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Sports Nutrition

Should Teens Take Supplements

Whether you’re a teenager or are old enough to fondly remember when you were, you know all too well that the wonder years also can be the blunder years. The pressures of trying to fit in, endless after-school activities and not-always-perfect lifestyle choices (like not getting enough sleep and eating a poor diet) can leave the average teen facing a unique set of challenges — the kind that could more easily be met with some form of supplementation.

But that’s where the great debate begins. While the topic of teenagers and supplements may be controversial for some, it really just comes down to understanding what categories are the wisest choices and which may not be suitable during a teenager’s formative years. 

The Teenage Catch-22

Experts agree that it’s essential to grasp the subtle psychological differences that teens bring to the table before they buy anything. “The teenage brain works very uniquely,” says Douglas “Duffy” MacKay, ND, senior vice president, Scientific & Regulatory Affairs for the Council for Responsible Nutrition. According to MacKay, a teen’s proclivity to engage in risk-taking behavior (plus an inadequate grasp of long-term consequences) can sometimes make it difficult for them to choose the right supplementation for their still-developing bodies.

“Teenagers are typically under a lot of pressure not only to establish their identity and figure out who they are, but in many cases to also perform at the highest level possible,” MacKay says. “That competitive mindset — combined with a time when teenagers usually have less parental supervision and more freedom to make their own choices — can sometimes make teens more likely to try anything, instead of what may be more appropriate for them.”

That emerging spirit of independence can create a variety of issues, particularly because “teens tend to be more likely to find themselves influenced by word-of-mouth from their friends instead of taking the time to thoroughly research whichever supplements they may be considering,” says Mike Fantigrassi, MS, NASM, fitness nutrition specialist, master instructor and director of professional services at the National Academy of Sports Medicine. “Without proper guidance, some teens have a greater risk of taking too many supplements at once, trying supplements that shouldn’t be used with other supplements [or medications] or ignoring the recommended dosage on the package altogether and taking too much,” Fantigrassi says. “That’s why having teens ask their coaches, teachers, a physician and/or their parents, instead of relying on friends or just searching the Internet, can help them not only choose the right supplements but also ensure they use them correctly.”

The Smartest Strategy

Many experts agree that once a teenager has the basics down (eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated and getting enough sleep on a regular basis), supplements can be extremely beneficial when used correctly — and they can be crucial in physically active teens. 

Supplementation may be highly individualized, and much depends on a teen’s dietary intake, but when we look at the data, it’s clear that teenagers, particularly teenage athletes, would benefit from filling certain nutritional gaps using supplements,” MacKay says. He also notes that teenagers tend to have some of the poorest dietary habits, leaving many of them deficient in key nutrients, including calcium, magnesium and vitamin D. 

“It’s a situation made worse if a teenager is also taking any type of medications known to rob the body of certain nutrients, such as some forms of seizure medicines or inhaled steroids for asthmatics, for example,” MacKay says. “By taking a full-spectrum multivitamin each day, it serves as a sort of ‘nutritional insurance policy’ that can cover any nutritional deficits.”

A high-quality fish-oil supplement also scores high among experts as a must-have for teens, especially if they aren’t eating enough cold-water fish, such as salmon, anchovies or sardines. “Cold-water fish are rich in essential omega-3 fatty acids, which are so critical for the developing brain and the growing body,” MacKay says. “But if a teen isn’t getting them from their diet on a regular basis, using a high-quality fish-oil supplement daily helps to guarantee they never miss out on those essential nutrients.”

Protein powder is another essential supplement for teenagers. “The science is unequivocal that adding protein to your diet, combined with resistance training, builds lean muscle,” MacKay says. “So if a teenager’s sport requires just that, you can very responsibly add whey protein on any given day with no controversy. In fact, whey protein has been a staple of our diet for centuries.”

Even if a teen isn’t looking to pack on pounds, developing teenagers go through a “peak growth rate” that makes their nutritional needs for certain things (mostly protein and extra calories) slightly higher than an adult’s. That’s when supplementing a teen’s diet with a first-rate protein powder can be a great solution, particularly for teens who may choose to eat a diet (like veganism) that is lower in high-protein foods. MacKay believes protein powder also can be a great vehicle to get teens to eat other healthy stuff, such as fruit, vegetables, yogurt or a fruit-and-vegetable powdered-concentrate supplement. “By blending them into a protein shake, you can instantly make certain key foods more convenient and palatable for teens,” he says.

Meal-replacement bars and shakes are another option that allows teens to meet their temporary elevated need for more protein and calories. A side benefit of these supplements is that they can prevent teens from eating too many unhealthy empty calories throughout the day. The reason? Because of their schedules, many teens tend to eat the bulk of their calories after school, either before or after dinner, and are more apt to reach for less-nutritious fare to satisfy their hunger. Having them eat a meal-
replacement (or high-protein) bar during the day can help curb their appetite so they’re less likely to leave school starved and are then able to make more sensible diet choices. 

One of the more unnecessarily controversial supplements among
parents is creatine, which surprises most experts, given its proven track record of being safe and effective. “There has never been a supplement as heavily researched as creatine monohydrate,” says Colin Wilborn, Ph.D., FISSN, director of the Human Performance Lab at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Texas and member of the board of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. “There have been hundreds and hundreds of studies performed on creatine showing its safety and efficacy, with none ever revealing the side effects that somehow still propagate in certain circles.”

However, some experts believe that the supplement is best used by older teens (17 and up) that have a better sense of their bodies’ creatine-free abilities. “Taking it will allow a teen looking for that competitive advantage to push through their routines a little longer and work a little harder before fatiguing, which cumulatively can help them build more muscle and improve performance,” Fantigrassi says. “But it’s always helpful to know what you can do before using creatine first. That way, you’ll have a baseline to use to gauge its impact on your body.”

Also suitable for teens are electrolyte supplements (especially for teens who drink a lot of water each day, whether because they live in a warmer climate or engage in high-intensity activities), as well as any carbohydrate supplements (particularly for teenage athletes involved in endurance activities and/or teens who just have a harder time gaining lean weight). 

When to Proceed with Caution

As effective as these tried-and-true supplements may be for teens, there are certain categories that many experts believe should be shied away from during a teenager’s foundational growth years, especially any type of fat-burning product or stimulant, which typically contain differing forms and amounts of caffeine.

“Caffeine has a real ergogenic benefit used by the right people in the right population,” Wilborn says. “The biggest issue is that most teenagers typically run on less sleep than recommended, are typically dehydrated and are already running at 100 miles an hour at all times, so adding any form of stimulant — especially one that may have various forms of caffeine — could cause a powerful and harmful reaction if they’re not careful.”

Two other categories considered out of bounds until the time is right include any sexual-enhancement products and any pro-hormone supplements designed to alter hormone levels, block estrogen or increase testosterone production.

“The teenage years are the most critical stage for hormone balance, and in most cases, a teenage boy’s testosterone levels are already many times off the charts to begin with,” Wilborn says. “By changing their testosterone levels outside the physiological norm, it can disrupt that balance and lead to side effects, which can include a decrease in their natural production of testosterone.”

When in doubt, experts agree that the best course of action for teens considering supplementation is to do their homework on whatever they’re interested in, run that info past someone of authority to ensure it’s the right move, then be smart about where it’s purchased. 

“Unfortunately, the Internet is a retail environment that’s hard for regulators to adequately stay on top of, so there’s a higher risk of purchasing illegitimate and/or poorly made products,” MacKay says. “Instead, always buy brands from a manufacturer you know and trust from mainstream businesses with credibility behind their name, since they are far less likely to dabble in anything controversial and have more layers of scrutiny behind each and every product they sell.” <

Fitness expert Myatt Murphy, CSCS, is the author of Push, Pull, Swing and The Ultimate Dumbbell Guide.