Dietary Supplements & Young Athletes: Unravelling Fact from Fiction

Young athletes have a very high energy demand based on their need for growth, development, overall health and activity level. Many athletes struggle to meet their nutritional needs and often turn to supplements to help fill this gap.

In addition, knowing where to turn for correct information, access to nutrition experts, and spotting misinformation from social media can be challenging for young athletes to recognize fact from fiction. Along the same lines, the world of dietary supplements can be very confusing and difficult to navigate.

What is a Dietary Supplement?

According to The National Institute of Health, a dietary supplement is a product intended to supplement the diet. They contain one or more dietary ingredients: vitamins, minerals, herbs or other botanicals, amino acids, and other substances or their components.

Supplements are taken by mouth in a pill, capsule, tablet or liquid form that is identified on the front label of the product as being a dietary supplement.

In addition, a performance enhancing substance (PES) is defined as any ingredient consumed through food or supplements taken with the goal of improving sports performance.

Why do Athletes Use Dietary Supplements?

  • To gain a competitive edge: Athletes may take a supplement to improve their performance (endurance, focus, speed, strength) or change the way they look (desire to lose/gain weight, improve muscle tone, decrease body fat).
  • Shortcuts are easier: Planning, grocery shopping, and meal preparation takes time and effort. Supplement companies regularly offer “quick fixes” which appeals to a busy athletic family lifestyle.
  • Effective marketing: With over 50,000+ supplements available in stores and online, companies may use misleading tactics to get young athletes to buy their products and make people believe “more is better!”
  • Word of mouth or trust: Many athletes have complete faith that employees who work at nutrition supplement specialty stores are educated about supplements they are selling. However, this is not always the case. Young athletes are also very influenced by personal experiences of friends, peers, coaches, and social media.
  • Concern for vitamin/mineral deficiency: An athlete may need to take a supplement if they have a medical diagnosis (anemia, low vitamin D, low bone mineral density), food allergies/intolerances, or change in their eating habits (plant based diet, picky, eliminating food groups). Many athletes start taking supplements without consulting a medical professional first.

How are Dietary Supplements Regulated?

Many individuals do not believe stores or online websites would sell or market a product that is deemed to be unsafe. However, supplements, whether found in grocery stores, nutrition specialty stores, or on-line, are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) the same way food, beverages, or medications are.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) website:

  • Medicines must be approved by the FDA before they can be sold or marketed. Supplements do not require this approval. Supplement companies are responsible for having evidence that their products are safe, and the label claims are truthful and not misleading. However, as long as the product does not contain a “new dietary ingredient” (introduced since October 15, 1994), the company does not have to provide this safety evidence to the FDA before the product is marketed.
  • There is no organization that holds the manufacturers of these products responsible for the accuracy of the labels and the contents of their products.
  • Manufacturers must follow good manufacturing practices (GMPs) to ensure the identity, purity, strength and composition of their products.

What Are The Potential Dangers of Using Dietary Supplements?

Many products have been pulled from the market due to adverse and potentially deadly reactions. It is important for athletes and parents to understand the potential dangers linked with supplement use.

  • Supplements tend to suggest an unrealistic, quick-fix, and at times unsafe approach to achieving their nutrition goals.
  • The amount and type of substances in these products can be hazardous to a young athlete’s performance and health- even if used as directed. Serving sizes on a Supplement Facts Label are not a “one size fits all” recommendation.
  • Products may have unhealthy side effects, including dangerous interactions with over-the-counter and/or prescription medications.
  • A dietary supplement may possess an incorrect label due to poor manufacturing practices or defects resulting in the supplement containing:
    • A banned substance or illegal compounds
    • Inaccurate ingredients
    • Inaccurate ingredient amounts
    • False claims about health or disease

What if I am Concerned For a Vitamin and/or Mineral Deficiency?

  • First, talk to your pediatrician or family doctor about your questions or concerns.
  • Vitamins and minerals are recommended when an athlete has low blood values, a medical condition that may lead to poor absorption of nutrients, or other potential nutrition/eating challenges.

What’s The Bottom Line?

  • Simply put: Dietary supplement companies are not required to prove their products’ safety, purity, or effectiveness before being placed on the market.
  • Food first approach: Before relying on supplements, take a critical look at what you’re eating most days of the week. Vitamins and minerals are vital nutrients necessary to keep active bodies healthy and functioning optimally. Eating well, hydrating appropriately, sleeping enough, and rest do take more effort to implement. However, they are lifelong skills and will make a longer lasting impact on your sports performance.
  • It’s your choice: Young athletes often want to perform well and feel good doing so. Taking dietary supplements is a personal choice between an athlete, their family, and sports medicine team.
  • Do your research: Don’t purchase a supplement on a whim at the store without doing further research. Also remember- not all sales associates at health/nutrition supplement stores have an educational background in exercise physiology, nutrition, and/or sports medicine.
  • Not all supplements are bad: Several independent organizations offer third party quality testing and allow products that pass these tests to display a seal of quality assurance. This seal implies the product tested has a correct ingredient label and does not contain harmful levels of contaminants. However, seals do not guarantee a product is safe or effective as previously explained. Some examples of third party quality testing agencies include NSF Certified For Sport®, Informed Choice, and USP®.

Two final key points to consider:

  • If it sounds too good to be true, then it probably is.
  • You cannot supplement a poor diet.

Where Can I Find More Information?