In a culture where exercise becomes more of a social conquest than an athletic necessity and protein supplement advertising creeps into everyday life, many people are feeling pressured to up their protein intake at substantial cost. But are there any scientific benefits behind this bulging protein supplement trend?
Many casual gym goers take protein supplements as an easy way to build size and confidence, unaware of how they actually work and the dangers of excess protein. Hearsay and myths build a false science behind the trend, while many experts feel a balanced diet is much more effective than using factory-made supplements. Many famous athletes are seen to endorse supplements. However, isn’t it likely that many were physically adept before using them?
While protein is important in muscle building, the main necessity is exercise. Muscle will only grow if pre-existent tissue is strained and muscle filaments are broken down. Therefore, the level of protein in your diet will only have any effect if arduous exercise is undertaken.
The UK recommended daily allowance of protein for adults 19 years of age or older is 55.5g for men and 45g for women. However, according to surveys by the British Nutritional Foundation, the average dietary protein intake is more around 88g for men and 64g for women. This is more than sufficient for most active individuals as several scientific sources suggest that 1.0g to 1.5g of protein per kg body weight per day will suffice for athletes undergoing intensive training, while others go as far as concluding that a diet above 1.5g/kg BW has no observable effect. Only professional weight lifters enduring rigorous strength training may require more. For the general population, 1.2g/kg BW should be more than adequate.
Nevertheless, some protein supplements instruct the user to ingest staggering quantities of over 100g of protein per day. This means that if an athlete were to intake 100g of supplemented protein in addition to the aforementioned average balanced diet, they would have to weigh 125kg to achieve the upper bracket scientific recommendation of 1.5g/kg BW. This now raises the question, what happens to all that excess protein?
There are many dangers to excess dietary protein, which mainly stem from the toxicity of protein metabolites. According to Gail Butterfield, director of Nutrition studies at Palo Alto Veterans Administration Medical Centre, a protein intake of 30% more than the calorific intake can cause harm to the body, notably due to an absence of sufficient carbohydrates. Excess protein can result in increased amino acid oxidation, producing toxic metabolites such as keto-acids and ammonia. Resultant renal hyperactivity and dehydration may cause kidney disease and even seizures.
Additional studies also suggest that excess dietary protein may result in bone demineralisation. Diseases such as osteoporosis may be prevented if protein rich diets are balanced with alkali-rich foods such as bananas, potatoes and corn. Excess protein may also be stored as fat, leading to weight gain.
Furthermore, the US organisation Consumer Reports recently conducted research on 15 protein supplement powders, which they later found to be contaminated with heavy metals. Serving instructions of three products exceeded daily recommended limits of arsenic, cadmium and lead. Cadmium, which shows high toxicity, accumulates in the kidneys where it may cause considerable damage. Others also display similar toxic activity in several organs and tissues including heart, bones and nervous systems.
The overall decision is whether to increase protein intake slightly by having a balanced diet rich in protein or to risk your health by using supplements that scientists are yet to prove have any significant effect. For more information and advice, visit the NHS website which contains many useful guides on supplementation and other matters or alternatively consult your doctor.