children, but it can be confusing to know when and where to use each product. 

Sports drinks (carbohydrate-electrolyte drinks such as Energade or Powerade) are a brilliant way to replenish lost carbohydrate, electrolytes, and fluid during exercise. They prevent dehydration, maintain performance, and some studies show that replacing carbs during exercise enhances the immune system. For any activity lasting more than 60 minutes, children and teens should drink sports drink instead of water! On the other hand, sports gels provide readily available carbohydrate without the added fluid or electrolytes, so use these with caution, only in situations where additional carbohydrate is needed over and above fluid. 

Electrolyte replacement products, such as Rehidrat, are much higher in electrolytes than sports drinks, and should only be used in situations where there is excess electrolyte loss, such as dehydration, ultra-endurance activities, or abnormal sweat losses, to prevent electrolyte overload.

Whey protein, protein powders and meal replacement shakes act to replace balanced meals when eating healthily may be difficult. Whey is a protein considered safe in adults and children. It may be particularly beneficial to health, with studies showing it may reduce risk of some illnesses such as cardiovascular disease or cancer.  Because it is easily absorbed, it is a good option for a protein snack after exercise compared to other, heavier proteins which may cause gastrointestinal upsets. For a teenager who needs to be on a high protein, low fat diet for their sport, whey is a nice protein option as many protein foods do add fat to the diet. Meal replacement shakes are convenient, easy to transport, fast to prepare, fast to drink, and work very well when young athletes are on the road. 

They have the added benefit of having added vitamins and minerals that are typically quite rare in the average teenager’s diet! Some words of caution with whey and meal replacement shakes: Check ingredients on labels, as many manufacturers add many preservatives, colourants and artificial sweeteners. Avoid these if possible, and rather go for shakes with fewer, natural ingredients that you can pronounce! Also watch the volume of these powders your teen is consuming – liquid calories are easy to have in excess, and can easily lead to undesired weight gain. Remember that excess protein can place stress on developing kidneys, so make sure to monitor the amount of whey being consumed with the guidance of a professional. Ultimately, while these supplements can be useful, they are mostly unnecessary, so there is no need to break the bank on them. All teenage athletes can fulfil their nutrient needs with a good, balanced diet, and excess nutrients will go to waste.

Lastly, there may be situations where your teen may need to use medical supplements to support their growth, development and activity. Because of the additional demands on their body, and sometimes dietary restrictions associated with sports, teenage athletes can be at risk of vitamin and mineral deficiencies. There may be occasions where you will want to consider a multivitamin for your young athlete, especially in situations where a balanced food intake isn’t guaranteed – this can be whilst travelling, whilst ill, or a strictly restricted diet. Under normal circumstances, supplementation shouldn’t be necessary if your teenager is managing a healthy, varied, balanced diet. Teen athletes can be at risk of vitamin D deficiency, especially if they take extra precautions to avoid sun exposure and sun burn. Deficiency in this vitamin can not only impair sports performance, but lead to health issues such as bone injuries. Supplementation can help performance and prevent health problems, but only if a blood test confirms a deficiency! Be careful of over-supplementing as vitamin D can be toxic. 

Athletes are also at risk of calcium deficiency, especially young women who may follow low calorie diets and have very low body fat percentages. Increasing calcium intake with supplements can improve bone density and reduce stress fractures, but is only necessary with very low energy diets or in teenagers who don’t take in at least two dairy servings a day.

While all these sports foods and medical supplements have a really helpful role to play, they are seldom truly necessary. Before cleaning out the vitamin aisle at your pharmacy, remember to focus on the basics: lots of water, a varied diet filled with whole natural foods, many colours of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of sleep.  Compounded with a dedicated training routine, these should be all the young athlete needs to succeed!

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