Aug 19, 2016
Sorting Out Supplements
Tavis Piattoly

John is a 15-year-old high school football player with an unbalanced diet and an inconsistent sleep schedule. He constantly lacks the energy required to perform at high levels on the field. Looking for an added boost, he asks his mom to take him to the local dietary supplement store.

Although they inform the salesperson upon arriving that John has undergone numerous surgeries to try to correct an abnormal heartbeat, the associate recommends a product that contains a combination of caffeine, bitter orange, and guarana. This is a potentially lethal concoction of stimulants for someone with a heart condition. Fortunately, John consults with a sports dietitian before trying the product and does not consume it, avoiding any potential negative side effects.

However, similar scenarios occur all too often across the country, and they don’t all have such happy endings. High school athletes are increasingly looking to dietary supplementation to get bigger, stronger, faster, and gain a competitive edge, but as John’s example illustrates, product recommendations don’t always come from nutrition experts.

The dietary supplement industry is an ever-growing market and currently offers more than 50,000 options, including vitamins, minerals, herbal supplements, weight-loss products, protein powders and shakes, and pre-workout boosters. With so many choices available, it’s understandable that a high school athlete would become confused.

Below are the supplements that I believe can be beneficial for high school athletes to support general health, facilitate recovery, and maximize muscle growth and strength:

Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Omega-3s act as a natural anti-inflammatory agent. I tell my high school clients that taking two to three grams of omega-3 fatty acids in triglyceride-based fish oil after a workout may reduce soreness. Past studies have shown that subjects reported less pain after exercise when taking omega-3 fatty acids compared to those consuming NSAIDs.

Multivitamin: The majority of the high school athletes I work with do not eat enough fruits and vegetables daily and are missing out on the key vitamins and minerals essential for growth, development, and overall health. I recommend multivitamins to these clients because, although they will not give the athletes more energy, they can act as an insurance policy for anything missing from a diet.

Because female athletes are often iron-deficient, they should look for multivitamins that contain iron. But since males already produce iron naturally, they should avoid it in their multivitamin.

Vitamin D: Sports medicine literature in recent years has increasingly focused on the potential impact that inadequate vitamin D levels may have on athletic performance. Insufficient amounts have been associated with decreased testosterone, increased muscle weakness, slower muscle recovery, higher rates of muscle injury, and lower bone strength. Since our food supply does not contain a variety of vitamin D-rich options, I recommend that high school athletes take a supplement to reach normal levels.

Calcium: Occasionally, I recommend calcium supplements for female high school athletes. This only occurs when they meet certain criteria–if their diet is low in calcium intake and/or they are engaged in sports that put impact on their skeletal system, such as volleyball, basketball, and cross country.

Protein: The most commonly used dietary supplements by high school athletes are protein powders. One of the biggest myths regarding protein supplementation is that it will help increase mass and build muscle when more than one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is consumed.

However, protein’s main function is repairing damaged muscle. New research has demonstrated 20 to 30 grams of whey protein (roughly one to two scoops in powder form) is the optimal dose to maximize muscle protein synthesis post-workout. Other benefits of protein supplementation include increased immune health, lubricated joints and tendons, and longer periods of satiety.

Creatine: Over the past 10 years, creatine has received intense scrutiny as a supplement in the medical community. In my professional opinion, it can be safe and beneficial for high school athletes. Research has shown that creatine supplementation can improve work capacity, improve muscular strength, and increase muscle mass. Recent data also suggests it may be effective at reducing inflammation.

Athletes who are engaged in a weightlifting regimen three to five days a week and follow a periodization program designed to improve muscle hypertrophy and strength benefit the most from creatine supplementation. They should also be eating a well-balanced diet with sufficient calories to support energy expenditure and use a brand that has been third-party tested.

Most creatine labels recommend a loading phase of 20 grams a day taken in five-gram doses four times per day for six days, followed by a maintenance dose of five grams a day for six to eight weeks. Since there is little research evaluating the loading phase in athletes under 18, I wouldn’t recommend this protocol for high school athletes until further studies confirm it is safe. Instead, I suggest a dose of five grams before and after a weightlifting session. If athletes lift during the season, they should only take creatine on lifting days.

There are more than seven forms of creatine found in dietary supplements and all are marketed as the most effective form for athletes. However, creatine monohydrate still remains the top recommended form and has out-performed all the others.

Tavis Piattoly, MS, RD, LDN, is the cofounder and Director of Sports Nutrition Education for My Sports Dietitian (, where he works with athletes from high school to the pros. He's also the Sports Dietitian for Tulane University Athletics, the NFL Players Association's Trust Program, Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston, and Traction Center for Sports Excellence in Baton Rouge, La.

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