Advice & Features Articles

Should High School Athletes Take Supplements?



Supplement Use in High School Athletes

By Tavis Piattoly / Contributor

High school athletic programs, especially football, are bigger than ever, and athletes are looking to gain any potential edge to accomplish the challenging task of winning a state championship or earning a college scholarship. Research from the Taylor Hooton Foundation indicates that 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, which contain high doses of caffeine and other stimulants that may be banned by the NFL, fill the locker rooms of many high school programs. In 2016, I had 3 coaches and 3 athletic trainers contact me after finding 20 of their players with pre-workout supplements that contained the ingredient Synephrine (a.k.a. Bitter Orange), which is banned by the NFL, NCAA and other professional sporting agencies.

The primary reasons athletes are turning to supplements are to gain mass and body weight, increase strength, reduce body fat and have more energy. What concerns me more than why athletes take supplements is the source of information where they learn about supplements. Research has indicated the most influential people who recommend supplements are coaches, teammates and friends.

Where’s the Research?

Currently, there is very 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 2,500 studies) and is safe, is creatine. Unfortunately, only two of the studies were in athletes under the age of 18 with both demonstrating no side effects, but both were short-term studies (6-8 weeks). This doesn’t mean an athlete under the age of 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) that have shown no side effects. The challenge for the consumer is locating a legitimate company that makes a clean product with high quality raw materials. 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. For example, there are 7-8 different forms of creatine used in dietary supplements. While many companies are combining various forms of creatine in their products, creatine monohydrate remains the gold standard according to the scientific literature. Furthermore, a company who prides itself on using quality raw materials will use the branded Creapure™ from Alzchem in Germany. This is considered the highest quality and form of creatine monohydrate.

Lack of Knowledge of the Supplement Store Staff

One the most important messages I tell athletes, coaches and parents is to be careful if you go to a supplement store to purchase your products. The 20 athletes mentioned above who purchased a pre-workout with the banned substance Synephrine did so from the advice of the supplement store staff. These are individuals without any formal education in nutrition, biochemistry, chemistry or pharmacology. If I want to buy a new car, television, or furniture, I don’t expect the salesperson to have the initials, MD, RD, RPh, or PhD behind their name. On the other hand, when I take a product that may minimize my risk for cancer or cardiovascular disease, improve my sleeping patterns, or just boost muscle strength and performance, I personally would ask a medical professional, not a salesperson. Would you go to a salesperson to receive advice about prescription drugs? Most supplement 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 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 Dietary Supplement Health and Education 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 during 2004 and banned the sale of all products containing it.  Unfortunately, it took the deaths of two well-known athletes (Kory Stringer and Steve Bechler) before they intervened.

Today, our attention turns toward anabolic steroid and growth hormone use as testing has increased at all levels of sport. It’s alarming that a 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. What concerns me more is that 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 banned substances, I’ve listed the website of the top testing lab for banned substances. NSF – www.nsfsport.com

Are Dietary Supplements Safe for High School Athletes?

Overall, dietary supplements can be very safe for high school athletes if they follow a few simple rules:

1.)  Talk to their parents about why they want to take supplements

2.) Evaluate their eating habits to determine where changes can be made to see immediate performance improvement (i.e. eating at the correct times)

3.)  Take a supplement that is well researched and has been proven to be safe

4) Take the dosage that has been studied in the scientific literature

5.)  Only take supplements that have been 3rd party certified by an accredited lab (see above)

6.)  Speak with their doctor, a board-certified sports dietitian, or their certified athletic trainer prior to taking a supplement

Editor’s Note: Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, LDN is the Education Program Manager and Sports Dietitian for the Taylor Hooton Foundation where he educates young individuals and their adult influencers about the dangers of Appearance and Performance Enhancing Drugs and Dietary Supplements. 

Learn more about Tavis on page 11 and more about the Taylor Hooton Foundation at taylorhooton.org.

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