Does My Young Athlete Need Supplements?

Registered Dietitian Connie Liakos, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, is available to counsel child and teen athletes from the Portland metro area.  She has worked with all types of athletes from recreational to elite competitors. She is board certified as a sports science dietitian.

The widespread marketing of sports supplements makes it seem as if athletes will benefit from extra vitamins, minerals, protein bars/powders, herbals and other pills and potions touted as performance enhancers. Parents commonly have questions about whether they should be providing their athletic children with daily supplements.

Dietary supplements are not well regulated in the U.S. and as a result, young athletes can easily be lured by testimonials, false advertising and promises of improved performance. Read on for a summary on common supplements and when/if they may be appropriate for your active children.


Growing children and teens require protein for growth, development, maintenance and repair. They may also need a little extra when they are involved in intense physical activity and sports. When participating in physical activity, protein serves an important role in recovery after a big game or workout.

The amount needed is relatively modest and parents often think their child is not getting enough protein to excel in physical activity. In general, protein needs for athletic teens range between .55 to .77 grams of protein per pound of body weight. For a 120 lb. teen, this translates to a total of 66 to 92 grams of protein per day. Foods that contribute protein include meat, poultry, fish, eggs, beans, lentils, soy, nuts, seeds, dairy products, whole grains and some vegetables. If a child or teen includes these foods on a regular basis, they likely don’t need to consume protein powders, drinks, high protein bars, and other supplemental protein sources.

In order to use protein efficiently, it is important to space throughout the day and to also eat enough total calories. When calories are in short supply, the body can convert protein into energy. Likewise, when excessive protein is consumed, the body will convert the extra to either energy or store as fat.

Vitamin D & Calcium

For children and teens living at Northern latitudes (such as the Pacific Northwest), it is generally quite difficult to get enough vitamin D from sunshine alone, particularly in the non-summer months. Experts recommend a range of 600 – 1000 IU daily and a glass of milk or other fortified beverage generally provides around just 100 IU per glass. For that reason, a vitamin D supplement is often recommended for young athletes. Vitamin D works as a partner with calcium in strengthening bones and is especially important during infancy and childhood. Vitamin D also plays a role in muscle strength, immune function and the reduction of inflammation.

Calcium can also be in short supply in the young athlete’s diet. Three servings of calcium-rich dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) are advised and when this is not possible, there are a wide variety of calcium-fortified alternate beverages. During childhood and adolescence, bones are mineralized and strengthened. Athletes who do not take in enough calcium are at risk for low bone mineral density and stress fractures. Calcium supplements can help to fill the gaps but consuming calcium-rich foods is preferred since they are generally better utilized and dairy products contain a whole array of key nutrients.


Iron deficiency is all too common in young athletes, especially athletic females with regular menstrual cycles. Routine iron supplementation is generally not recommended unless iron levels have been measured.  All athletes benefit from focusing on iron-rich foods, such as meats, eggs, seafood, dark meat poultry, lentils, beans, dark green vegetables and fortified cereals. A multivitamin with iron is also sometimes recommended but higher potency iron supplements are advised only in cases of established iron deficiency.

Other Supplements

There is a wide array of supplements that are marketed to athletes, including creatine, beta-alanine, caffeine, antioxidants and many, many other products. There are mixed results with these supplements and some may be harmful when given incorrectly. There is also a chance that supplements can contain non-labeled substances that may be harmful. The office of dietary supplements has a paper which reviews some of the commonly used sports supplements, located at

Athletes who are competing at the elite club or NCAA college level may be required to undergo routine drug testing and there have been cases of supplements which are either banned or contain non-labeled illegal substances. One site for checking if supplements are safe is The NCAA publishes a list of banned drugs each year, including some dietary supplements.

Where to Find Expert Advice

If you have questions or concerns about supplements for your child, be sure to talk to your pediatrician and dietitian. A registered dietitian with expertise in working with young athletes can conduct a thorough assessment and make recommendations about supplements.

Registered Dietitian Connie Liakos, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, is available to counsel child and teen athletes from the Portland metro area.  She has worked with all types of athletes from recreational to elite competitors. She is board certified as a sports science dietitian.

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