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Nutritional Supplements: Use Only To Fill Gaps & As Insurance, Experts Say

One of the questions we asked top sports dietitians and nutrition experts during our month-long special blog series on sports nutrition was what they thought of nutritional supplements.  Not surprisingly, most thought that athletes should meet their nutritional needs by eating whole, minimally processed foods, with most saying a multi-vitamin is okay to fill nutritional gaps.  Here's what each had to say on the subject of supplements (to go read their full blogs, click on their name):

Supplement facts label

Leslie Bonci

I think the most important item is FOOD! Food provides energy, as well as vitamins, mineral and nutrients such as protein, carbohydrate and fat. That being said, some athletes may need iron, or Vitamin D, or calcium, or sometimes a protein isolate, BUT never in place of food.

Kat Barefield 

I think kids should take a safe, quality multivitamin to fill the nutrient gaps in their diet. No one eats perfectly all the time, and this is a simple way to ensure certain nutrient needs are met. The type, amount and timing of meals are particularly critical throughout puberty, when nutrition can make its greatest contribution to a youth athlete's future overall physical stature as an adult, and getting the optimal amounts of key nutrients is extremely important.

I also believe that youth athletes benefit from consuming a carbohydrate- and protein-containing meal replacement shakes/smoothies before and after exercise, since research shows doing so helps to (1) top off muscle fuel stores needed during activity, (2) replenish muscle stores after activity, and (3) support muscle repair and growth. The liquid form allows the nutrients to be rapidly absorbed and digested, which is important pre- and post-exercise. The body has a certain window of opportunity approximately an hour after exercise during which nutrient uptake is optimal, so timing is also key.

Valerie Berkowitz

Most kids do not eat a balanced diet; convenience foods are popular, fruits and vegetables are not. Many kids have suboptimal levels of iron, copper, zinc, vitamin A, C, D, calcium, fiber and potassium. Intense exercise boosts the needs for some of these nutrients even higher. I suggest these supplements:

  1. Multivitamin/mineral (MVI) to ensure the basic micronutrients are met (teenage girls who do not eat red meat should consider a MVI with iron)
  2. Omega 3 fish oil helps support focus, reduce inflammation and much much more
  3. Calcium with magnesium, Vitamin D, boron, Vitamin K supports growth and strength for bones
  4. Greens: drink to reduce the oxidation associated with exercise, increase nutrients similar to vegetable intake

Lindsey Remmers

If athletes are meeting their energy needs through whole foods, additional supplements are not needed. The only supplement I may recommend to young athletes is a standard multivitamin containing 1000 IU vitamin D, and possibly omega-3's. However, the multivitamin only serves as nutritional "insurance" and complement but cannnot make up for a lack of a solid nutrition foundation of a well-balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and dairy foods.

The supplement industry is a scary one, as it's currently not regulated by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA).  Many can make health claims without any scientific evidence; as a recent report from the FDA pointed out, 20 percent included prohibited disease claims on their labels which were unsubstantiated, and others may not actually contain the ingredients (or contain more ingredients) than listed on the supplement facts panel.

The other frightening fact is that the supplement industry is among the fastest growing industries in the country. According to the Supplement Business Report, the dietary supplements industry surpassed $30 billion in 2011 sales, growing 7% annually in a return to performance levels not seen since before the economic downturn. Adulterated supplements are common, and you won't know for sure if a supplement is true to the label unless it has been third-party tested by a reputable company (e.g. NSF Certified for Sport). The bottom line is a fully-nourished body is a strong and powerful body! Food first, always.

Lisa McDowell

I am not a fan of supplementing high school athletes' diets with manufactured or engineered ‘nutrition supplements.' I think there is way too much we don't know about these products. For every claim out there by the marketers of these products, as clinicians we see studies that show harm with supplements. In addition, of the supplements available for purchase, more than a quarter of them are illegally labeled or don't contain what is listed. I recommend to my Olympic, professional and college athletes that they start with the basics - good hydration and sleep, and not skipping meals. They can find the nutrition they need to perform at an extremely high level through natural products. There is no need for them to look for lightning in a bottle or a pill.

Brad Taliancich

Yes, youth & high school athletes need "compliments" to their healthy diet. I recommend a good multi-vitamin, especially containing adequate amounts of Vitamin D, C and zinc. Yes, vitamins are a "supplement." Make sure the products are SAFE and can be properly absorbed. Many supplements & vitamins are cheap and ineffective because the formulations do not allow the body to break them down and absorb them properly. Parents should do their research on these items and not purchase based on price alone.

Jill Castle 

I do not think high school athletes need supplements. Everything they need can be found in food, it just requires some forethought and planning. In fact, research in the area of youth sports and supplements, such as amino acids and creatine, is limited; the American Academy of Pediatrics advises no ergogenic (muscle-building, performance-enhancing) supplements for youth athletes due to their unknown side effects.

For young athletes who have a documented iron deficiency or a limited vitamin D or calcium intake (due to food allergy or other), micronutrient supplements may be indicated, but this should be reviewed with a health care provider first.

Dave Ellis

NSF Certified For Sport Multi-Vitamin and protein source for smoothies (preferably, a blend of whey, soy and casein).

Allison Maurer 

No, I never recommend supplements to kids at all, especially those 18 years or younger. Kids are still growing during their teens and adding a supplement is not going to make an athlete gain weight or be a better athlete any faster. Protein powders, creatine, etc, is absolutely not necessary for youth athletes. Most kids are lacking from a simple dietary intake standpoint, so supplements are just a waste of money for parents. Ask your child what he/she eats in a day and how often and that will be your answer to improving performance or weight gain, not a supplement. A simple children's multi-vitamin is quite all right, however.

Nancy Clark

Youth and high school athletes need wholesome foods, not supplements. Within the range of 1,200 to 1,500 calories, a student-athlete can consume all the vitamins, minerals and protein they need to meet their nutritional needs. Most student athletes consume 2,000 to 3,000 and more calories, so have the opportunity to consume a LOT of vitamins. Kids need to learn to be responsible with their food choices because no amount of supplements will compensate for a lousy sports diet.

Posted November 20, 2012