(I wrote this story back in 2003, for a now-defunct sports magazine in Buffalo, New York. Some recent internet research did not turn up any new information that would change the major points. If anyone has an update or correction, please let me know)
So my 15-year-old son comes up and tells me he wants to put on 30 pounds. Football season’s coming around, he says, and he’ll have a much better shot at playing time if he weighs 190 rather than 160. He starts going to the gym to lift every night. He works up a high-protein diet, complete with drinking a daily glass of raw eggs (that was my idea – we’re making a killing charging the neighbor kids a quarter each to watch).
Then one day he pulls up a crumbled sheet of yellow paper from his pocket and reads off a laundry list of muscle-building supplements he wants me to pick up at the store for him. Creatine, a couple of types of protein, and a latin-sounding thing I can’t recall. They were recommended by a classmate; other athletes at school use them, and they work, assures me. He assumes they’re safe, but he hasn’t done any research on them. He’s got to have them, though – now. It’s only six months till the first game.
The world of high school sports are competitive; always have been, always will be. Not only are prep athletes looking to win on the field, but there are other prizes at stake as well. At one end, top athletes are fighting for a limited number of college scholarships. At the other end, some students are striving just to earn a starting spot, increase their playing time, or even just to make the varsity squad. If there’s a way to get bigger, stronger, or quicker, they’re going to try it.
More and more young athletes are apparently ingesting nutritional supplements in an effort to bulk up. There’s no telling how many young athletes are using them; a 2001 study by the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthapedics Foundation for Research in Tennessee showed 16 percent of male athletes and four percent of the female in 11 local high schools said they used creatine. There’s no reason to think the numbers would be that much different anywhere else, including Western New York.
“A lot of the kids use protein supplements. A lot of it has to do with, there are so many different supplements out there so many different things and protocols, programs people are on. There’s creatine, whey protein, all the stackers and weight gainers,” said Greg Bean, athletic trainer for the Buffalo Destroyers. Bean, a certified athletic trainer, was a trainer at the high school level for several years before working with college and professional athletes.
The question is, though, are these supplements safe? Anecdotal evidence, research papers, magazine articles offer conflicting evidence. A web search will be little help. Type in whey or soy protein, weight gain, creatine, and it will take you a half hour to sort through the supplement marketers. Hard research is nearly impossible to find, and in the case of some professional medical journals, even harder to read.
Without ready access to solid information, the average layperson has on way to verify the stories linking all kind of side effects to supplements.
And there’s a lot of misinformation muddying the water, according to the Foundations’ creatine study, which found that marketing claims and instructions for the substance varies widely, and that product information is spread widely by word of mouth, which also opens the door for misinformation.
Most of the supplements advertised by nutrition retailers aren’t regulated by the FDA. There are no long-term studies on many products, so it’s unknown how they will affect athletes five or 10 years from now. For many athletes, it doesn’t matter, though. In addition, depending on the substance, there are no dosing standards for adolescents. To some students, however, it doesn’t matter.
“This may help you gain weight, this product may help you lose weight, may help you build strength, but what will it do to your body in five years? If the product hasn’t been available in five years, how do you know? And the kids aren’t really concerned with that, cause they’re just like ‘I need to know what this does for me now… I can’t worry about five or ten years down the road,.’” said Bean.
Schools in New York Section VI don’t ban or test for the supplements, but they don’t encourage them, either. “Our view is, we strongly recommend students do not take them,” said Albion athletic director Dick Diminuco. “We try to have them eat properly and lift weights.”
Even if there turn out to be no side effects from the supplements, the rapid weight gain in itself might not be healthy. Even if it’s muscle as opposed to fat.
“Take a kid that has a thinner frame. You start to put on a ton of muscle mass, and you take him out of that normal frame. His skeletal structure may not be able to support the amount of muscle mass that he puts on. He may be stronger and bigger, but his skeletal structure may not be able to handle the weight load. That’s sheer physics,” said Bean.
Adolescents are still growing, and their skeletal structures are likewise in a state of flux. The burden of so much added weight could be harmful, says Bean.
“A lot of kids try to gain a lot of weight to bulk up or football, thinking they’ll be tougher, and they’ll be able to take more abuse, more of the rigors of j.v. or varsity football. But a lot of time they lose athletic ability, speed, they’ll lose a little flexibility. I’ve never believed that a certain weight is a good playing weight,” he said.
To a lesser extent, bulking up for sports might be counterproductive, he says, with athletes adding muscle at the expense of other qualities, and increasing the risk to injury. “Yes, they’ll bulk up, yes, they’ll get bigger and they’ll gain weight, but their flexibility and their range of motion might decrease, and if that happens, that increases their chance of injury, muscles aren’t as elastic, tend to tear before they stretch,” Bean said.
For the kids intent on building up, the best advice is to add weight by eating properly and lifting weights, as opposed to checking out the pharmaceuticals. Parents should also be aware of what their children are taking, and take part in setting up a healthy program for them.
“It’s essential for them to not only provide support for whatever the decisions the child is making, but they need to have a hand in what these kids are putting in their body, whether it’s food or supplements or whatever they’re trying to do to improve their athletic performance,” Bean said.