Nutritional Supplements – yes or no?
With the supplement industry worth millions in the UK, it’s important to understand the pros and cons of fitness supplements, whether you are a personal trainer, a professional sportsperson or simply someone who wants to improve their training or boost their diet.
While some supplements are considered medicines and must follow strict guidelines, others are regulated under the Food Safety Act. As fitness supplements can now be bought online, it can be harder to be certain of their active ingredients – and their effects.
What are dietary supplements?
The World Cancer Research Fund says: “Dietary supplements contain vitamins, minerals, herbs or plant material. They can be found in pill, capsule, tablet or liquid form and are used to supplement (add to) the diet, but they should not be considered a substitute for food.”
Why do people take supplements?
People of all ages take supplements for different reasons, from those who take Vitamin C in a bid to ward off colds, to fish oil supplements, which are thought to lower blood pressure.
Personal trainers and other fitness professionals will often have clients who take protein supplements in the expectation that it will help them build muscle and reduce body fat. The Department of Health advises adults to avoid consuming more than 2.0g of protein per kilogram of body weight or twice the recommended daily intake of protein (55.5g for men and 45g for women).
Pros and cons of fitness supplements
Reports on supplements and their effects are common in the media and there is a considerable and often confusing amount of information online. In many cases there is insufficient evidence to support claims of the supposed benefits of supplements.
Some believe that today’s environment requires the use of supplements, including Dr Mark Hyman, the Medical Director at Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Functional Medicine, who wrote in his number one New York Times bestselling book The Blood Sugar Solution:
“Even with a perfect diet, the combination of many things – including our depleted soils, the storage and transportation of our food, genetic alterations of traditional heirloom species, and the increased stress and nutritional demands resulting from a toxic environment – make it impossible for us to get the vitamins and minerals we need solely from the foods we eat.”
He also says: “large-scale deficiencies of nutrients in our population – including omega-3 fats, vitamin D, folate, zinc, magnesium and iron – have been well documented in extensive government-sponsored research”.
Men’s Fitness magazine has championed whey protein, citing a number of studies that apparently show that it can help you lose fat and preserve muscle, increase size and strength, reduce hunger, fight cancer, cope with stress and improve your immune system (http://www.mensfitness.com/nutrition/what-to-eat/6-reasons-you-should-be-using-whey-protein)
If you are taking a prescribed medicine, you should always ask your doctor before using supplements as these can react with or prevent the effectiveness of certain medicines.
If you’re looking to manage your weight, always check the label – some protein supplements have a higher calorie content than others. Some may be packed with artificial additives and even toxins like mercury or illegal anabolic steroids.
There are also issues over doses: a supplement that is perfectly safe in small doses can be damaging if you take too much, and some cheaper nutrients may not be as easily absorbed by the body as others.
The Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine says on its website that: “a diet that is high in protein can actually contribute to disease and other health problems”, listing osteoporosis, colorectal cancer, impaired kidney function and heart disease as examples. Similar warnings can be found on the website of the British Dietetic Association (BDA).
However, some of these views have been challenged, suggesting for example that high protein intake has only been proved damaging to patients who already have or are at risk of renal disease.
There is no easy answer to the question of whether we should be taking supplements, but what is clear is the need for people to know what they are taking, to know whether it is likely to help and to know whether it is likely to harm. As ever, the best option is to take medical advice first.