Young athletes and Supplements: What are we teaching?

Last year I finally attained a nutrition certification. After many years of kicking the idea around I decided to take the Precision Nutrition Coaching Certification. While I finished it very quickly, I rather enjoyed the process and attention to detail that the course had.

There are a number of reasons I decided to formalize my Nutrition Coaching, the most of which was to have solid footing with which to be able to help those I talk with and coach understand that the FUNDAMENTALS of great nutrition remain universal, and are the foundation for success, regardless if your goal is athletic, or for looks.

Unfortunately, in the last 4-5 years there has been an increase in the number of athletes, especially YOUNG athletes, who come to me asking about supplements and how to get more out of their training through the use of supplements. Alongside those athletes come nutritionist and dieticians who have also gotten sucked up into the “supplements are necessary for performance” standpoint.

I’m not trying to be, nor claiming to be, an expert on sports nutrition. I’m simply sharing my perspective on the overreliance on supplements, in a world that is so incredibly “right here, right now” focused, that the foundations for success have been neglected or erased from thought and more frighteningly: from practice for many professionals.

The basics

Sound nutrition is not rocket science, although we could argue that it is an arm of Organic Chemistry…

Especially now days, with our growing understanding of the human body and how it functions, more and more supplements that promise this, that, and the end of the world if you don’t have it in your daily regimen, abound.

In a modern lifestyle where we are working longer hours than possibly any non-war era, we have lost perception of what a truly healthy nutrition plan is. Long gone are the days of “3 squares a day”, and in are the Keto, Paleo, Intermittent, and Gluten free diet, just to name a few.

“THIS FOOD IS THE DEVIL” abounds, and all sanity has been lost… ESPECIALLY when it comes to athletes, or those who are training with intent.

Supplements are NOT the devil. In fact, when used at the right time, in the right amount, and for the right reasons, they can serve an important role in an athletes diet.

But at the right time.

In the right amount.

For the right reasons.

So What’s up, Doc?

In the last 3 months, I’ve had several young athletes/development athletes share with me that their sports dietician/nutritionist have recommended supplements, including, but not limited to:

  • Branched Chain Amino Acids

  • Calcium/Magnesium

  • Magnesium

  • Vitamin C

  • “Antioxidant” pills/ Drink mixes

  • Athlete Greens/ powdered greens

  • Salt pills

While these may not seem like such a big deal, and some of you are probably scratching your head wondering what my issue is with this, others will immediately understand where I’m going with this.

Let’s be honest, how many of us as teenagers and young adults had decent nutritional habits?

Not many, right?
Well, with the athletes who came to me from the dietitians/ nutritionist, the same can be said.

They’re normal teenagers.

They eat junk food and often go long periods without eating anything at all, or simply drinking soda/sports drinks/red bull.

Most of them are consuming large amounts of sports drinks (SUUUUGGGAARRRRRR!!!!!!) and snack bars (nutra-grain bars = MOREEE SUGARRRRRR!!!!) to deal with low energy.

If this is the case, why are supplements even a thought when it comes to dealing with low energy, or poor performance? Why aren’t we focusing on the bas of the problem: poor nutrition habits or knowledge.

By simply having each athlete keep a food journal for 3 days (2 weekdays, 1 weekend day) we were able to see some incredibly telling information:

-Little to no vegetables or fruits

-Often no breakfast (besides a nutri-grain bar)

-Low Protein and high carbohydrate oriented (processed)

-Long periods between meals

-Often practicing without eating anything, or eating anything after

While the dieticians and nutritionists had the individuals keep a nearly identical food log, how in tarnation did they come up with supplements as the answer?!

Setting the bar low

With the rates of childhood obesity and diabetes climbing year after year, it’s no surprise that by suggesting/giving the young athletes supplements, instead of teaching healthy eating habits, that the obesity rates of those over the age of 20 has climbed at an even faster rate, and shows no signs of slowing down.

What are you teaching a child, especially one who is highly active with aspirations to be a pristine example of the fittest and most athletic their sport has to offer (i.e. LeBron James), that instead of teaching them to eat a healthy, balanced, and well rounded diet, that they should be taking 1g of BCAA before a practice, INSTEAD OF eating a balanced meal 2-3 hours beforehand?

Or even a sandwhich: Something, ANYTHING which has more nutritional value than some supplements and a sports drink!

 Source: https://stateofobesity.org/childhood-obesity-trends/ Source: https://stateofobesity.org/childhood-obesity-trends/

I’ve seen this before, with junior cyclists who are fed spinkles on everything, cola as a recovery drink, and twinkies for on-bike “nutrition”…. The coaches excuse? “They’re kids, let them live it up while they can” or “They want it anyhow, why not let them burn it off during the ride/race?”.

We are literally destroying the healthy bacteria balance in these athletes guts, leaving them set up for a lifetime craving sugars and highly processed foods, instead of produce and lean meats (or tofu, for you vegans).

Do not get me mistaken; I am NOT against sports supplements. I use them myself and recommend them ***when appropriate and for the time period that is appropriate*** for the athletes I coach. I’ve even aided in developing and refining some supplements. But we’ve lost our way, and forgotten that they are there to SUPPLEMENT a healthy, well-balanced nutrition program consisting of 5-6 servings of vegetables (2-4 of which should be dark, leafy greens), 4-5 servings of lean proteins, and 2-4 servings of healthy fats a day!

Food in your pocket, Water in your bottle.

This is a saying that is so vital to cyclists around the world, no matter their level of performance, competition, or development. (And make it REALY foods, like sandwiches or wraps for 90%+ of the time!).

As Dr. Stacey Sims talks about in her book ROAR for women’s nutrition & training, most sports drinks contain WAY to many carbohydrate per serving to actually do what we want them to do: replenish blood volume and aid in electrolyte transport into the blood, to help us perform at our best, when it counts the most (Chapter 12).

Carbohydrates in sports drinks should be glucose or sucrose- simple sugars- as they simply aid in the uptake of water in the digestive tract. Complex carbohydrates such as maltodextrin can inhibit this uptake of water, as well as even have the opposite effect on our performance, as they take water FROM our system… but that’s another post in and of itself.

The Take Home Message

As a whole, we MUST take a serious step back from the use of sports supplements with our youth athletes, and make a huge commitment to teaching them lifelong healthy habits. Teach your athletes to eat REAL FOODS on the bike- not only will they feel and perform better, but they’ll also have to improve their bike handling skills (something we ALL need to continuously work on!).

Their future performance, health & wellbeing depend on it.


Picture of Menachem Brodie

Menachem Brodie

Coaching since 2000, Menachem Brodie has been working with athletes in a number of settings, and a broad variety of sports.

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