Explainer: Why protein supplements can be harmful

Explainer: Why protein supplements can be harmful

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protein supplements

Proteins from dietary sources can be equally effective in muscle building as protein supplements — without the associated risks of renal, liver and brain damage. 

Fitness trainers, in most cases, explicitly ask gym-goers to start taking protein supplements. Doubts about potential side effects are easily quelled by citing personal examples of prolonged use. However, there have been growing reports of serious health concerns, including renal, liver and brain damage, among visibly fit individuals. 

Even as the protein supplement industry continues to downplay the risks, First Check decided to investigate the matter, based on available scientific evidence. But before we address the health risks associated with the indiscriminate consumption of protein supplements, let’s get the basics right. 

EAAs are the key 

Amino acids (AAs) are the building blocks of the proteins. There are 20 AAs of which nine are essential and therefore referred to as essential amino acids (EAAs). Proteins assist in muscle building, and this capacity is contingent on the presence of all nine EAAs. However, these cannot be synthesised by the human body; the supply has to be met externally from a dietary protein source. 

The recommended daily allowance (RDA) of protein per kg of body weight for an average individual is 0.8g. However, for those engaging in muscle-building workouts, the RDA is higher at 1.4 to 2.0g of protein/kg of body weight/day, according to experts.

What’s in your protein supplement?

Protein supplements are derived from plant sources (such as soybeans, peas, rice, potatoes) as well as animal sources (such as eggs and milk). They are primarily sold in powdered forms. However, unlike naked whey, which is pure whey protein, most other protein powders carry additives such as caffeine, creatine and sweeteners. These additives are not mentioned in the list of ingredients, or are mentioned in a way that is veiled, at best. For instance, added sugar could be mentioned as part of carbohydrates.

In a recent study conducted in India, protein powders from 36 manufacturers were analysed. Of these 25 misreported the amount of protein — protein reported was more than what was actually present. The authors also found that protein supplements carry hepatotoxic potential. In other words, they can cause damage to the liver. 

Making informed choices 

Consuming proteins before or after an exercise routine is known to reinforce muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Proteins, such as whey (fast-acting-proteins), are rapidly absorbed into the blood stream, whereas milk protein ensures a sustained release of amino acids into the blood stream. In other words, proteins from dietary sources can be equally effective in muscle building as protein supplements. 

Recently, the Indian Council of  Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) issued dietary guidelines that recommended avoiding the use of protein supplements for muscle building. In the absence of stringent regulations, as consumers, it’s important to be informed about the hazards of consuming any dietary supplements, including popular protein supplements endorsed by fitness enthusiasts.  

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