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Updated: 04 October 2012 13:18 | By Tom Fontaine, contributor, MSN Him

The fitness supplements worth taking

A new report claims that chugging protein shakes could do more harm than good to gym-goers.


The fitness supplements worth taking (© UMIT BEKTAS-Newscom-RTR)

MSN Him asks the experts and wades through the latest research to find out which fitness supplements are worth your time, money and, most importantly, your health.

Knocking back additional protein after a workout is supposed to support lean muscle growth and reduce body fat - but is that all it's doing to your body? Not according to the British Dietetic Association (BDA), which claims that high levels of protein can lead to nausea and kidney and liver damage.

The BDA has called for clearer warnings about the ingredients of common gym supplements, particularly protein, which many men use to speed up muscle repair and growth. Currently, supplements fall under food law, which means labelling does not have to be as specific as medicine packaging.

A statement by the BDA said: "People who have these high-protein diets are now running into problems with their kidneys because of the amount of protein they must get rid of." The BDA goes on to say that people can get enough protein naturally, from foods such as chicken, milk and fish.

The Health Food Manufacturers' Association, however, was quick to stick up for fitness supplements, saying that, compared with certain foods and medicines, they have a strong health and safety record. So who should you believe?

Adverse reactions

The BDA isn't the first to warn against excess use of fitness supplements. Earlier this year, the Food Standards Agency advised people against the consumption of products containing the substance DMAA (1,3-dimethylamylamine), which is sold in the UK as a pre-workout supplement and as a fat-burner. This followed a number of reported adverse reactions in people from around the world.

DMAA has also been listed by the World Anti-Doping Agency as "prohibited in competition" and until it is deemed safe, you should give it a wide berth.

Pile of vitamins and supplements (© Getty Images)

Men should exercise caution

It's also worth noting that the BDA offers no fresh medical research to back up its claim against using additional protein to give your guns and abs a boost.

There is, in fact, a body of science which supports the use of protein, and points to benefits beyond muscle building. Research by Ohio State University, for example, found that whey protein prevents the development of prostate cancer cells, while the Minnesota Applied Research Center conducted a study which linked protein (alongside a calorie-controlled diet) with increased loss of body fat. The University of Connecticut, meanwhile, found that protein supplements can improve blood vessel function.

One size doesn't fit all

Before you rush out and buy several kilos of whey protein or a lifetime's supply of multivitamins, consider this - fitness supplements aren't for everyone. Personal trainer Gavin Walsh says:

"It's not necessary for everyone to take supplements, especially if they already have a healthy diet and no underlying physical issues. However, those who train vigorously several times a week can often become run-down and certain minerals, like magnesium and zinc, can become depleted. In cases like these it may be beneficial to supplement your diet to boost immunity and recovery."

One size of supplement does not, of course, fit all, and what you should take depends entirely on the type of physical activity you are doing. Walsh explains:

"Considering your activity and goal is essential. For example, a runner would not need to supplement to the same extent as someone whose aim is to bulk up. Those lifting weights for size will benefit from protein, branch chain amino acids, which maintain muscle mass and speed up post-exercise recovery, and a creatine supplement. A runner, on the other hand, may only need to increase carbohydrate calories and take a magnesium or zinc supplement to boost recovery.

"If the goal is fat loss, then there are supplements that can aid fat loss, although these tend to target particular areas of fat storage based on hormone balance. I'm not a fan of big brand 'fat burners' as, in my experience, they don't work. However, certain supplements such as liquorice extract, green tea extract and fenugreek can be useful."

Pile of different foods and supplements (© UMIT BEKTAS-Newscom-RTR)

We have a choice in what we choose to train with, food and/or supplements

Alkalising salts are the unsung hero of the supplement world - they have been shown to prevent illness and boost energy levels. Walsh says: "Alkalising salts are not that well known, but are hugely beneficial. Disease and bacteria thrive in acidic environments, and if our bodies become overly acidic, bacteria starts to grow, which can then turn into yeast and, later, fungus, all of which can cause a host of problems. This is why it's important to maintain a neutral blood pH level."

And what about the most commonly used fitness supplement, protein? Walsh says: "To be honest, I don't use protein unless I'm going through a 'bulking' phase and even then I steer clear of the over-hyped powders that promise the world. I prefer to use natural protein powders such as hemp, pea or a combination of the two as these don't contain fillers, allergens or sugar. But the first thing you need to do is make sure your diet is clean, as this will have a larger impact than any supplement."

Rebalancing act

So what about that BDA claim that you can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from your diet?

Some nutritionists agree. "My clients who are exercising to keep fit [not professional athletes] should be able to get all the nutrients the body requires from a balanced, healthy diet," says nutritionist Cara Lewis. "Carbohydrates will replace glycogen in muscles, while protein will help muscles repair and grow stronger.

"Antioxidants as part of your usual diet will help prevent oxidative damage to tissues after exercise and support the immune system, and the anti-inflammatory properties of omega-3 oils will dampen any inflammatory responses."

Other experts, meanwhile, see supplements as an essential part of the refuelling process post-exercise. Nutrition consultant Claire Harper says: "I'd recommend extra antioxidants to those doing hardcore exercise because burning up all that energy creates free-radicals that need to be mopped up. Acai is a brilliant antioxidant for sporty people as it's a natural food and can improve energy levels as well as assisting with muscle pain.

"Extra protein is not just for bodybuilders. Our muscles are a living tissue that needs to repair after heavy use and protein provides the building blocks to do this. A pure whey protein isolate powder can be added to smoothies or water.

"It can be hard to get everything into the diet without the use of supplements. For example, we need omega-3 fats to fight inflammation caused by too many vegetable oils, milk, butter, cheese and meat. The western diet is so high in these fats and low in oily fish, that we need a fish oil supplement to counteract the balance."

As with every aspect of your fitness regime, you need to develop a supplement strategy before you start gorging yourself on pills and shakes. Ask your doctor (some supps can interfere with existing medicines), nutritionist or personal trainer which ones best suit your health and fitness needs. And, this goes without saying, be careful where you buy them from.

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