7 things to consider before choosing a protein shake for your athlete
Updated: Feb 1
At least once a week, a parent asks about the best protein shakes for their athletes: mostly teenagers, some as young as nine. While there's no shortage of suggestions from other parents, teammates, coaches, and trainers, the answer isn't quite that simple. Though protein shakes and powders may seem like a convenient solution, unless your athlete has been diagnosed with a nutritional deficiency, there's a few things to consider before giving growing athletes supplements.
1- Protein is one of three essential macronutrients (carbohydrates and fat are the other two). The body uses protein as a catalyst for virtually every chemical reaction within the body. It's also most commonly known for its role in muscle strength and growth.
But, it is NOT an effective nor efficient source of energy. When carbohydrate intake is low, the body has to rely on protein for energy- which enables it from doing its main jobs like growth and repair.
Athletes- growing athletes especially- need carbohydrates and they need them replenished often. Most protein shakes and powders have an imbalance of carbohydrate to protein ratio.
2- The amount of protein needed per day is not one size fits all. Age, gender, weight, activity level, and activity type all play a determining factor in the athlete's needs for a given day.
3- Supplements are essentially a $50 billion unregulated industry. The US does not enforce strict safety requirements which means what is on the ingredient label is not always what's in the package and vice versa. Aside from risks of allergy reactions this also poses a significant risk of unknowingly consuming banned substances.
4- A growing athlete's body (until about age 21-25) is not a mini-version of an adult body. Every adolescent has unique growth patterns and develops through puberty at their own pace. Which is also one reason why supplement testing is not performed on kids (yes, that included "kids" supplements).
Not only is testing expensive and invasive, there are also ethical considerations when experimenting on growing kids. And, because all kids of any given age group are at various stages of puberty, test results would be unreliable as a whole.
5- Although added sugars can be troublesome, synthetic sugars present even greater health risks- especially for growing bodies. Many supplements (and sports drinks, "instant" breakfasts, and even pedialyte/pediasure) contain synthetic sugars (namely high fructose corn syrup, sucralose, acesulfame potassium/ace-k.. Sometimes they even more than one.
6 - Artificial colors and flavors are also often found in most supplements. Strawberry "flavor" will not provide the same essential immunity boosting, risk in injury reducing, bone and muscle growth and recovery vitamins and minerals as the real food.
7- Ultimately the athlete is responsible. Whether the product was recommended by a coach, friend, trainer, medical doctor, sports nutritionist, or dietician, is irrelevant if the athlete tests positive for banned substances- the athlete is as fault whether knowingly consumed or not. Unfortunately, such was the case for a 14 year Illinois girl who was assured by a family friend that their plant-based, all-natural, vegan supplements were safe. A California collegiate swimmer also learned this the hard way after listening to a GNC employee.
The good news is that- for the majority of youth and teen athletes- nutritional needs can be met through real food. Even with hectic sports and travel schedules, it can still be accomplished conveniently- yes, even for particular eaters.
Understanding where to begin, though, is essential.
Need help fueling your athlete? Visit RockPerformance.net and let me know your nutrition challenges.