Protein Supplements for Young Athletes

My son will be a sophomore in high school this year. He is 15 years old about 5'7" and weighs 125. He participates in cross-country, wrestling, soccer and track. He has been lifting weights for about 10 months. He now wants to add supplements to help him bulk up, like amino acids or protein drinks. Is this ok and what kind of program should he follow?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

I was pleased to get your question since I get so few questions on older kids, plus teenage athletes can often wreak havoc with their diets in order to get the edge up on competition.

This is the word on protein and amino acid supplements...they are great for those making money off of them, and at best do no harm to those who take them. At worst, there may be some long-term risks associated with them. They have not been proven safe or effective.

One of the risks associated with protein supplements is dehydration. That is because excess amino acids, whether from too much protein, food or from supplements, which cannot be incorporated into new proteins are converted either into energy or fat. During the conversion process excess urea is produced which increases the body's need for water, which can lead to dehydration. In a sport like cross-country, proper hydration is paramount. A dehydrated runner can suffer from heat exhaustion and worse.

If your son is eating a balanced diet then his body has no use for the extra protein provided by a supplement. Protein supplements are ineffective in promoting endurance or increasing muscle mass. The body cannot tell the difference between the protein you get from food and the protein from a supplement.

Proponents of supplements claim that they are more readily absorbed than the protein from food and that certain amino acids increase muscle mass and decrease body fat. The fact is, there is no reason to believe that faster absorption is better because it takes hours to build muscle or repair muscle protein damaged during intensive exercise. In fact, food sources of protein provide a sort of "time release" capsule of amino acids.

Some supplements, particularly arginine and ornithine are sold on the theory that they stimulate the secretion of growth hormone resulting in increased muscle mass. However there is no evidence to support that the amount of amino acids provided by supplements has any effect on growth hormone levels. Exercise by itself significantly increases growth hormone levels.

Because your son is only 15 years old, I imagine he is still growing, and muscle mass will increase as he continues to grow. If he wants to 'bulk up' the best way to add muscle is to consume more calories than he uses for growth and exercise. This will add weight. He will need to continue to exercise while doing this in order to add the weight as muscle rather than fat. In fact, the weight training is his best method of adding muscle. His extra calories should come mainly from additional low fat carbohydrate sources. Remember, gaining weight slowly and steadily means adding less body fat and more lean body weight.

It may be that your son is not consuming enough calories to meet his needs. Kids who compete at a competitive level may need to eat between 3000 and 4000 calories in order to gain weight! Cross-country and soccer in particular are intense forms of exercise that burn lots of calories. You may want to do a general diet evaluation to see if he is getting the proper amount and then make adjustments from there. If you would like a little help in that evaluation, do not hesitate to write back.

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