It's Time To Re-Rack Your Sports Supplements
It HAD to be done. We absolutely had to talk about Sports Nutrition, in particular, the rampant use of mega-dose, poor quality supplements. We'll talk about the specifics - what goes wrong with the products - but the REAL problem with fitness supplements is the negative impact the propaganda and misinformation have on people, especially the athletes getting into this world for the first time. Brace yourselves: this is a big one!
First, let's define the category. Sports nutrition supplements are any supplements used to improve fitness, body-build, increase muscle mass, or improve sports performance. It's the stuff you buy with the hopes of making your time at the gym or during your workout out more efficient.
The products often include protein powders along with pre- and post- workout mixes. Electrolytes, carbohydrates (for energy), and good fats are the prime components, along with other micronutrients (vitamins), and supplements.
In 2008, it was a $2.7 billion dollar operation that focused on the "muscleheads," but has grown to all of us - men and women of all ages interested in fitness - and is close to exceeding $5 billion per year.
The products are ubiquitous, yet, regulation is lacking. In fact, it's common knowledge that sports nutrition products as a category tend to have more problems with quality than other segments of the natural products industry. Ask any trainer or athlete, and they know they have to be careful. Unfortunately, the trust they do end up putting in brands is often misplaced.
A Strong Culture of Misinformation
It's not their fault. The culture - the media, the 'experts', the propaganda - they squeeze out the truth. Look at sites like bodybuilding.com. It's almost implied that supplements are necessary. They state all over the place that "supplements are safe". Yes, in general, if you get a properly made product free of contaminants and adulterants, used at the correct dosage, supplements, in general, can be safe. When we look closely, it's certainly doesn't apply to a majority of the products in this space - and it's getting worse. These sites have great information for serious bodybuilders, but sprinkled throughout is the traditional nonchalant attitude about supplement quality.
It's obvious who they are focusing their marketing on. Shiny packages with these horrible obnoxious names, right? Muscle Xplosion 2000 and N.O.XXXXTREEEMEEEEE by Grunt, Inc.coming to a store near you! Just wear sunglasses when you look at the package so you don't get vision damage.
In all seriousness, these are marketed to men, and in particular, young men. Very young men. A 2005 study published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that protein powders and shakes were the supplements most commonly used by those aged 12 to 18. That data may have changed a bit in 10 years, sure. My assumption is that the usage in all ages has increased, but there are still many children using these products.
Not surprising. Young lads with all their awkward teenage stuff are looking to get into shape for finding a mate. It's frustrating for them though; they barely have taken biology or physical education classes - they don't know how nutrition or our bodies work, let alone to be wary of supplements and the shady supplement industry.
A Focus on Quality
So here's why we're getting involved. First and foremost, they're natural products and are misleading. Secondly, more men and women are getting involved - there's a crossover where all people are looking for these products or advice here and know to be skeptical. Finally, young kids are getting manipulated in an unhealthy way. The sports nutrition world is overcomplicated and intimidating, so new users trust the word of insiders, grabbing products that are not trustworthy.
I don't want to get into the therapeutics here, though we could. We could talk about the specific recommendations that may or may not be based on sound evidence. Do you need creatine or glutamine? How effective are branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs), clinically? Not today.
What we are going to do is take the common sense, food-first approach we're known for, addressing about 75% of the people who are using sports supplements. We want to help the ones who are looking to ease the frustration, cut out the nonsense, and supplement only what they truly need.
The Many Problems With Sports Nutrition Products
Remember from our chat on Herbs, adulteration is manipulating a product’s active ingredients in some way shape or form, usually to pass a quality test. This can be referred to as “spiking”. This is very common in sports nutrition products, especially in protein powders.
The most common method for measuring protein amount in a supplement is measuring the amount of nitrogen a product contains. Nitrogen is exclusive to protein; other macronutrients (fat and carbs) do not contain nitrogen to the same degrees.
So how does a shady company fool a protein potency test? Add nitrogen! Nitrogen-rich compounds are used to increase the amount of nitrogen found in low-quality protein powders, thereby increasing the reported amount of protein in the supplement. For example, pure arginine (an amino acid) has 3 times the amount of nitrogen as whey, at half the price. Amino acids are commonly used as they are less expensive. It’s common to see glycine and taurine used along with the arginine. Glycine is sometimes used to smooth out the taste of the protein, but in many cases, it’s pretty transparent their intention.
The worst form of adulteration is whey protein that has melamine or urea, which are also nitrogen-rich. These commonly come from Chinese raw material suppliers. Urea is a waste product to humans and melamine is used to make plastic and fertilizer. It has been shown to cause direct urinary tract and kidney damage to infants when melamine containing whey protein is used in their formulas. Good stuff, right?
Even if a clean, pure whey protein is used, one has to be concerned with the level of processing it undergoes. Amino acids make up peptides that make up proteins. Proteins are absorbed after the body chops them up into groups of peptides. These 2-3 peptide long groups absorb really well from the GI tract.
Individual amino acids, on the other hand, do not absorb as well as these peptide groups, and therefore will NOT have the same benefit when taken en masse. Therefore, if you have a highly processed whey protein, the peptide chains are typically broken, making them less absorbable than a minimally processed protein. Cooking will alter the structure of proteins, for example, but the level of destruction is dramatically less than is common practice in the supplement world.
High doses of amino acids in protein supplements, whether intentionally added or added due to adulteration, may not be beneficial as it pertains to the nutritional benefit of protein, usually due to absorbability.
Sports nutrition products commonly have higher levels of harmful heavy metals than what would occur in nature. Some of these metals include arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury. Here are a great article and chart from a Consumer Report special on sports nutrition powders.
In 2003, the International Olympic Committee purchased and analyzed hundreds of products over a 3 year period to determine the frequency in which foreign compounds were found. These compounds, in particular, were known to cause a positive doping test, signifying the products were hiding drugs within the "nutritional product" - unlabelled, dangerous drugs. The IOC found that in the USA, 18.8%, or 1 in 5, of products studied had such compounds “sold for the purpose of building muscle and improving athletic performance have been contaminated with ‘steroid-like’ chemicals."
As protein powders, in particular, come from cheese manufacturing, hormones and antibiotics from livestock care can show up in there as well.
A very recently popular shake program (that your friends probably have tried to sell you) was studied with other protein powders by ConsumerLab in July 2014. It was found there was 12.5 mcg of lead per serving. California limits down to 0.5 mcg per serving without requiring special labeling, and that's the number we follow.
How Much Protein Is Too Much?
Sports nutrition products dramatically overestimate how much protein you need. Your body can only break down between 5 and 9 grams of protein each hour. The rest is converted to fat! or removed via the urine. Exposing the kidneys to high concentrations of protein can cause kidney damage over time.
Here’s the thing… How much protein should you get in a day? Quiz the people in your life. Almost no one knows! Here’s what you can remember: if you sat on the couch all day (i.e.no daily activity) and were of normal, healthy weight, you’d need 55 grams if you were male or 45 grams if you were female. This is the “back of the napkin” number. You can now answer this question by saying “At least 45-55 grams."
The official formula is 0.8 to 1.3 grams of protein for each kilogram of body weight per day (or about 0.36 g to 0.6 g per pound per day). Yeah, so that’s probably why many people don’t know. Think half your body weight. Here’s a handy calculator and chart for you.
Many of the bodybuilding powders recommend 3 servings of their product a day along with a protein-rich diet. By some very basic calculations, this would result in people ingesting upwards of 200 grams of protein, or 3-4 times the maximum needed, in a day.
Consuming so much protein is dangerous. Especially if you were one of those young males being marketed to who may be dehydrated or under other stresses. It's cheaper and better for you to eat your protein and nutrients from food.
What's worse is many of these products have HORRIBLE add-on ingredients. In researching, I've read about their "energy booster" or their "Mental Alert Powder" which are nothing more than caffeine. So, what’s a little caffeine between friends? Well, doses ranged between 200-400 mg of caffeine or 2-4 cups of coffee per pill. No wonder the little red pill in my pre-workout supplement makes me want to jump over the building.
Some products come right out and say their focus is to increase your testosterone. Increase your testosterone, get bigger muscles. What they don’t tell you is that it can have a negative impact on your cardiovascular system (and reproductive organs - make sure to tell the teenagers this one… that will stop quick!).
The big thing with these testosterone boosting compounds is that it’s a regular old game of whack-a-mole. It started with DHEA or pregnenolone, which your body converts to testosterone as it needs. Now, they use these weird compounds and as soon as they are identified and banned, a new one pops up in its place.
Many of them attempt to confuse increased testosterone with a feeling of intensity from unidentified stimulants, claiming that it’s a hormone booster of some kind. An extremely popular workout energy drink product was found to have methamphetamine compounds! It was Craze-y!
Paying the Iron Price
I encourage everyone to Google the following phrases: “post-workout supplement” and “pre-workout supplement.” Read a few labels of these products. Most of these two groups of products are the epitome of unnecessary. They try to replace common sense meals with expensive products.
Many will contain protein of some sort, sure. This is crucial to weightlifting or exercise in general before and after to help speed recovery and feed those muscles.
What ISN’T necessary is the “food substitutes” that are included. Carbohydrates are crucial before a workout to give you that energy to get through the workout. Typically we’d recommend a banana or something along those lines. The products, however, give people straight dextrose, which is glucose, or straight sugar. "How much am I paying for that?"
In general, many of the drinks and mixes are just gross. High in sugar, lots of fructose, and a bevy of isolated, synthetic chemicals from far-from-natural sources. How much do these cost?
The Usual Fibs
And finally, we have to address the normal supplement industry nonsense that goes on. "Our product has Omega-3s!" "It's a whole food blend!" "We use botanicals...herbs...bioflavonoids!" Buyer beware. These things are great and can help, but I'd wager aren't REALLY what is in the bottle.
The problem here is that they charge a premium for the same junk products that are sold as buy 1 get 1000 free at the drug stores or big-box retailers. "MegaSorb CoQ10 Bioflavonoid mix!" If you pay more than $12 a month for 100mg of Ubiquinol, you're getting ripped off.
There’s a Mass of Ugly in Sports Nutrition Supplements
Let’s review. Supplement products are being made with substandard raw materials that are either adulterated or contaminated, marketed to youngsters, with false claims being spouted by the media propaganda machines that feed the industry.
Not to take the victim mentality, but how can this happen?
Government corruption, of course. From a very recent article on supplements from the NY Times:
But public health experts contend that the F.D.A.’s reluctance to act in this case is symptomatic of a broader problem.The agency is not effectively policing the $33 billion-a-year supplements industry in part because top agency regulators themselves come from the industry and have conflicts of interest, they say.In recent years, two of the agency’s top officials overseeing supplements — including one currently on the job — were former leaders of the largest supplement industry trade and lobbying group.
Heed Our Advice: You Don't Need (Most Of) This Stuff
Even in performance athletes, foods can and should assist in accomplishing goals. Occasionally you may want a smoothie and blending chicken doesn't sound that great, so getting a high quality, pure protein powder is crucial.
Most sports supplement products are either widely unnecessary or expensive versions of normal supplements. Use supplements when you need (and we can help you make that plan), but by all means, skip the shiny bags and fancy packaging.
Smart, Simplified Sport Supplements
It's all too much. No one should be exposed to this nonsense and potential harm. But those people who are doing the work - vigorously exercising and trying to make the best decisions - these people should be LAST people that should be constantly on guard.
It doesn't have to be that way. Let's break free.
First, we need to create a plan. What are our goals? For most people in the fitness world, we want to improve our workouts, increase our muscle strength, and ensure we have the necessary nutrients to get through a workout and recover after. Simple! Meet with us for a consult, for free, and we'll help you determine how much protein you actually need, what goals you should have for safe weight loss, and how to structure your diet to best support your metabolism and your workouts. We work with trainers in all our stores, and even have a few staff members who are specialists in this world.(Trainers: Contact us if you'd like us to refer people to you or work together!)
Second thing, we MUST realize that even though the entire world, as it seems, is saying one thing, it isn't necessarily right. Ask us about multi-vitamins or Vitamin C, and you'll hear something COMPLETELY different than what you'll hear from almost everyone else. Based on our best research, we think we're on the right side of the fence here. The same almost definitely go for 95% of sports nutrition users - you're getting sold a bill of goods and you can do the same (if not more) with better made, yet fewer supplements and a good diet.
Just trying to keep it real...
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth