Nusrat Khan, a PhD student of sports psychology at Panjab University (PU), a professional bodybuilder and athlete, has been using protein supplements since she was in middle school.
“Back home in Kashmir, I was an athlete. the amount of rigorous workout we have to do to stay in shape meant no matter how much I tried to get protein from natural sources, I needed to supplement it with protein powder. It has done wonders for me,” says Khan. According to her, abs truly are made in the kitchen. “Getting fit is 70 per cent nutrition and 30 per cent working out, so supplements are often a must,” adds Khan.
Though research on the science of fitness and weight loss has definitely come out in favour of good nutrition, taking protein supplements to fulfil nutritional requirements has been a contentious issue. These supplements often come in the form of powders which can be consumed in many forms, the most popular of which is by making a milkshake out of them. The most common of these protein supplements is whey protein, a specific type of whole protein, which allegedly contains nine essential amino acids that cannot otherwise be easily sourced from natural sources.
“There is no conclusive research on the effects of these supplements on our bodies, so I cannot really declare them harmful. But since there is no evidence that they are completely safe either, I am wary of these supplements,” says Dr Poonam Khanna, a nutritionist from the School of Public Health at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER).
Furthermore, many fitness enthusiasts and nutrition experts told Chandigarh Newsline that rising standards of fitness and increasingly unrealistic goals for body image have motivated young people from all walks of life to look for quick and easy ways for achieving these goals.
“Often people seek to fulfil these goals by taking some supplements that they heard are good for shaping their body. But their source is hearsay and not professional dieticians or sports nutritionists, and that is where taking protein supplements can become dangerous, that is why I always recommend natural sources for fulfilling nutritional requirements, no matter what,” adds Dr Khanna.
Dr Shreya, a clinical nutritionist, who has been a nutritionist with mid-day meal programmes, says that gym trainers or the storekeepers of health supplement shops, often prescribe supplements to fitness enthusiasts without being qualified to do so.
“Gym trainers are not authorised to give any diet plan to any person. The diet plans or advice of taking health supplements shall be made only after taking blood test of the applicant, and then as per the requirement of the body the supplement shall be advised. However, it is not happening,” says Dr Shreya.
Even Nusrat Khan, who swears by protein supplements, says that using these on the behest of unqualified persons such as a gym trainer or a health storekeeper is not advisable.
“Though there is no real danger in taking these supplements since I have been taking these since more than a decade now, one always need to do prior research and consult experts before deciding the types and dosage of supplements to take,” says Khan.
“It is important to conduct your own research as well as to which brands are safe and which are not. Also, one should know how much to take in a day in accordance with their body’s requirements. Of course, anything taken in excess is harmful,” adds Khan.
However, Rita Sharma, another professional body builder from the city, who has recently begun competing in professional body building platforms says she began to take supplements after being advised by her trainer to do so.
“Initially I just joined the gym to lose weight. Later, I started getting into bodybuilding and shaping. More than losing weight, I had to start gaining muscle which really requires one to turn to a protein-rich diet. Hence I started taking supplements, and its has done wonders for my body,” says Sharma.
Sharma adds that it is not always important to take advice from professional dieticians and nutritionists when it comes to choosing what brand and type of supplement to take if you have already got some experience with muscle gain and weight training. “Google is your best friend. we are all educated and we can do our research. Of course, if we eat supplements from an obscure brand it might be harmful so always check your source and read reviews of the supplement online,” adds Sharma.
Do supplements cause hormonal imbalance- myth or reality?
Khan says she gets messages and unsolicited advice from her relatives and colleagues every day regarding her fitness regime and lifestyle decisions. “Somehow looking strong and muscular is equated to becoming masculine. When I first told my parents I am going to begin bodybuilding, they were worried I will turn into a man. This is all absolute rubbish,” says Khan. “Especially when it comes to protein supplements such as protein shakes, they tell me testosterone levels will rise. Again that has no scientific basis,” claims Khan.
Khan alleges that often protein supplements are conflated with the consumption of steroids. Sharma, the other women bodybuilder, says she has also heard “baseless rumours” that protein supplements cause hormonal imbalance, especially in women.
“That is caused by the consumption of anabolic steroids, not protein supplements. Its just a myth propagated by uninformed people,” claims Sharma. Anabolic steroids refer to synthetic variations of the male sex hormone testosterone. The consumption of these steroids leads to rising levels of testosterone in the body and manifestation of masculine features on our bodies.
However, Dr Shreya, the clinical nutritionist, suggests that there is indeed a link between the intake of supplements and hormonal imbalance.
“It is confirmed that the ones who take health supplements without advice of doctors or nutritionist and without having a prior body check-up, might have disturbed testosterone levels, along with an increase in the Uric Acid levels in their bodies,” says Dr Shreya.
The doctor states that in women especially, these supplements can cause major health issues. “They cause hormonal changes, there cause fertility problems in women, women, increases levels of m anxiety in women, and this can all potentially be caused by taking protein supplements,” claims Dr Shreya.
Dangers of Supplement Dependence
Dr Khanna from PGIMER says one cannot pinpoint the dangers of protein supplements on our body in concrete terms. But she claims that those who depend on these supplements can have drastic withdrawal symptoms. “If you are regularly taking supplements and then suddenly decide to stop, it can cause your muscles to suddenly weaken as well. The dependency on these supplements can become really strong with regular intake, and like any dependency, the sudden withdrawal from it can also have drastic effects on your physical and mental health,” adds Dr Khanna.
Dr Shreya also says that supplements give a temporary pump to our muscles, but its common side effect is that when an individual stops taking the supplement, their body regains the fat it had lost very quickly. “Our body needs every ingredient including proteins, minerals, carbohydrates, sodium, potassium, but the addicted gym goers only take high protein and creatinine and reduce the number of carbohydrates, which also affect the kidneys and liver,” claims Dr Shreya.
The doctor also reveals that pumping our muscles with protein and strength training can cause a certain mental disorder colloquially known as “bigorexia”. The term refers to a muscle dysmorphia, which makes people obsessed with the idea that their muscles are just not big enough. It comes under the general bracket of body dysmorphic disorder, wherein people are obsessed and go to outlandish extents to hide or change aspects of their body which they find unappealing.
“Bigorexia is a trend in which all kinds of people are getting trapped, as they want 8 packs abs and that too in a very short span. This obsession leads to cutting out certain nutrients from one’s diet, which might show short term results but are very unhealthy for us in the long term,” says the doctor. “They are so obsessed with muscle building that they lose sight of their overall fitness, which requires a balanced intake of all other nutrients such as calcium and fat and carbohydrates. One cannot cut these out of their lives completely,” adds the doctor.
The role of micronutrients in protein absorption
Dr Khanna too believes that another problem with the focus on protein supplements for muscle building is that people forget the role of a balanced diet in terms of varied micronutrient intake. “It’s ok if you take a limited amount of protein powder I guess if you don’t get your requirements from a natural diet, but one cannot only obsess about protein and forget all other nutrients,” claims the doctor.
Apart from the muscular dysmorphic syndrome, Dr Khanna claims that an obsession with protein can make people forget about all the other micronutrients which are in fact necessary for the absorption of protein. “Not only is balanced diet necessary in general, but it also aids the protein obsession. Our body needs a delicate interaction of micronutrients to sustain itself. For example, I have done research on how iron absorption is aided by the intake of Vitamin C. Similarly protein is best absorbed with a balanced intake of calcium,” says Dr Khanna. “So in that sense, milk is your best option, because it has a combination of the two,” adds the nutrition expert from PGIMER.
Nusrat Khan, the bodybuilder and sports psychologist agrees that a balanced intake of nutrients is essential, but she gets this balanced diet not just from natural sources but from a myriad of supplements. “I also take magnesium supplements for example. Furthermore, vitamins and minerals, I also take a multivitamin for example. But again, everything I take after doing my research and talking to experts. Protein is in the forefront only because its is most essential for athletes for muscle recovery, but does not mean we ignore other nutrients,” adds Khan.
Adulteration in Protein Powder
Though experts largely agree that there is no harm in taking a limited amount of protein to fulfil one’s dietary requirements, what truly endangers one’s health is what might be added to the powder besides pure protein. “There are many brands that might sell adulterated stuff, mixed with harmful synthetic material, so we have to be careful while purchasing a particular brand of course,” claims Sharma, the bodybuilder.
Dr Vikas Sharma, a dermatologist from National Skin Hospital in Panchkula, claims that researchers have screened 134 such products for about 130 types of toxins to find that many protein powders contain heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury.
“Apart from that, bisphenol-A which is used to make plastic and certain pesticides have also been found in protein powders. These contaminants are linked to skin and hair disorders and other health conditions,” claims Dr Sharma.
Research published by Harvard Health has also warned users of the amount of hidden sugar and calories mixed with protein powder. “Some protein powders have little added sugar, and others have a lot (as much as 23 grams per scoop). Some protein powders wind up turning a glass of milk into a drink with more than 1,200 calories,” state the researchers from Harvard health. Apart from weight gain, this leads to an unhealthy spike in blood sugar, sometimes much more than the recommended limit of added sugar per day advised by cardiac experts.
Dr Sharma also claims that some protein powders may contain unlisted ingredients such as stimulants and even steroid. “Certain plants can absorb heavy metals from the soil which are passed along in protein powder if these are not screened well,” adds the dermatologist.
“At the end of the day, it is difficult to gauge what harmful effects these supplements contain, so it is always best to rely on natural sources of protein. There is enough local variety of food that each one of can consume to fulfil our nutritional requirements. And if you are still absolutely convinced of the benefits of supplements, take them at your own risk,” advises Dr Khanna.