Establishing a “food-first” mentality for young athletes is a key part of their athletic development, the same way it’s important to teach habits like regular practice, warming up, cooling down, and getting plenty of sleep.
Unfortunately, quick fixes marketed to adults often trickle down to young athletes, causing them to reach for protein shakes, performance-enhancing supplements, “cure-all” vitamins, and energy-boosting drinks. Young athletes are even more susceptible to the harmful effects of risky supplements and their growing bodies mean they are more reliant on the benefits of a healthy nutritional plan.
Here’s what you need to know about why a food-first mindset is so important, and how to help your athletes rely on food over supplements:
Ignore the shortcuts
One of the primary problems with supplementation as a young athlete may not even be the supplements themselves, but rather, what they represent: A shortcut to good nutrition.
Being taught at a young age that supplements are superior to food, or that they can be used in place of meals, devalues the importance of a solid foundation of healthy nutrition. “We have to battle the normalization of the soft drug market,” says Amy Eichner, PhD, a Special Advisor on Drugs and Supplements for the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
She explains that ‘soft drugs’ includes most athletic supplements that aren’t approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and may contain ingredients not listed on the label. “Parents need to be role models, teaching kids good nutrition and not that nutrition can come from a powder or a pill. Kids need to be taught the long game, not a shortcut.”
Adapt a mindful fueling approach
“Fueling the body should be approached mindfully,” says Dr. Eichner.
Really considering what young athletes are using for fuel both in-sport and in everyday life is important for developing lifelong healthy athletes. “Training for endurance, for example, your nutritional needs will be different than if you’re training for powerful, explosive movements,” she adds. “If people would approach their fueling strategy with the same mindfulness that they approach their training strategy, you can absolutely fuel with food.”
Good nutrition means supplementation is often excessive
A study done at UC Davis showed that most of the healthy children and teenagers in the United States who are taking daily vitamin and mineral supplements “probably don’t need them,” and the American Academy of Pediatrics states that healthy children receiving a “normal, well-balanced diet” do not need vitamin supplementation.
A healthy diet rich in fruits and vegetables, as well as an appropriate amount of carbohydrates, fat, and protein, should provide the nutrients that young athletes need, explains Amanda Leonard, MPH, RD, a pediatric sports nutritionist at the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center.
Supplements aren’t generally recommended for young athletes
Most supplements are made for adult use only and could be harmful to younger athletes. Yet a survey of health food stores showed that creatine, testosterone boosters, and ‘weight loss’ supplements were available to minors, despite ‘adult only’ warnings on the label.
“There are so many readily available supplements that mess with hormones,” Dr. Eichner explains. “Young athletes have hormones that are raging and adding hormonal supplements can throw off their endocrine systems and cause serious damage. You can accidentally be taking supplements that have these hormone disruptors in them without realizing.”
Supplements should be considered specialized, not normalized
If a doctor recommends a vitamin based on blood work, that’s a great reason to use a supplement. But if it’s recommended by a Men’s Fitness Magazine, that’s not a good reason.
“People approach supplements in such a cavalier way, assuming that they’re going to be safe, and that’s not true,” says Dr. Eichner. “If supplementation is approached mindfully, with expert-backed advice and recommendations, it can be helpful… but don’t just pick up whatever looks good on the shelf.”
Understand how food can be the optimal supplement
“If your goal is to obtain 20 grams of protein within an hour of a workout, you can do that without a protein powder,” explains Dr. Eichner.
Consider whole food options as supplement alternatives. For example, swap a protein shake for a chocolate milk or a bowl of cereal. In the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, a study compared a bowl of whole-grain cereal to a sports drink for recovery after exercise. The result? The cereal was just as effective as the powdered supplement when tested on a group of trained cyclists.
… And be aware of food-based “supplementation”
Beware of supplements that are often considered ‘regular food.’ It’s not just pills or powder that contain supplements: energy drinks count as well.
“We normalize stimulants because, as adults, we consume caffeine through our coffee every day,” says Dr. Eichner, but studies have shown that energy drink use in teens can have adverse effects, from stomach pain to heart palpitations.
As the industry grows, more and more supplements are making their way onto store shelves, but no supplement is guaranteed to be risk-free. Advise your young athletes to ignore the hype, stay well-informed about the overall impact supplements have on their health, and focus more on getting their dietary needs from well-balanced, nutrient-rich foods.