Protein Supplements: In It For The Money or the Muscle?

Protein Supplements: In It For The Money or the Muscle?

Show me the protein.

tl; dr ... Short and to the Point
Who is this article aimed at?
Anyone who thinks there's no upper limit on protein supplements and more intake equals greater results.
I am busy - summarise it for me

Most of us know how important protein is for putting on muscle, that's why protein supplements are so popular. But are supplement companies' claims getting blown out of proportion, causing our intake to get blown out of all proportion, chasing a body that's, well blown out of all proportion.

This article looks the worth of protein supplements, whether we really are overdoing it, who's to blame and if there are any dangers which come with that.

Going supple-mental?

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it’s a fast paced world these days.

We’re firmly in the internet age, my friends. That means buying things with 1 click and getting them the next day, downloading a movie (legally of course) in minutes, or Googling ‘Where’s Fred Durst gone and can he stay there?’ and getting answers instantly.

Our generation are used to the express lane for just about everything and seemingly some experts worry that we’re starting to want all results as quick as we get our search results. Especially when it comes to achieving the ideal body. We’re to put the cut in shortcut.

The latest concern is supplements. Specifically the misselling and misuse of protein supplements.

The British Dietetic Association (BDA) recently stated it felt that the marketing of some protein products is ‘wrong and immoral’ claiming it is encouraging many to use them as a substitute for diet rather than a supplement to it.

So exactly what is the story with protein supplementation? Is it as useful as its current popularity suggests, or is it a P.R stunt?

Protein’s good, right?

Let’s get one thing clear right out the gate, nobody is questioning the importance of the big P.

Protein is made up of essential amino acids, which play a role in almost every major function of the body. It’s not being overly dramatic to say proteins keep you alive.

As far as training goes though, there are 3 massive selling points. Firstly protein stimulates your muscles, giving them greater power output, secondly it promotes the creation of new muscle tissue, upping your lean muscle mass.

Lastly, it’s vital for guarding against and repairing the damage done to muscle by exercise, allowing you to work out for longer and recover quicker.

So it’s not hard to see why protein is catnip to a lot of serious gym goers, and why the idea of getting plenty of it, quickly and easily is incredibly appealing.

Stats don’t lie either. Eromonitor reports in the U.S protein powders alone bring in $4.7 billion a year, projected to rise to reach $7.5 billion by 2020. In the U.K too there’s been a 20% year-on-year increase in sales of protein products over the last five years, according to Euromonitor figures.

So what’s the problem?

You’ve just heard how important protein is to us, surely we should all be chowing down on it in whatever form we can find, supplement or not?

Well, Professor Graham Close of Liverpool John Moore University and BDA spokesman has this to say.

“Some of the advertising by some of these companies is wrong and immoral. You will see some ridiculous claims that you can move from out of shape and overweight in four weeks by taking a pill.”

Doubling down on his complaint he continues,

“The suggestion is ‘I did it because of this shake’, whereas actually they did it by training hard for a long period of time and eating a really good diet. The supplement probably had a negligible, if any, contribution”

He also sounded a note of caution as far as safety

“Some of your cheaper supplements are often contaminated with ingredients that are not on the label, so there may be health implications if you’re taking things you don’t realise you’re taking.”

These comments on the back of previous comments by another BDA spokesperson, Chloe Miles, warning about the dangers of overdoing it with the protein and neglecting other areas of diet such as fibre.

“There are risks of having an unbalanced diet including vitamin and mineral deficiencies and in the long term increasing the risk of developing chronic conditions”

All this essentially leaves us with 3 big questions:  

  • Do we actually need protein supplements?
  • Are some of us overdoing it with them?
  • Are they dangerous?

    Do we need protein supplements?

    It depends. It’s perfectly possible to get enough protein from your diet to be healthy. Possible and delicious in fact.

    Chicken, fish, beef and dairy are all great sources of the good stuff. If that’s the way you want to go by all means, get cooking’.

    Yet there’s absolutely a place for supplements too, especially if you have certain physical goals you want to achieve. To noticeably improve muscle mass for example you should be consuming protein about once every 3 hours. That’s a sizable portion of 1 of the above foods 4 times a day.

    Factor in prep and it’s not just protein being consumed, it’s a lot of time too. Remember you’ve still got to make time for the gym. Plus what’s the point of being in great shape if you’re always too busy in the kitchen to show it off?

    Only Steven Segal’s character in Under Seige has ever managed to balance both busy kitchen and kick ass responsibilities.

    So on balance, for most with serious fitness aspirations in this busy world, sensible protein supplementing is a great idea.

    Is there a problem with Protein overuse?

    Sensible supplementing really is key, but some do go overboard. A lot of the blame for that probably does fall on the shoulders of marketers.

    They’re never shy to cash in on a craze and because protein is essential to physical performance, supplements are often pushed as the must-have. ‘The more you take the bigger and better you look’ is often the implication.

    It’s such a buzzword now that manufacturers have been accused of effectively protein-ing over the cracks. Adding it to products that aren’t traditionally fitness friendly – bread, biscuits, cakes etc. – to give them a health slant and muscle in on a trend.

    This further fuels an impression that protein really is all you need.

    With bodybuilding resurging in popularity and the rise of Instagram, there’s also a feeling that supplement companies are contributing to, even exploiting insecurities about body image to boost sales.

    Professor Close again,

    “It’s a bit like where we were 10 or 15 years ago with young females getting aspirational images that weren’t realistic. I think we’re in danger of doing that to young males at the moment”

    There is some evidence to suggest users might be pushing the limits.

    In 2015 a study of 200 protein powder users 29% admitted they were worried by their supplement intake, and 8% admitted they’d been advised to reduce it by doctors.

    Can supplementing be harmful?

    So for those of us who are maybe a little too pro protein, is there any risk?

    The truth is, unless you’re consistently going over the amount of protein suitable for your body type or fitness goals for a long time, in the short term, taking a lot of protein is not that dangerous. [Edit: Unless you have a rare disorder relating to uric acid – see our latest article on that.]

    The recommended daily allowance of protein to stay healthy is 45g a day for women and 55.5 for men. On the other end of the scale though, bodybuilders can consume around 200g daily.

    If you’re taking huge amounts with no plans to break out the baby oil and budgie smugglers anytime soon, then to begin with your body will just rid itself of the unused protein as waste. Keep packing in more than you need however and you may develop kidney problems as the organs struggle to metabolise such a large excess frequently.

    To avoid issues and stay within a safe maximum the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism suggests not exceeding 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight (about 1.1 gram of protein per pound) each day.

    Using this ratio, to eliminate any danger of toxicity, a 150lb person for example, shouldn’t be consuming more than 165g. 200g would only be appropriate for someone who weighs 180lbs or above.

    How can I tell a quality supplement?

    It’s true to say that not all protein supplements are created equal.

    To swerve nasty surprises, we’ve got one word of advice: research. Lots of it. Long before you commit your money or, more importantly, body.

    Ingredients, price, user reviews, company reputation, trustworthiness, if anything seems a little off, just move on to the next brand. There’s no shortage of choice, believe us.

    Conclusion

    In short, yes protein supplements are a useful and convenient way to improve your fitness and physique. But only when top quality and used correctly. Even then they’re by no means a replacement for hard work.

    Don’t buy into the scare stories, but don’t believe the hype either. If you just knock back shakes without the base of a well balanced diet and a sensible exercise regime, you’re may suffer some adverse effects, but mostly you’re just wasting time effort and money.

    UPDATE: This conclusion might have jumped the gun a bit, shortly after writing it there was a widely reported case of a protein related death. Read more about that here. If you have any disorders relating to the kidneys then you need to be far more careful about your protein intake.

tl; dr ... Short and to the Point
Who is this article aimed at?
Anyone who thinks there's no upper limit on protein supplements and more intake equals greater results.
I am busy - summarise it for me

Most of us know how important protein is for putting on muscle, that's why protein supplements are so popular. But are supplement companies' claims getting blown out of proportion, causing our intake to get blown out of all proportion, chasing a body that's, well blown out of all proportion.

This article looks the worth of protein supplements, whether we really are overdoing it, who's to blame and if there are any dangers which come with that.

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