Sales of protein shakes, bodybuilding supplements and vitamins have exploded in recent years. The products sell a healthy lifestyle, and are marketed as a way to ensure that we get the nutrition we need despite busy lifestyles. Are supplements and shakes really necessary for health?
Walk into any gym with a shop, and you will see the shelves stacked with supplements, protein shakes, health bars and all manner of specialist foods. These products are now available in supermarkets and health food shops, promising to improve performance in workouts and give benefits for health. What is behind these claims, who can benefit from these supplements and are they worth the money?
Beginning with protein shakes - first we need to know a little about protein. It is an essential part of food intake for humans, needed for growth and repair of muscles and making up a large proportion of our bodies. Good sources of protein include pulses, meat, milk, eggs and nuts.
So far so good for most of us – but do we need additional protein? The answer in most cases is a simple ‘no’. Most people in the developed world obtain sufficient protein from a healthy diet – chicken and fish are particularly good sources. Excessive protein intake is not a risk for most healthy people, as it will simply be excreted via the kidneys. However those who have kidney disease or diabetes can find that too much protein will worsen their health issues.
Protein shakes are touted by celebrities as having powers to promote weight loss. As this article points out, celebrity claims should be treated with a certain amount of healthy scepticism. Be aware that these shakes are also heavily packaged and usually far more expensive than buying food.
There is one group of people who may need extra protein – those who are carrying out intense workouts, whether as part of their job or as an athletics or bodybuilding programmes. Muscles increase in size and strength by being slightly damaged in a workout. The small tears caused by contracting the muscle use protein to heal, and as they heal the muscle strengthens and grows in size. There is a theory that protein intake immediately after a workout means that the muscles will grow more quickly. As it is not always practical to cook chicken breasts at the gym, protein shakes and supplements are a straightforward way to obtain the extra protein needed.
Proteins used for bodybuilders include casein (derived from milk and also a key ingredient in breathable paint), whey protein (a by-product of cheesemaking) and soy protein. Protein shakes are usually mixed with water, and will have some flavouring added to make them more palatable. Even the most dedicated of bodybuilders are unlikely to prefer them to real food if the option is there.
So in summary – there is a place for protein shakes for serious athletes, but for most of us they are not necessary. Real food tastes much better!
What about vitamin and mineral supplements? A balanced diet containing plenty of fresh food, especially vegetables, should provide all the nutrition that most people need. Vegetables should not be overcooked and need to be correctly stored. It is also worth noting that frozen food can be just as good as fresh for vitamin content.
Those in good health who eat the varied diet needed by the human body will not require additional supplements. Those who have digestive or other health issues, or who have a restricted diet may find that they are not getting all their nutrition. For instance, Vitamin B12 is only found in animal products, so strict vegans who do not eat eggs or milk may need to take supplements. Deficiency in vitamin B12 can cause anaemia and even damage to the nervous system, so it is not something to ignore.
The body can store some vitamins, so it is not necessary to ingest them every day. Other vitamins are not stored, with excess being removed in the urine. Vitamin C is one of these – so anyone who takes mega-doses of vitamin C in the belief that it will improve health and immunity is literally flushing money down the toilet!
The UK government does recommend supplements for some people. For instance, although most people get enough sun exposure to make the vitamin D that they need, it is advised that young children, elderly people and those who see very little sun take supplements. Supplements of vitamin A and vitamin C are also recommended for under-fours, especially if they are fussy eaters. While it is better to improve their diet, anyone who has tried to win a battle of wills with a determined toddler will know that it is not quite that easy!
Pregnant women also need to take particular care with their diet – there is no need to ‘eat for two’ but a good intake of nutrients is essential for the health of both mother and baby. Women trying to conceive or in the early stages of pregnancy should also take a folic acid tablet. This substance is proven to reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in the foetus, and is especially important for those with a history of such defects in previous pregnancies.
So there is definitely a place for nutritional supplements for those in the above groups, those who have health problems and those who have restricted diets. For the rest of us, the best approach is good fresh food and healthy eating.
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