Attention Young Athletes: Is Supplementation Right for You?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult with a medical professional if you have questions about supplementation or nutrition.

Courtesy: Amy Udani

As a young athlete, you have your mind on one thing — staying healthy and conditioned. After all, that is what will give you a competitive edge.

You may have been training more lately, focusing on your diet, and even addressing your sleep patterns, but what about supplementation?

Considering over 70 percent of the American population has reported taking dietary supplements, it seems to be the new norm — but should you be taking supplements?

Supplement Use Is on the Rise — Especially Among Young Adults

According to The New York Times, Americans spend more than $30 billion a year on dietary supplements. This upward trend is due to a number of factors, including an increase in usage among young adults. And in most cases, these supplements are not necessarily formulated to address the unique nutritional requirements of the younger demographics. It is also important to note that not all supplements are created equal.

Not only should you be mindful of the ingredients used, but also the end user’s age. Of course, the quality of ingredients can vary (as well as how well those ingredients have been tested). However, in terms of an individual’s age, there are some supplements that may be appropriate under certain circumstances, while others are completely unnecessary for the younger population.

You may have already noticed this in how supplements are being marketed. For example, supplements that support joint health usually target older individuals, whereas performance-enhancing or nutritional supplements may catch the attention of young athletes.

As stated in one study, published in Health Education Research, after interviewing 78 adolescents (aged 11-18), it was found that these individuals were taking anything from vitamin supplements to creatine. The majority consumed these supplements due to the perceived health benefits. They also reported having a parental supply. The researchers ultimately concluded that a nutritious diet may be more appropriate.

Should YOU Be Taking Supplements?

Whether you’re swimming on a club team or competing on a higher level, it’s clear that you need to support your active body and mind. This leads us to the burning question — is supplementation the answer?

Considering young athletes do not generally require supplements to perform or maintain positive health, the risks often seem to outweigh the rewards. In a large, 10-year study, researchers looked at data from 63 hospitals. They found that on average, 23,0000 emergency room (ER) visits annually were due to the adverse effects of supplements.

Overall, young adults were the most commonly affected. A quarter of all these ER visits were due to weight-loss products, which disproportionately impacted females. In contrast, males were more likely to experience side effects from bodybuilding and sexual enhancement products. An additional 10 percent of these visits were due to energy-boosting products.

When aiming to enhance your performance, there are no shortcuts when it comes to the basics — fluids, training, calories, conditioning, and rest. If you are a young athlete or are the parent of a young athlete, please note that dietary supplements are not currently regulated by the US Food and Drink Administration (FDA). In addition, researchers have found that many supplements yield high contamination rates.

These studies have also found that many of the supplements currently marketed to the public do not contain the ingredients that are listed on the label. This is not only misleading for young athletes but in some cases, mislabeling could be potentially dangerous.

Some of the ingredients and supplements you should be cautious of:

  • Protein and creatine — Commonly used among athletes, studies have not found that these types of supplements offer any added benefits for young athletes in terms of sports performance. For those who are vegetarian, meal planning with a registered dietitian would be more beneficial. Some common side effects of too much creatine include weight gain (due to water retention), restlessness, cramping, and gastrointestinal issues.
  • Hydrogenated Oils — Often used as a filler, hydrogenated oils (which are typically genetically modified) have been linked to a wide range of health issues. The FDA recognizes that hydrogenated oils are harmful in regards to trans fat. Many experts have even gone as far as calling these oils “toxic” to your long-term health. It’s a cheap ingredient and often dilutes any of the ingredients that are meant to provide health or performance-boosting benefits. Salmon oil is a perfect example, as a company may include a minuscule amount of fish oil and then top up each capsule with cottonseed or soybean oil.
  • Talc or Magnesium Silicate — An ingredient that is often used in cosmetics, talc is the softest mineral available. Although the research is lacking in regards to health supplements, talc has been shown to be “possibly carcinogenic” and increases your risk of inflammation when used externally. There are also significant concerns surrounding the inhalation of talc — so it’s not exactly something you want to consume. The FDA does not even consider this ingredient to be food grade, yet it is still found in some supplements!
  • Stimulants — Consuming too many stimulants or even energy drinks can be dangerous. Although caffeine has been shown to improve certain aspects of performance in adults, the effects have not been well studied in children. Here is a list of some of the stimulants found in supplements. Some side effects include agitation, insomnia, dizziness, and chest pain.
  • Nutritional supplements in general — Vitamins and minerals requirements should be met through a well-balanced diet. Although low levels of iron can decrease athletic performance, a high intake of iron (or any other vitamin or mineral) has not been shown to enhance performance. Also, you can get too much of a ‘good’ thing. For example, too much vitamin A can lead to headaches, reduced bone strength, and even liver damage. To increase iron levels, you are not limited to red meat. Nuts, seeds, eggs, beans, spinach, oatmeal, and tofu are also great options.

The verdict?

As long as you follow a balanced lifestyle and consume a nutrient-rich diet, supplements aren’t the solution. They will not turn you into a star athlete — only hard work and positive health can help you reach that goal. If you do decide to take a supplement, do your homework!

Targeted disease prevention as discussed with your physician is one thing, but taking what are potentially harmful placebos at such a young age is another.

Develop a training and diet plan that meets your specific needs. This is what will help you rise above the competition. After all, Jack Lalanne, the Godfather of Fitness said it best, “Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together, and you’ve got a kingdom.”

About Amy Udani

As a regulatory pharmacist who has worked with major pharmaceutical, biotech and healthcare companies such as Pfizer, Amgen and MeCure, Amy Udani knows firsthand about the dangerous chemicals found in many supplement lines and the leniency of current regulations.

Udani has a B.S. in Pharmacy from the University of Mumbai and an M.S. in Regulatory Science with a focus on Pharmaceutical Science from the University of Southern California.

Today, Udani uses her background as a regulatory pharmacist to educate others about the hidden dangers in supplements so they can get the results they want without the risks. She is also the founder of theElumnati, an online magazine by female entrepreneurs for female entrepreneurs.

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2 years ago

No, just stay off junk and eat real food.
You’ll be fine.

Caeleb Dressel Will Win 9 Gold Medals in Tokyo
Reply to  Observer
2 years ago

One of the best swimmers in my state eats tons of junk food but is ripped.


… for now

2 years ago

What are people’s thoughts on Ammonia Capsules / Smelling Salts?

Reply to  sscommenter
2 years ago

There is little evidence to suggest they help. You’ll hear something here or there about how it can help because it stimulates/irritates your nose/lungs and makes you breath in more. Thus it gets your heart rate going because increased breathing increases your heart rate. But on the same token there is evidence to suggest it impairs fine motor control, which would be bad for swimming as technique is extremely important. And because it is an irritant it can make you cough which obviously isn’t ideal for swimming.

And even though there is only some small evidence to suggest it could help, that all could just be the placebo effect as most of the information is just anecdotal not controlled scientific… Read more »

Reply to  SwimCoach
2 years ago

In the 30s and 40s swimmers were told to smoke a cigarette before their race because it “opened up the lungs and increased your heart rate.”

Don’t listen to what you hear on the streets about some of this stuff until it has firmly been looked into and backed up by science.

Reply to  CraigH
2 years ago

I guess I wasn’t negative enough on it my post. But in no way was that supposed to show approval. Just stating that there are some that like to say for brute power things like competitive weightlifting or football they like it. But that’s just anecdotal and not controlled studies.

This isn’t something I would recommend to any athlete regardless of sport right now.

Reply to  SwimCoach
2 years ago

I appreciate your answer, something that came to mind watching the recent NHL playoffs and seeing guys crack smelling salts before shifts late in periods. I think it was Michael Strahan who said that about 70-80% of guys in the NFL use them as a stimulant to help perform. While I doubt that it helps with long distance/endurance races-it would be interesting to see if it had any effect on sprints that can be won or lost by the smallest of margins.

Reply to  CraigH
2 years ago

That’s why I asked about a chemical compound/stimulant that has been used for several hundred years, and not “hey will it help if I rip a juul before my 1650?”

bobo gigi
2 years ago

“I don’t take supplements. Our testing is so strict, so I’m super paranoid. That’s why my nutrition and diet are so important, because I’m facing athletes who do take supplements. So I have to make sure that I’m getting all those nutrients through my food.”
Allyson Felix