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Are protein shakes really good for you?

The massive popularity of protein supplements among fitness enthusiasts hides a darker truth

Protein shakes have become extremely popular among fitness enthusiasts.
Protein shakes have become extremely popular among fitness enthusiasts. (Istockphoto)

These days it isn’t enough to buy a gym membership. You need to follow that up with buying workout gear. Then you have to go and order pre-, intra- and post-workout supplements. Now, you are ready.

In recent times the proliferation of active wear offerings and running events has been only matched by mushrooming of brands offering A-to-Z of health and workout supplements. From protein to vitamin, influencers on Instagram tell you everything you need to ‘look and feel fit and healthy’. As a result, countless people are buying these supplements in the hope of reaching their body goals.

Ashana Beria, a recent B-school graduate, starts her day with a shake containing collagen, hits the gym, has her post-workout protein shake, and then gets on with work. Through the day she consumes caffeine in carefully measured “doses” and also takes multivitamins and calcium supplements. “These supplements are important to me. At times I get in two rigorous workouts a day, and I need that protein and other minerals and things not only to build muscle and strength but also to recover properly,” said Beria, who is preparing for the CrossFit Open. Post-workout protein helps my muscles regenerate, she says confidently.

Ergogenic aids (supplements that help improve stamina and endurance) such as caffeine, creatine, nitrates and sodium bicarbonates are usually used by professional sportspersons and athletes while the general population, much like Beria, mainly concerns itself with protein and caffeine supplements, says Sandhya Pandey, chief clinical nutritionist at the Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. “Most people who go to the gym are looking to lose weight, hence, they come and look for supplements that help in dropping pounds. Green tea, green coffee, apple cider vinegar and garcinia cambogia (commonly known as Malabar tamarind) are some supplements that are easily available in the market. There are some studies that show that they are somewhat effective,” she says. Pandey adds that these should be used alongside a healthy diet. “These are not replacements for real food but are used alongside a good diet that includes vitamins, carbs, protein and fibers.”

Ergogenic aids need to be consumed in a highly regulated manner in particular dosage, which depends on the workout, sport and fitness goals. “These supplements are prescribed by sports nutritionists or those who work in the fitness industry who will assess your weight and then prescribe it. That is the professional way to go about supplements,” explains Pandey.

Health supplements are not a replacement for a healthy diet.
Health supplements are not a replacement for a healthy diet. (Istockphoto)

However, most doctors advise caution while taking health supplements. “Health supplements should be taken after you assess your requirement, and understanding what they would result in. For those with pre-existing conditions like kidney issues or high uric acid, taking supplements might not be feasible as having a high protein intake could lead to further health complications. Most times these [supplements] are estrogenic in nature and could cause Gynecomastia (developing male breasts),” warns Dr Amitabh Parti, director (internal medicine) at Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram. Also, those with heart issues or gastritis need to be careful.

Many people who use protein supplements do not know the different between these proteins, their good biological value and what they ought to consume. With the number of proteins available in the market currently, it is very confusing for everyone. “What people start doing while working out is that they start taking proteins, pre- and post-workout without even looking at what is the requirement. You need to supplement the gap and understand why your are taking the particular supplement, which is extremely important,” says Pandey. She adds that if one starts consuming 150 grams of protein everyday, it overloads the kidney and could lead to kidney failure.

The Covid-19 pandemic has ensured that there are plenty of new offerings to boost immunity, strength and endurance. However, past studies have shown that while most over the counter health supplements are useful in addressing vitamin and mineral deficiency, most health supplements such as protein powders have little benefits for most users. “Dietary supplements encompass a wide variety of products from vitamins, minerals, and botanicals to probiotics, protein powders, and fish oils. During the past two decades, a steady stream of high-quality studies evaluating dietary supplements has yielded predominantly disappointing results about potential health benefits, whereas evidence of harm has continued to accumulate. How consumers have responded to these scientific developments is not known,” wrote Pieter A. Cohen of Cambridge Health Alliance, in an editorial in 2016 titled The Supplement Paradox: Negligible Benefits, Robust Consumption in the Journal Of The American Medical Association.

Personally, I was at my strongest in 2014 when I was off all supplements. But, these days as I try to gain strength and muscle, I have ordered myself a tub of protein powder. Whether or not supplements actually help the human physiology, they definitely give a psychological boost. “To an extent, people feel confident that something has been given,” says Pandey, adding, “it is a placebo that gives a psychological boost to a certain extent.”

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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