To supplement or not to supplement? Beth Cragg on sports nutrition

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Informed Sport Cover

Many supplements marketed to body builders, athletes and recreational exercisers promise big gains; some might burn fat and promote muscle growth, others may enhance power and endurance….but where do these claims actually come from?

Many supplements marketed to body builders, athletes and recreational exercisers promise big gains; some might burn fat and promote muscle growth, others may enhance power and endurance….but where do these claims actually come from? Unfortunately, the supplement market is poorly regulated and exploited allowing some products to reach the market that are based on anecdotes, observations and mechanistic hypotheses that have little or no supporting evidence. Furthermore, due to the lack of control over labeling regulations, many may also contain undeclared ingredients and contaminants!

It’s important that we know what we’re buying and be assured its claims to efficacy are evidence based to get the most out of our training and money!

Some advice: look out for the informed sport/informed choice logo on your products! Informed-Sport is a supplement testing and certification programme which provides assurance to athletes that products carrying the Informed-Sport logo have been regularly tested for prohibited substances and are manufactured to the highest quality standards. This is a good habit to get in to if you are aiming to compete at a high level in your sport in which doping testing is a common requirement.

Stay Informed Look for the informed sport/informed choice logo

Food first

The decision to take supplements should be a carefully considered one, weighing the pros against the cons. The first question to ask is can I achieve these benefits through food alone? This will not only be cheaper (and tastier) but will also offer a plethora of additional benefits for health and sporting performance. For example, research has demonstrated that women who consumed 500ml of milk after resistance exercise not only increased lean body mass but also decreased their fat mass. This is because milk provides us with one of the most efficient forms of protein for muscle growth; Whey and Casein. In addition, it contains calcium which will encourage fat loss and also supports healthy bone function!


For example, 20g of protein (the recommended protein intake per meal) can be attained from:
  • 4 eggs
  • 120g of chicken, beef or salmon
  • 600ml milk
  • 250g yoghurt
  • 250g kidney beans or lentils with rice or pasta
  • 400g tofu

Do I need to use protein powders to grow and maintain muscle mass? This is a question I am constantly being asked and it’s not a straight forward answer… so I thought I would dedicate the rest of this post talking about this – yes, I know it’s another post about protein!

I am not opposed to using protein powders as they can be a good tool to help achieve the higher dose of protein required to attain the increased protein demands of training, especially if you have a busy schedule or are vegan/vegetarian and struggle to consume sufficient dietary protein! However, they should always be given as an addition alongside a healthy diet and in most cases, sufficient protein can be achieved easily through dietary sources and I think anyone who has tried protein powders will agree that food is a much tastier alternative – always remember FOOD FIRST! Take a look at my previous blog post to see how you can use nutrition to optimise muscle growth and repair!

What is the best form of protein powder to use?

For those of you that do decide to use protein powders, the next challenge is wading through the forest of protein supplements on the market to find the right one… so here’s a few things to look out for to make sure that your hard-earned money goes on a product that really benefits your training!

  • The most effective protein source is one that causes a rapid rise in amino acids in the blood, contains ALL the 9 essential amino acids and has a high Leucine content. Leucine is the most important amino acid as it independently drives muscle protein synthesis more than any of the others and works synergistically with resistance training to augment the muscle growth response. Subsequently, when searching for a protein powder to use make sure you check the label and ensure that all 9 essential amino acids are present but that at least 3g of Leucine is also provided in every 20g serving!
  • Whey protein powder has been proven to be the superior supplement to support muscle gains as it’s digested quickly and contains a large dose of leucine! However, if you are a vegan or lactose intolerant, you can give soy protein a go as, even though this has a lower leucine content, it has also been shown to support muscle growth! You could also try hemp protein, as this contains all the amino acids and therefore all the building blocks required to synthesise new muscle.

But remember to look out for the Informed Sport logo on your product!

Just because it has the word protein in it, doesn’t mean its high protein.

Even everyday food has now joined the supplement marketing hype by claiming the food is high in protein! But is this true?

Unfortunately, the ‘high protein’ label is now all too common on food products, even if they only contain a small amount of protein! So, it’s always good to check the ingredients list – the first ingredient will always be the predominant one! Nuts for example are claimed to be high protein but they are actually highest in fat, and this is the same for peanut butter and cheese (sadly!). So, if you are trying to lose weight but maintain muscle, these protein sources might not be the most effective!

Weetabix with protein

Another good example is Weetabix, who have now developed a ‘high protein’ alternative, which does well to attract the attention of shoppers who are looking for ways to increase their protein intake!

However, looking closely at the label, the ‘high protein’ Weetabix is only 3.1g higher in protein than the normal Weetabix, with every other nutrient content nearly exactly the same! Its arguable whether this small discrepancy deserves the title ‘High protein’. The problem with this is that its misleading in making you think you have hit your morning protein target, when you may not have done ….so it’s good to be wary of this and get in to the habit of checking the labels. It's also important to remember that not every protein source is a complete protein (i.e. contains all the amino acids required to optimize muscle growth and repair). Baked beans are a good example, as even though these are high in protein, they need to be combined with grains (such as bread) to form a complete protein! 

Protein aside, the need to check the labels and ask the food first question applies to ANY supplement, whether it be a vitamin and mineral supplement or a sport specific one. So keep this in mind next time you want to buy a supplement!

This piece was written by Beth Cragg, Brookes University Masters Student in Sports Nutrition and Brookes Sport Ambassador. You can find Beth on Instagram

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