THE BLOG

Should I Take Protein Supplements?

06/03/2017 14:39

Whether people are in training or not, I'm constantly asked the question: should I take protein supplements?

Nine times out of 10, my answer, simply, is no.

I've been a personal trainer for over 10 years, and before that I was a medal-winning athlete. I didn't rely on protein supplements in my competitive days, and I rarely advocate their use today.

Over the last decade we've started to deify protein: the message now reads more is better. There are supplementary bars, shakes and pills - supermarket aisles are now strewn with products once sold only in pro sports shops. Quick-fix protein has never been more readily available.

In the two years leading up to summer 2016, UK supplements sales rose by 27% and as many as a quarter of all Brits now use them, including 42% of all men aged 16-24.

Once only for high-octane fitness regimes, using protein has gone mainstream. Perception today holds that protein supplements can boost anyone's general health: they're even being used in place of meals; quelling hunger pangs on the way to weight loss.

The fitness world has come to almost deify protein since the turn of the century. Protein is wonderful. It grows bones, heals wounds. It generates and regenerates muscle. It keeps us perky and combats tiredness. But it isn't a wonder drug. And it doesn't follow that if something's healthy in moderation it's mega-healthy in bigger quantities.

Supplement sellers are skewing the science.

Here's the science bit

The guidelines on what constitutes healthy protein consumption for the sedentary masses remain clear and reasonably consistent the world over: the UK recommends 0.75g of protein for each kilogram of bodyweight. In other words, a 70kg (11 stone) person should eat about 52.5g of protein a day. America's Institute of Medicine pitches it at the same mark: 46 grams of protein per day for women and 56 grams per day for men.

For someone looking to gain muscle, the best advice for consuming protein is this: consume a complete protein - one which includes all the essential amino acids - with every meal, eat at three hour intervals, and though it differs by build and body type, consume extra protein in the region of 1.5g to 2g of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.

Athletes or muscle-builders often think that, when it comes to protein, endless more is better. But that doesn't follow: with protein it's not about consuming more - it's about consuming smart.

Protein is most effective if it's used in specific amounts at specific times - if it's tailored to a person's regime, metabolism, general health and bodyweight. I certainly wouldn't recommend anyone over-consume protein unless a studious professional has given it the green light.

And the professionals often disagree - so I'd urge a second and a third opinion.

For those of us not in training, the quotas are simple: sufficient daily protein looks like two palm-sized portions of meat, or fish, or tofu per day. A bowl of porridge for breakfast and you've nailed 20 per cent of your recommended daily protein before leaving the house.

Although clinicians' opinions on our national protein consumption vary, the National Diet and Nutrition Survey reckons that, on the whole, UK adults are now consuming 50 per cent more protein than is recommended.

So as we strain to get more protein into our systems, supplement firms are only too happy to offer up what's billed as a better, easier, cheaper solution. You may even get personal trainers on the payroll, directly or via commission, of supplement firms. They're hawking products to you for their own financial gain.

But not all proteins are created equal. Metabolic and active differences exist between protein classes, and with at least 10,000 different protein types comprising the human body - which is itself 20 per cent protein - the science is way more complex than supplement pushers let on.

Lost in labels

Read supplement labels and you'll get lost in terms like Biological Value (BV), Protein Efficiency Ration (PER), Net Protein Utilisation (NPU) and, deep breath, Protein Digestibility Corrected Amino Acid Score (PDCAAS).

These terms are, often, used as smokescreens under which claims and overstatements are pushed to extol the virtues of concentrated protein versus whole foods.

But there's precious little evidence that instant protein - even saintly whey protein - absorbs into the body any more efficiently than whole foods. And while it's true that some chemical proteins are digested faster, the process doesn't benefit muscle regeneration or growth more effectively than whole foods. And whole foods deliver a rich complement of nutrition, not just protein.

Like whey, supplementary amino acids are in vogue right now - and when advertisers call them "the building blocks of protein" they're not lying. But when proponents of amino acid supplements claim that food can't match pills for efficiency, they're massively underplaying our species' evolution.

The human digestive system has, over millennia, been fuelled, developed and refined thanks to food consumption. That means chewing.

Ingesting chemically prepared protein products means robbing the body of the vital, thermic effect of food - the process that stimulates the metabolism and helps us break down other food groups. The fact that protein in real food form digests slowly is, actually, hugely advantageous for the body.

This next point is on the controversial side, but anecdotal evidence tells me protein use, especially in the gym environment, might be something of a gateway drug. Introducing supplements that promise big results to competitive people in a competitive space does carry another risk.

When supplements fail to bring the results the packaging promises, I've personally seen frustrated, impatient athletes find other ways to accelerate their goals, such as fat burners, and even steroids.

Is it just about convenience?

As I see it, a supplement's main brag is its convenience: it's easier to neck a shake than cook up a meal. But whether your goal is fat loss or muscle gain, eating small meals at regular intervals is still utterly optimal for the body.

A bag of nuts and seeds - which is just as convenient, with a solid dose of protein - is a similarly easy way to refuel or top up. If it's that or a shake I know what I'd choose.

With whole foods, we absorb a full complement of nutrition; slowly and with the corresponding thermic knock-ons. Eating, chewing, swallowing and digesting remains the best way to deliver fulfilling protein to the body.

One thing to remember is that a balanced diet provides, basically, all the protein you need. There is no scientific evidence that suggests food comes up short in meeting our protein needs. And there's similarly no evidence to suggest that overshooting your daily protein allowance will bring your goals, whether they're muscle gain or weight loss, any nearer to realisation.

Sure, some candidates - especially in older age brackets - could benefit from a short-term, quick-fire protein fix. But for me, and for any good dietician, it's always a case of food first: raiding Mother Nature's larder is best.

A plate of Greek yoghurt, beans, seeds, fruit, vegetables or nuts has the protein advantages on top of the health benefits of raw, ancient grains and vital vitamin content. Then there's the fibre and the colours and the textures - not to mention the taste.

For fitness fans who are serious about achieving their end goal, then they need to stop seeing it as an end. It may sound clichéd, but fitness, like so many things, is a journey that overrides any quick fix or fad. And I would never advise making something so obviously chemical part of your long-term strategy.

The benefits of good food are three-dimensional and scientifically sound, so why bypass the full nutrient bundle in favour of a built-up Frankenstein tonic?

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