Should High School Athletes Take Supplements?

By Tavis Piatolly, MS, RD

John is a 15-year-old football player who is constantly tired and lacks the drive and energy needed to perform at the highest level. He’s also not getting enough rest and the quality of his diet has been inconsistent, as well as the times of day he chooses to eat.  John is looking for a boost and asks his mom to take him to the local supplement store to look for a product that can meet his needs. They inform the supplement store clerk of John’s significant medical history which includes 4 catheter ablation surgeries to correct an abnormal heart beat. John has a condition called super ventricular tachycardia (a rapid heart rhythm originating at or above the atrioventricular node). After discussing his medical history with the supplement store clerk, John is advised to take a product that contains a combination of 3 stimulants (caffeine, bitter orange, and guarana – found in many energy drinks).

Supplement Use in High School Athletes

High school athletic programs, especially football, are bigger than ever and athletes are looking to gain any potential edge to win a state championship or earn a college scholarship. Research from the Taylor Hooton Foundation indicates 35% of middle school and high school athletes are using protein supplements. What’s more alarming is that 5.9% of male high school athletes and 4.6% of female high school athletes are using anabolic steroids to gain a competitive edge. Furthermore, popular over-the-counter supplements like pre-workout boosters (i.e Cellucor C4, NO-XPLODE, etc) which contain high doses of caffeine and stimulants that are banned by the NFL, fill the locker rooms of many high school programs.

In 2007, the LHSAA conducted a study on 25,000 high school athletes in Louisiana on dietary supplements.  The primary reasons athletes turned to supplements were to gain mass and weight, get stronger, reduce body fat, and have more energy. Without examining their current dietary habits, they felt a supplement was the answer to their performance issues. What should concern you isn’t why athletes take supplements, but the source of their information on supplements.  The research indicated the most influential people who recommend supplements are the coach, teammate, or a friend.

Without understanding why, the primary reason high school athletes are turning to supplements is they are under-fueled to meet the amount of energy and calories they burn. A few changes to their current eating habits would lead to muscle growth, fat loss, improved strength, and faster recovery.

Where’s the Research?

Currently, there is limited research on the safety of using dietary supplements in a healthy teenage athlete. One of the most widely used dietary supplements that is well researched in athletes (over 1,500 studies), and is safe, is Creatine. Unfortunately, there are no studies to measure if there are any side effects in athletes under the age of 18. This doesn’t mean an athlete under 18 should not take Creatine, as there are a large amount of clinical studies examining Creatine supplementation in infants, children, and teenagers with medical conditions (i.e. muscle wasting conditions, muscular dystrophy, creatine synthesis deficiency). It’s finding a legitimate company who makes a clean product with high quality raw materials that is the challenge. Since supplement companies know the majority of consumers are not well educated on product quality, they tend to use less expensive raw materials to increase profitability.

Lack of Knowledge of the Supplement Store Staff

Be careful.  If you go to a supplement store to purchase your products, John’s story above should make you question the knowledge of those who work behind the counter. These are individuals without any formal education in nutrition, biochemistry, chemistry, or pharmacology. If you want to buy a new car, television, or furniture, you don’t expect the person to have the initials, MD, RD, RPh, or PhD behind their name. On the other hand, when you take a product that may minimize your risk for cancer or cardiovascular disease, improve your sleeping patterns, or just boost muscle strength and performance, you should ask a medical professional, not a salesperson. Would you go to a salesperson to receive advice about prescription drugs? Most store staff are trained to sell the most popular products on the shelves or those with the highest margins.

Evaluating Your Supplements for Banned Substances

You would think taking a pill, powder, or capsule would have some form of regulation before consumption, especially if its purpose is to improve health and/or athletic performance. Thanks to the DSHEA Act of 1994, dietary supplements do not need to be evaluated before being marketed to consumers.    Consider the problems individuals had with Ephedra before the FDA finally stepped in 2004 and banned the sale of all products containing it.  Unfortunately, it took the deaths of two well known athletes (Korey Stringer and Steve Bechler) before they intervened.

Today, attention has shifted to anabolic steroid and growth hormone use as testing has increased at all levels of sport, including high school athletics. It’s alarming that a recent study by Informed Choice Labs, which randomly selected 58 protein powders off the shelves of well known supplement stores, found that 25% of those powders contained anabolic steroids. An additional 11% of the products tested positive for stimulants not indicated on the label. High school athletes are taking the advice of the supplement store representative on what products are effective to gain muscle, drop body fat, and enhance performance.  Warning to parents: speak with your son or daughter’s physician and/or a board certified sports dietitian before they partake in a dietary supplement regimen.

To determine if your dietary supplements are safe and free of contaminants, steroids, and stimulants, check out the websites of the three top testing labs in the world that test for illegal markers.

NSF – www.nsfsport.com

Informed Choice – www.informed-choice.org

Banned Substance Control Group – www.bscg.org

Are Dietary Supplements Safe for High School Athletes?

Overall, dietary supplements can be very safe for high school athletes if they do the following:

  1. Talk to their parents about why they want to take supplements.
  2. Take a supplement that is well researched and has been proven to be safe.
  3. Take the dosage that has been studied in the scientific literature.
  4. Only take supplements that have been 3rd party tested by a testing lab.
  5. Speak with their doctor, a board certified sports dietitian, or their athletic trainer prior to taking a supplement.
  6. Evaluate their eating habits to determine where changes can be made to see immediate performance improvement (i.e. eating at the correct times).

Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD is the sports dietitian for the New Orleans Saints, New Orleans Pelicans, and Tulane University Athletic Department. He can be reached at 504-250-3325 or tpiattoly@gmail.com.

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