Are protein supplements healthy?

A quick scroll through Instagram and you’ll undoubtedly be inundated with images of celebrities promoting the latest range of protein supplements, bars, powders and shakes, all promising to help build and repair tissues, deliver amino acids to muscles cells and help your body recover after strenuous workouts.

However, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) believes marketing for some protein supplements is both ‘wrong and immoral’, and leading many fitness fanatics to use protein powders as a ‘substitute not a supplement’ for their daily meals.

Professor Graeme Close from John Moores University told the BBC that, while protein is used to heal wounds, grow bones and build muscles, ‘there is a lot of false advice’ out there on social media, misconstruing its purpose.

He says: “I always talk about supplements being exactly that. The rise of Instagram and Twitter makes people think you can buy these bodies out of a bottle. Some of the advertising by some of these companies is wrong and immoral.”

“You will see some ridiculous claims that you can move from out of shape and overweight in four weeks by taking a pill,” he added.

Dr Stuart Gray, who works in the exercise science and medicine unit at the University of Glasgow, agreed with Close’s view of supplements, revealing: ‘In general, [we] already get enough protein in our diet and so any benefits are small or non-existent of additional protein.’

protein bar

However, the ESSNA (European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance) argues that synthetic products — which have seen a 20 per cent year-on-year increase in sales in the last five years, making it the fastest growing type of sport supplement in the UK, according to Euromonitor figures — enable faster recovery.

A spokesman from the ESSNA said the law “specifies that companies are not allowed to mislead their consumers with regards to the benefits of their products”, and there are sufficient food laws around protein to regulate sales.

Australian personal trainer and entrepreneur Kayla Itsines, who has amassed over seven million followers on Instagram and created a fitness community across the world as a result of her BBG programme, weighed in on the ‘confusion’ surrounding the protein supplement debate and exclusively told ELLE UK: “A supplement is a supplement, not a substitute.”

Istines suggests that when people talks about protein bars, they should, in fact, be referring to them as ‘supplement bars’ to emphasise the fact they’re extras to meals and not a protein replacement for lunch or dinner.

“You can have your main meals and a bar, but you can’t eat protein bars as meals. Just because a bar has 23g of protein in it, doesn’t mean your body is going to agree with it. Sometimes people have protein bars and they don’t feel full, they don’t make you feel good, they feel really unmotivated and hate healthy food.”

“A protein bar isn’t healthy food, healthy food is healthy food — fruits, vegetables, meats. There’s so much confusion [about protein supplements],” she concluded.

According to market researcher Mintel, two in five (42 per cent) of UK consumers aged 16 to 24 have consumed sports nutrition products in the last three months, with UK consumers spending £66m on sports nutrition food and drink products in 2015—a 27 per cent increase from 2013.

meal dinner food protein

“Healthy food is healthy food — fruits, vegetables, meats.”

While the the Food Standards Agency states adults need, on average, 55g of protein a day to maintain a healthy lifestyle, several dieticians told Radio 1’s Newsbeat that active people should take more than that, with some suggesting people take 1.2 – 1.5 grams per kilogram of body weight.

This would mean if someone weighed approximately 80kg, they’d need to consume a whopping 100g to 120g of protein to meet their daily requirement.

However, British Dietetic Association spokesperson Chloe Miles told the Huffington Post UK that by focusing on consuming a lot of one nutrient, such as protein, people are likely to be restricting other food groups, such as carbohydrates and fibre .

‘There are risks of having an unbalanced diet including vitamin and mineral deficiencies and in the long term increasing the risk of developing chronic conditions,’ she revealed.

Of course, protein supplements are more than fine to consume, as long as you’re taking them properly, using reputable, tested brands, ensuring you eat a balanced diet (including protein such as fish and meat), and consuming them as a supplement, and not a substitute.


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