Published On: Fri, Apr 1st, 2016

Sports supplements for schoolkids under spotlight

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Winning is the ultimate goal for athletes. To achieve their aim, sportsmen and women often look beyond the tried and tested methods of well-planned training programmes, adequate rest, and a balanced diet, searching for a magical elixir – the ultimate nutritional supplement.

Athletes easily influenced

The anti-doping rules of the South African Institute for Drug-free Sport (SAIDS) are very clear: It is each athlete’s personal responsibility to ensure that no prohibited substance enters their body. Yet the misguided use of nutritional supplements among school-aged athletes is on the rise in South Africa.

A research study shows that more than half of teenage rugby players in a KZN admitted to using a nutritional supplement 3–4 times a week. In another study, under-16 rugby players were interviewed, and 42% reported using at least one supplement, with over 60% of these rugby players believing the supplements to be safe.

Read: Makers of nutritional supplements face charges

Young athletes are easily influenced by aggressive marketing by sports supplementation companies, despite the fact that there is limited evidence to support the efficacy and safety of most of the sports supplements on the market. Below is a summary of the claims and scientific evidence of some of the most prevalent sports supplements used by South African youth.


Out of all supplements, the use of protein powders is the most prevalent. According to research almost seven out of 10 young sport participants reported using a protein supplement to gain muscle, and four out of 10 believe that the protein quality in supplements is higher than the protein from food sources.

Protein is involved in muscle gain, which makes it an attractive supplement for young athletes trying to bulk up. Currently there are no studies supporting the belief that protein from supplements (e.g. whey protein) is superior in building muscle compared to the protein as found in food sources.

There is also no evidence supporting that excessive amounts of protein are needed to build muscle mass as claimed by the manufacturers, media, coaches, and trainers. Young athletes should rather focus on consuming an adequate amount of energy from carbohydrates, protein, and fats for optimal performance and growth.

Although a certain amount of protein is required for optimal muscle growth and development, excessive amounts of protein consumption will be excreted as amino acids in the urine.

Read: Protein and sports performance

That said, for many active young athletes with busy schedules, the convenience of whey protein shakes to help meet protein needs cannot be overlooked. It is recommended that young athletes consult with a registered dietitian who can assess if additional protein intake is in fact necessary and advise on preferred food-based measures to consume more protein, such as including milk, eggs, lean meat, chicken and fish in the diet.