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the fitness skeptic is a blog that takes a critical look at the health and fitness industry.

in it I'll examine the claims, products, practises and commonly held beliefs and SCRUTINISE the evidence.

My aim is to separate what is true from what is not and encourage fitness consumers and fitness professionals to become skeptics. 

I’ll take no prisoners when it comes to criticising the scam artist or highlightling the bogus but I’ll also give credit where credit is due.

Welcome to the fitness skeptic

The Great Sports Supplement Con Part 1: Protein

Secondary spend is a word that you'll hear banded about a lot by management in gyms and health clubs. It refers to the money members spend in addition to their monthly or annual subscriptions. This might include money spent on personal training in the gym, classes in the studio, treatments in the spa, food from the restaurant and various stuff from the club shop such as clothing and nutritional products. The latter can include anything from chewy bars to sports drinks but there's one word that's very common in much of what's available; and that's protein

What is Protein?

Proteins are organic compounds made up of chains of molecules called amino acids. They're essential for our bodies as they're a core component of many structural, functional and regulatory mechanisms. Proteins make up part of our muscle, skin and bones as well as enzymes, antibodies and hormones. There are 20 different amino acids in the food we eat, but our body can only make 11 of them. The other nine amino acids, which cannot be produced by the body are called essential amino acids and must be obtained from the diet.

So to summarise; they're important to our physiology and to put it simply we need to consume them or we'll die. 

No Shit Sherlock

None of the above is probably news to anyone as most of us learned this in school especially if you did O'level (scap that, showing my age;-),  GCSE Biology. Most of us also know to a greater or lesser extent, where our dietary protein comes from and the majority don't really take much notice of how much we consume. This is for a good reason;  it's not in short supply. The average westerner diet contains plenty of the stuff. 

Food of the Gods

However for some that exercise regularly, protein has taken on a different level of significance. It all of a sudden becomes Ambrosia (No not rice pudding! check your Greek mythology!) and people are shovelling it down their necks like there's no tomorrow in the form of shakes and various other protein enriched foods.  But why? 

'Cause you need extra?

'If you exercise and want to build and repair muscles you need more protein right?' 

You do indeed, but how much extra do you need and more to the point does the extra need to come from supplements?

Ball park figures

The average person needs about 0.8g of protein for every kilo of body weight. So the average 70kg man needs about 56 grams of protein a day and the average 60kg women about 48 grams.

If you exercise however your requirement goes up. The question is how much? This isn't an easy question to answer as it is highly influenced by the type, intensity and duration of the exercise you do. Your physiology will also have an impact meaning some will require more or less purely because of the way their body works. 

The evidence suggests that if you take part in resistance or endurance training your protein requirement goes up to between 1.2 and 1.7g per kilo of body weight. Exactly how much depends on the variables mentioned above but needless to say if you do more you'll need more. The evidence also suggests that protein intake shortly after exercise is important for muscle repair and building and that whey protein in particular (which makes up the majority of the protein supplements sold) is absorbed rapidly and can enhance protein synthesis. 

So I need my shakes then?

No, not really. For the vast majority of people training, the protein your body requires will be met through diet alone and as long as you eat appropriately shortly after you exercise you'll get what you need when you need it. What I mean by eating appropriately is having a meal that is nutrient rich with a significant protein content. If you want a list of ideas for this I suggest you look elsewhere (here for example).

As far as ensuring you have enough protein in your overall diet is concerned, your appetite should have you covered. As you increase the amount of exercise you do, the amount of energy you require will increase. As your energy requirement increases you'll eat more food and assuming the nutrient content of your diet remains the same your protein intake will go up too with not a shake mixing bottle in sight. 

So what's with all the protein supplements at the gym?

As they say "The fool and his money are easily parted" and good marketing can make fools of us all. The British Dietetic Association went as far as to say recently that marketing for some products is both;

"wrong and immoral"

which indicates how far companies will go to push these things to the unsuspecting public. And it's obviously working. Sales of supplements are up by nearly 30% in the UK over the last couple of years and the statistics suggest that 25% of British adults consume some kind of sports supplement regularly!  As I've explained your average guy at the gym simply doesn't need to take protein shakes, let alone those that don't train regularly but get the right adverts in the right magazines, get a famous athlete, (or as is often the case, bloke with big muscles) to endorse your product, add a sprinkle of sciencey sounding words on the packaging, get the product into gym shops and bobs your uncle you've created an industry selling supplements to people who don't need them. Genius really. 

The truth about protein supplements

As you've probably established from what I've written so far the simple truth about protein supplementation is that most of us don't need it. That's not to say however it doesn't have it's place. For some there're good arguments for it's inclusion in their dietary regime. 

For example;  those in very heavy training (and by heavy I mean in terms of volume) getting enough food in during the day to match energy expenditure can be difficult. In these circumstances protein and other nutritional supplementation can be useful and this is by definition what supplements should be for; to supplement the diet and not to replace parts of it. 

They are also convenient. Meal timing is crucial if you want to extract the most from your nutrition when you are training and taking a protein supplement post exercise may help produce the ideal physiological conditions to ensure optimum protein synthesis and therefore muscle building and repair. While in many respects not ideal, it's much easier to mix a shake than make a sandwich or scramble some eggs, so for those for whom time is of the essence, protein supplements could be argued as being useful. (you really need to make sure you're training hard enough though otherwise you'll literally be pissing your money down the drain.)

Unfortunately you can't build a multi billion dollar industry from the relative few this relates to, so the supplement companies have to go to work marketing their wares to everyone else. 

TFS recommendations

  • Protein supplements are not a short cut to putting on muscle. You still have to train appropriately. 
  • They are not short cut to ensuring you will recover most efficiently from your training. Your entire diet has to be adequate to ensure this.
  • They are not necessary to ensure you have adequate protein in your diet.
  • They are however a short cut to getting a lot of protein and calories inside you quickly and conveniently. The crucial question is however;  is this of relevance too you?
  • Do you need quickest and most convenient protein intake post exercise?
  • Do you train long enough and/or hard enough to warrant supplementing your diet with extra protein? 

The answer to these questions for the vast majority is NO. And if that's the case for you I'd say don't waste your money on expensive protein supplements. 

Spend your money on real food. Take some time to get to know good sources of dietary protein and spend a little time working out how to get them into your diet when needed and in the right amounts.

If you really think you need to supplement your protein intake then use a tested supplement from a reputable source with high-quality ingredients. However, be conservative with your intake (don't just shovel it in) and continue to focus on ways to improve or maintain the overall quality of your diet.

Don't be fooled by the marketing machine of the supplements companies.  They want to maximise their profit and not your dietary wellbeing. Wouldn't you prefer to spend your money on good food rather than on powders and potions? I know I would.

References

ACSM information on: Protein Intake for optimal muscle maintenance.

ACSM Position Stand. Nutrition and Athletic Performance. MEDICINE & SCIENCE IN SPORTS AND EXERCISE. March 2016.

Protein requirements and supplementation in strength sports. NUTRITION. July-August 2004.

Protein Supplements and Exercise. THE AMERICAN JOURNAL OF CLINICAL NUTRITION. Aug 2000. 

http://www.pcrm.org/health/diets/vegdiets/how-can-i-get-enough-protein-the-protein-myth

http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/Pharmacy/Pages/Body-building-and-sports-supplements-the-dangers.aspx

http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/38555693/protein-supplement-advert-claims-wrong-and-immoral

http://www.mintel.com/press-centre/social-and-lifestyle/sports-nutrition-bulks-up-uk-market-sales-rise-by-27-in-two-years-as-one-in-four-brits-use-the-products

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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