Andrew Jagim, Ph.D.
It's no secret that dietary supplements are popular, as annual sales are estimated to surpass $200 billion over the next decade. Supplements have become popular among young athletes, with nearly 60% reporting regular use.
There are a lot of questions surrounding the safety of dietary supplements in young athletes. Unfortunately, there is limited research data available, so the short answer is that we don’t know yet.
One reason this question is so difficult to answer is because dietary supplements come in many different categories and doses, have varying manufacturing practices and are used for various purposes. As a result, there is no easy way to determine whether supplements in general are safe.
For some types of supplements, more research is available. For example, creatine monohydrate is one of the most extensively researched supplements in many populations, from high-level athletes to pediatric muscular dystrophy patients to older adults with various concerns related to health and performance. More importantly, nearly all of these studies have found little to no adverse events reported from supplementation.
In comparison, no scientific evidence demonstrates for or against the safety of pre-workout supplements in young athletes. These types of supplements tend to be more commonly associated with adverse events, mislabeling and product contamination, so it may be best for young athletes to avoid these altogether. The same could be said for energy drinks, as there is limited research available regarding their safety in young athletes. Instead, athletes should focus on improving sleep habits to promote healthy lifestyle choices and reduce the need for an energy drink.
It is important to know that although dietary supplements fall under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration, dietary supplement products are not regulated before they are released to the market. Companies do not have to demonstrate safety and efficacy in humans before the products are sold to consumers, as is the case with pharmaceuticals.
Best practices for supplements
I recommend parents follow these tips if they decide to provide dietary supplements to their young athletes:
- Choose a high-quality product or brand that has passed an independent quality assessment. These products will have a label or symbol on the package to denote third-party testing.
- Follow the instructions carefully.
- Check with the governing body that oversees your athlete's sport, who likely has a list of banned ingredients or performance-enhancing substances to avoid.
- Avoid taking multiple supplements with overlapping ingredients. This will help prevent your child from consuming excessive amounts of specific ingredients, such as caffeine, which can be problematic over time.
- Avoid products with proprietary blends that do not provide a list of ingredients.
- Avoid giving your athlete supplements or multivitamins designed for adults, as the daily requirements or tolerable limits may be lower in young athletes due to smaller body sizes.
- Talk with your health care provider before your child takes supplements if he or she has an underlying medical condition or is taking other medications.
Are supplements needed?
For young athletes, it's best to focus on minimally processed, whole-food sources of nutrients rather than relying on supplements for their nutritional needs. If your child still has identified nutritional deficiencies confirmed by labs or dietary consultations, then a dietary supplement could help fill the gap. Also, if your athlete is constantly on the go and doesn't have time to properly prepare snacks and meals, then a protein shake, bar or sports drink may provide important nutrients at the right time to help ease recovery and enhance training adaptations. Again, it is best to always choose high-quality products and consult with an expert prior to use.
There is a difference between dietary supplements and performance-enhancing drugs. Dietary supplements can legally be sold over the counter. However, they may or may not be allowed in sport, depending on the sporting organization. In contrast, performance-enhancing drugs often are controlled substances, may be illegal to possess without a prescription and almost always are banned in sport.