Should young athletes take supplements?

January 9, 2019 Luke Corey

As youth athletes — ages 10 to 18 — develop physically and begin playing sports at higher levels, the subject of nutrition supplements will inevitably arise. Are supplements for young athletes going to help meet their nutrient needs?

Let’s consider the modern youth sports environment. Athletes playing at higher levels likely have a schedule packed with practices and competitions. Add performance training in the form of strength and agility sessions, and you have an athlete who has high nutrient demands to fuel performance, build and maintain lean mass, and prevent injury. Not only that, youth athletes typically are in the midst of growth spurts, so proper nutrition and, possibly, supplementation, are required to provide the building blocks for a strong and healthy body and optimal brain development.

A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition identified nutrition as the key factor in the growth and development of adolescents, especially those engaged in high levels of physical activity. Youth athletes who can optimize nutrition experience the best performances while also reaching their full growth potential. Since meeting nutrient recommendations from food alone can be challenging, supplements can be a safe and effective way to fill potential gaps in the diet. 

Growth potential

As young athletes grow they require building blocks to support strong, lean, and powerful bodies. Those building blocks come from food, and protein acts as the main structural component of muscles, bones, tendons, organs, and other tissues. The body also requires vitamins and minerals to grow. Unfortunately, the average youth diet is unbalanced and deficient in nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables that supply key nutrients including vitamins A and C, folic acid, magnesium, and potassium.

The Canadian Paediatric Society recommends that youth athletes include a high-quality protein source such as chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, lean beef, milk or milk alternatives, nuts, seeds, beans, and lentils with every meal and snack. They also recommend one or two servings of colorful fruits or vegetables at every meal and snack to ensure youth athletes receive the micronutrients to support growth and development.

Young athletes may be inclined to grab fast food for convenience, but doing this too often can leave them lacking the nutrients necessary for optimal health and performance.

The average youth diet is unbalanced and deficient of nutrient-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables that supply key nutrients including vitamins A and C, folic acid, magnesium, and potassium.

While a food-first approach is recommended, some athletes have higher nutrient demands than others, and supplementation might help meet those needs. Supplements such as 100 percent whey protein isolate and a multivitamin with a comprehensive blend of vitamins and minerals are recommended for youth athletes in the midst of growth spurts or training at a high level. For youth athletes who might also need to lose weight or body fat while maintaining lean muscle mass, branched-chain amino acids would be a safe alternative to a higher-calorie whey protein supplement.

Cognitive development

Cognitive development and brain health are important for youth athletes, and the key facilitator is omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids play a major role in cell membrane development throughout the body, especially in cognitive development and function. Young athletes require that nutrient on a regular basis, especially as they become more active and require greater focus and concentration in their sports. Omega-3s also help maintain the body’s normal inflammatory response to exercise, which decreases soreness and stiffness and speeds recovery. To meet omega-3 needs, a study published in the journal Circulation found that youth athletes should consume two weekly servings of fatty fish (salmon, sardines, tuna, mackerel, and herring). Other sources of omega-3s include flaxseed, chia seeds, walnuts, and hemp seeds, which can be consumed daily.

Like fruits and vegetables, food sources of omega-3s aren’t always a part of a young athlete’s diet due to allergies, intolerances, or disliking certain foods. So they might consider an omega-3 supplement that provides both EPA and DHA (two different types of omega-3s) at 500 milligrams or more.

To optimize the effort young athletes put in during practice, a balanced diet is necessary.

Supplements can pick up the slack when a food-first approach isn’t cutting it.

Hydration affects performance more than any other nutritional factor.

Another important factor in optimizing performance is hydration, which can help with energy, endurance, and focus.

Sports performance

Hydration affects performance more than any other nutritional factor. Athletes who are dehydrated before or during training will experience reduced energy, diminished endurance, and cognitive impairment. It’s essential for young athletes to hydrate before training and then replace fluid and electrolyte losses during and after workouts.

During training sessions longer than one hour, especially intense workouts or workouts in hot weather, electrolytes such as sodium, potassium, magnesium, and chloride are lost through sweat. They can be replaced with sports drinks, foods such as bananas and peanut butter, and electrolyte-replacement supplements.

Implementing these recommendations into a young athlete’s routine can help support growth, development, health, and performance. When choosing a supplement brand, look for products that are third-party tested, made from high-quality ingredients, and that are safe. So how do you know if a supplement is third-party tested? Look for the tester’s seal of approval, such as NSF International’s circular blue seal. Before providing any supplements to a young athlete, consult with a pediatrician or doctor.

About the Author

Luke Corey

Luke Corey, R.D., is a performance dietitian at EXOS. Prior to joining EXOS, he operated a successful private practice in Canada.

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