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Are Protein Shakes Safe for Teens?

With the male body now under much more scrutiny in the media than ever before, young boys are becoming fixated on bulking up and gaining muscle mass. Increasing pressure is drawing teen and pre-teen boys to supplements in order to build muscle before their bodies are really ready for it. Teens see protein powders and supplements as a quick fix to accelerate growth.

However, Safe Food warn that the effects of taking these supplements on an underage person is unknown and for this reason, those under the age of 18 should steer clear.

A warning from the IRFU

Last year, the IRFU also warned young athletes of the dangers of protein supplements and creatine. With young boys looking up to international rugby players, they strive to bulk up in order to resemble their role models. To make things worse, many rugby stars promote the use of protein powders and supplements, which encourages young teens to add them to their diets.

Ruth Wood-Martin, National Performance Nutritionist with the IRFU, said: "Often the desire to get physically bigger is the reason young people choose to take supplements, which they see as a quick-fix answer for accelerated growth, but there is little evidence to condone this. Young players will gain size and strength from well-planned training and recovery, supported by good nutritional practices.”

"The IRFU strongly advises against the use of nutritional aids, in particular creatine, in young players under 18 years of age. Also the use of protein supplements should not be recommended by schools, coaches, teachers or others involved in the training of young athletes.”

Reasons to be cautious

The body needs protein for growth, maintenance and tissue repair and for this reason many parents and sports coaches don't see the harm in taking supplements. However, there are plenty of reasons for teens to stay away from these potentially harmful substances.

According to Pat Henry, writing for the Herald, taking supplements or protein powders at the age of 15, 16 or 17 is simply not necessary if the diet is completely balanced. A sufficient amount of protein can be provided through food alone, even if that means quite a lot of it. The body can only digest 25 grams of protein at each meal, and if over loading takes place, too much pressure is put on the kidneys and liver as they try to break down large portions of protein.

The supplements industry isn't regulated in the same way as others in Ireland, and manufacturing and labelling regulations are not as strong. Many brands do not warn about maximum intake levels, and may also fail to list potentially harmful ingredients on the label. To make things worse, many teens buy their protein powders online, which takes things out of control of the Irish regulation system. Some of these protein powders have been found to contain potentially harmful metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury.

These metals can have a toxic effect on the organs if a high level is consumed. Often teens will over use the product, assuming that if one scoop is good, three or four must be better, putting themselves at risk. The presence of cadmium is especially worrisome as it accumulates in, and can damage the kidneys which are the same organs that can be damaged by excessive protein consumption.

Teens tend to lack an understanding of manufacturers claims - many of which are not backed up by scientific evidence. Many brands boost protein drinks as a proven way to achieve your goals, become stronger and get those all important six pack abs. Teens tend to be more swayed by advertising and tend to believe these drinks may be like magic in a bottle, and the answer to all their bodily woes. However, teen bodies are still changing and they risk causing long term damage to themselves.

The best thing that you can do for your teen is to encourage them to eat good, fresh food. Ensure them that it is possible to get all of their protein needs through food alone. A healthy balanced diet will be much more beneficial than any supplements they may take.

Safe Food provide these tips for teens on improving their performance naturally, without turning to supplements and protein powders:

What improves performance?

  • Eating enough to meet your growth and energy needs.
  • Drinking enough to replace lost fluids and stay well hydrated.
  • Individual talent and improving your sporting skills.
  • Planning your training and recovering properly

    For more information on helping your child maintain a healthy diet, please visit our dedicated Food and Nutrition page.