Teenage boys love them, parents tend to be concerned about them and teachers try and ban them – supplements. The mix of white powders, special drinks and potions packaged in brightly coloured, extra-large containers with the words ‘huge’, ‘ripped’ and ‘massive’ plastered across the front in large bold writing via which school boys see the body of a Super 15 or NRL player suddenly within their reach.
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So should we be concerned with teenage athletes turning to various supplements to boost their protein and nutritional intake to support weight gain? As is the case with all areas of nutritional science, there are two sides to the story. Of course parents should be concerned or at least aware of what their teenage athletes are consuming but the first thing to know is that we cannot group all supplements into the same category. There is a wide range of nutritional and performance supplements available, which all do very different things. Sure, some may warrant concern with various suspicious ingredients and stimulants, but many, as is the case with most ‘protein’ supplements are simply a mix of concentrated milk protein and some carbohydrates for energy.
Now while the most common question that comes from parents is, ‘can’t they just get their nutrition from their food and drink some extra milk?’ is warranted, here are some of the number to consider. A busy teenage athlete, competing in 2-3 different sports at a relatively high level will be burning and as a result require several thousand calories a day – and this is just to grow and develop normally. If the athlete then has considerably athletic ability identified and his sport will benefit from him gaining 5-10 extra kg, unless he is drinking a litre of milk in a sitting to get the equivalent 30-40g of protein he can get from a protein shake or eating large serves of lean meat or eggs at every meal and mid-meal, it is going to prove challenging for him to get the amounts of carbohydrates, calories and protein he will require for muscle growth and recovery on a daily basis. This is not to say that it cannot be done, just that it will require a lot of attention and eating – something which teenage boys are not necessarily good at, or have time for.
So for this reason, as long as the supplement schoolboy athletes are choosing is pure – that means contains just carbohydrates and proteins without growth additives such as creatine, which we do not know are safe for teenagers at this stage, and comes from a reputable Australian brand such as BSc, I do use protein supplements with school boy athletes. Naturally we stress that more is not better, and supplements will only work in conjunction with a strong baseline diet, but they are an option. And surely as parents it is better to know what they are having, where it comes from and make sure they are taking it the right way, as opposed to them purchasing a dodgy supplement from overseas and taking it on the sly, because this is what tends to happen deep in private school dorms late at night anyway.