Archived Feature: Are Nutritional Supplements right for my young athlete?

By Matt Krumrie | July 08, 2014, 4:45 p.m. (ET)

A proper diet and the right amount of rest and recovery are key for success in wrestling. And many young athletes, as they look to gain a competitive edge, consider nutritional supplements as a way to find it. But parents and wrestlers alike may ask if supplements are a healthy choice for developing bodies.

The short answer is, yes, that supplements can be part of a young athlete’s healthy lifestyle. But realistic expectations are critical for any use of supplements. So many young athletes aspire to the ripped, muscular physiques of more physically mature collegiate national champions or Olympians and think turning to quick fixes – instead of hard work and healthy growth – is the best way. But, as the Council For Responsible Nutrition (CRN) points out, if a supplement’s promises sound too good to be true, it’s probably best to steer clear.

"Any product promising to help you get stacked or put on muscle mass in a short amount of time is a red flag," says Duffy McKay, a former high school wrestler and coach from San Jose, California who is now Senior Vice President of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs for the CRN, the leading trade association representing dietary supplement manufacturers and ingredient suppliers.

Dietary supplements can play an important role in good health, but first and foremost they are supposed to aid other healthy habits and should be used in combination with other smart lifestyle choices such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and seeing a healthcare professional, says McKay.

“The younger athletes look at the older ones in awe and want to look like them, so they find out what, if anything, they are taking so they can take it too. But that's not a good reason." - Eric Moore

Along with a healthy diet, Duffy recommends young wrestlers, after consulting with a health care professional or sports nutritionist, consider adding natural supplements such as fish oils, multi-vitamins, whey protein, or probiotics. These are safe supplements for athletes ranging from as young as 10 to 18 years old. If an athlete younger than that wants to take these supplements, Duffy recommends first consulting a pediatrician.

The omega 3 fatty acids in fish oil supplements help keep the skin healthy and that can fight against skin disease such as ringworm or impetigo, while also building immunity against colds and flu and aiding in preventing inflammation. This is especially important for the athlete that doesn't get the recommended 2-3 servings of fish per week.

Multi-vitamins simply help athletes get the daily nutrients to promote health and growth. Whey protein can help add protein without adding as many calories. For example, a wrestler managing their weight still needs protein and if added to fruit smoothie can help add protein and nutrients. Probiotics naturally live inside us, says Duffy, but get depleted when an athlete becomes stressed or exerts too much energy without replenishing nutrition correctly. Probiotics also help with immune and digestive health. These are naturally found in foods like yogurt, miso soup and sauerkraut – foods most kids won't eat, so taking a probiotic supplement can be helpful an athlete avoid stomach aches that can occur from nervousness, stress and poor diet.

Nicholas Rizzo, M.D., author of the book Championship Nutrition and Performance: The Wrestler’s Guide to Lifestyle, Diet and Healthy Weight Control, agrees.

“An athlete’s dietary needs are not based on dieting,” notes Rizzo, a former assistant coach with the Marist (Illinois) High School wrestling team. Similarly, though most wrestler’s diets need to be supplemented, that doesn’t necessarily mean he or she needs to take supplements.

For example, Rizzo notes that the creatine powder is a popular supplement among some adult athletes. But because creatine is naturally produced in our own bodies and present in fish and meat, there really is no need to supplement a balanced diet with creatine powder. “If you want creatine, eat a steak," he says. “If you want more protein, drink a glass of milk.”

Rizzo does recommend adding 5000 IU's of Vitamin D3 daily, especially for wrestlers in northern states who don’t get a lot of exposure to sunlight in the winter. This helps with energy and bone fractures. But he points out there is no healthy dietary supplement, pill, or powder that pre-pubescent kids can take that can drastically change their physique, pack on muscle, or give them unlimited stamina and energy.

It’s those kinds of outlandish claims that make Eric Moore cringe. As head wrestling and strength and conditioning coach in Cary, N.C., Moore believes the only “supplements” kids should be taking are a well-balanced variety of non-processed foods and plenty of water. When kids start relying upon supplements instead of a healthy diet, they aren’t giving their bodies a chance to naturally respond and adapt on its own. “The younger athletes look at the older ones in awe and want to look like them, so they find out what, if anything, they are taking so they can take it too. But that's not a good reason," he says.

Jennifer Gibson, a sports nutritionist with the United States Olympic Committee, points out that much of the scientific research available in sport supplements have been conducted in adults over the age of 18 years old. Thus, there is very little in the way of concrete knowledge that there can be any benefits in the youth athlete. Sport nutrition supplements should be regarded as a convenience product and never thought of as a necessary or magical solution, says Gibson. And always check the ingredients: If it includes artificial sweeteners, sugar, caffeine, or lots of other processed ingredients, look for a better option.

Athletes of all ages often turn to pre- and post-workout supplements and energy drinks. But many of these sports energy drinks can have unnatural ingredients or caffeine, which can cause stomach aches, headaches, or even, ironically, dehydration. What many athletes don’t realize, says Rizzo, is that these supplement drinks can also take 72 hours to work effectively. So, drinking a sports drink right before a workout won’t suddenly maximize performance.

Rizzo and Gibson point out that chocolate milk is a better, natural post-workout supplement that replenishes the body with nutrients and aids in recovery. If you want the right mix of proteins, carbs and fats, eat grapes, peanut butter on graham crackers and drink plenty of water to aide in post-workout recovery.  "Water is the best supplement there is," emphasizes Rizzo.

Gibson, as a USOC sports nutritionist, works closely with some of the top athletes in the world on a daily basis. She notes that “many of them seek their primary fuel sources from real foods.” She recommends focusing on a whole foods-based diet that includes a variety of choices to provide athletes with the extra calcium, iron, b-vitamins, and energy that are needed for young athletes. (See below for her recommended dietary plan for competitive athletes.)

Nick Knowles a former captain of the Liberty University wrestling team who is now a certified personal trainer based out of Virginia Beach, Va., says athletes, coaches and parents must look before they leap into supplements. If they’re not for the purpose of recovery or natural muscle growth/retention, he says it’s likely a waste of an investment.

"A parent or coach should not expect a supplement to play a major role in the direct improvement of a wrestler’s performance," says Knowles. "Where supplements help is in their ability to recover and improve from training.”

"Supplements aren't meant to replace a healthy diet," Duffy stresses. "But when nutrition falls short, which is often the case for today's busy youth or teenage athlete, then supplements can help."

United States Olympic Committee sports nutritionist Jennifer Gibson’s dietary plan for competitive athletes:

  • 1-2 cups of dark green veggies at lunch and dinner, plus 2-4 whole fruits per day (antioxidants for healing and immune health).
  • Lean protein sources at each core meal and snack (milk/soy foods, chicken, eggs, fish, pork, lean beef) for recovery and repair.
  • Healthy carbs (oatmeal, brown rice, potatoes, quinoa and unrefined wheat products) for energy.
  • A handful of almonds/walnuts, olive oil for omega 3 fats great for join lubrication/inflammation.
  • Minimizing junk foods to less than 10% of total diet.

Note: This archived feature first appeared in USA Wrestling's newsletter in July 2014.