Cute Teenager
Cute Teenager

Ask the experts: Is it safe for my teenager to take supplements as part of a weight training programme?

A paediatric dietitian and a sport dietitian say teens taking supplements to ‘bulk up’ is unwarranted and potentially hazardous.

Lisa Salmon
Friday 04 June 2021 09:00

My 15-year-old son is taking creatine and protein supplements as part of a ‘bulking and shredding’ weight training programme. How safe is this for adolescents?

Paediatric dietitian Lucy Upton (thechildrensdietitian.co.uk) says: “This is a dietary practice we’re seeing increasingly, and studies have shown use of protein shakes or powders in up to 35% of adolescent boys in the US and 25% in Australia – with likely similar figures in the UK.

“The scientific literature doesn’t present robust evidence that these products are safe supplements for children and adolescents.  The risk or implications of their use at the moment are relatively unknown.  Although there may be scope to consider their use in certain groups of teenagers, there are also no clear guidelines about how they could be used safely in this group, with examples such as ‘safe upper limits’ or products nutritionally tailored for the unique needs of children and adolescents.

“From the perspectives of both a paediatric and a sport dietitian, they wouldn’t be recommended for use. Children and young people have unique nutritional requirements compared to adults – thus dietary practices such as this, typically followed by adults, cannot simply be applied to children.  Children go through rapid periods of growth, and at varying ages have increased needs for certain nutrients.  Meeting these needs requires a carefully balanced and varied diet.

“Given the vulnerability of children and adolescents to media, or perceived pressures around body image, it’s important to reflect on why young people are engaging in these dietary practices. Is it solely to influence sports performance, or is body image or disordered eating practices involved?

“Periods of excess calorie consumption for ‘bulking’ followed by calorie restriction, alongside disproportionate consumption of certain nutrients like protein is likely to impact on young people’s dietary balance overall, risking shortfalls in other key nutrients.

“The safety and effectiveness of these supplements, particularly when engaging in dietary modifications, aren’t well studied in children or teens, and wouldn’t be recommended. Supplement use and associated dietary practices could pose risk for a child’s or teen’s physical, emotional and mental health.

“The use of dietary supplements with the exclusive intention to enhance exercise performance in adolescent athletes is unwarranted and can be hazardous. Professional advice should be sought if the adolescent displays obsessive or irrational body image attitudes. It’s important they understand body composition is only one contributor to sports performance. Dietary and training strategies exclusively designed to manipulate physique, independent of performance, should be avoided.”

And sports dietitian Kerri Major, who’s also a personal trainer and author of  The Dietitian Kitchen, adds: “Children and teens, even those who are more active, are typically able to meet their daily protein requirements from food with ease.  We’d always recommend a food first approach, and it’s important to remember dietary sources of protein offer additional nutrients that contribute to overall health for children and teens too.

“Inappropriate or misjudged use of these supplements theoretically could have implications for mood, growth, hormone and cardiovascular functioning.”

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