It’s not just elite athletes who are popping pills and downing potions on a mission to improve health and performance. Last year alone, a massive USD140.3 billion was spent globally on supplements. And now, with a post-pandemic health boom on the horizon, supplement spending is set to soar. To date, vitamin supplements have dominated the market (accounting for 31.4 percent of spend), but it is protein and amino acids that are expected to show the greatest annual growth from here on in.
Are supplements necessary?
Supplements are, just as their name suggests, ‘something you add as an enhancement’, so for most of us, they are not necessary. If you're relatively healthy, you can get all the vitamins and minerals you need from a varied diet – and if your diet is poor, no amount of pill-popping will counteract that. Studies show the majority of American adults do not eat enough fruits and vegetables, and 75 percent of US adults take some form of nutritional supplement to make up for it. Yet, research shows taking supplements will never replace the benefits of a balanced diet.
Why is protein such a popular supplement?
Many sport and fitness enthusiasts are advocates of protein and amino acids because they see them as being fundamental for the building and maintenance of muscles.
What’s the difference between the two, you might ask? Protein is a macronutrient which is built from amino acids. There are 20 different types of amino acids, eight of which are called ‘essential amino acids’ that you need to intake as part of your diet because the human body is not able to synthesize them. Three of these eight essential amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine) are what we call BCAAs (branched-chain amino acids). In recent years BCAAs have seen a real surge in popularity among fitness enthusiasts.
Do BCAAs really deserve the hype?
Research into the benefits of supplementation with protein, specifically BCAAs, is mixed and varied. The strongest evidence suggests that BCAA supplementation before exercise can enhance recovery. And BCAA supplementation after strength training can help your body preserve the muscles targeted by eccentric contractions (that is the tension you develop when you elongate your muscle, for example going down during a squat). The reason why BCAAs are considered highly effective is that they are directly metabolized into the muscles instead of the liver.
Three reasons to consider protein and BCAA supplementation
- If your goal is to build muscle, you should be mindful of your daily intake of protein, especially leucine (which is one of the protein BCAAs)
- If you are an endurance athlete you may want to adopt BCAA supplementation to help reduce central fatigue
- If you are not young anymore, you could consider BCAA supplementation to help slow muscle loss.
What’s the ideal amount of protein?
The recommended daily allowance of protein is 0.8g per kg per day. However, if you regularly practice sport or engage in physical activity, regardless of the type of exercise or your level of fitness, it’s likely that your body would benefit from more than this. The recommended amount for an elite athlete is up to 2.2g/kg/day.
At the moment there are no studies that define the tolerable limit of consumption of BCAAs. What is clear is that supplementation is safe for humans for over three times the normal dose suggested, and this is:
- Leucine: 34 mg/kg/day
- Isoleucine: 15 mg/kg/day
- Valine: 19 mg/kg/day
Why is leucine a favorite?
Professor David Cameron-Smith, an international authority on nutrition and health, explains that the BCAA leucine, which is found in high levels in dairy protein can increase the activity of the protein-making machinery in muscles. "It has now been scientifically shown to boost muscle repair and, over time, increase the amount of muscle gained." He says that the leucine boost happens within the first two hours of recovering after a workout, but the effect is unlikely amplified by dosing up on supplements. "Careful measurement suggests that a total dose of 25grams of leucine-rich protein (well less than what is recommended in most bodybuilding formulations) is more than enough," says Cameron-Smith.
FOUR STEPS TO EXPLORING HOW PROTEIN SUPPLEMENTATION CAN WORK FOR YOU
From Alessandra Casagrande, a powerlifter, personal trainer and physical education graduate who is currently completing a Nutrition Science degree.
Step one: Start to monitor your daily intake of protein and if you feel the need, use shakes and bars for reaching your dose.
Step two: Start to observe if you have the right amount of BCAAs before or after your training. If your goal is to use them to lessen the impact of fatigue during endurance training, plan an intake before your workout. If you want to preserve the body from the damages of the eccentric contractions or if your goal is to increase muscle mass, plan an intake before and after your training (usually a maximum of one to three hours afterward).
Step three: Think about your method of intake. Fueling your body with real food is always best, and for most everyday exercisers, supplementing your protein in other ways is not necessary. If you do choose to supplement with liquids, consider taking them 30 or 40 minutes before your workout. If you choose solid proteins (or pills), they take longer to digest, so it could be better to plan an intake from 90 to 120 minutes before.
Step four: If you’re serious about maximizing the benefits of protein supplementation, I suggest you seek tailored personalized advice from a nutritionist.
WHAT OTHER SUPPLEMENTS SHOULD YOU CONSIDER?
Experts recommend that a fit, healthy person consumes 200mg of vitamin C each day to reach optimum blood saturation. That's easy to do. Two gold kiwifruit (180 mg), three oranges (210 mg), or a cup of frozen blackcurrants (190 mg) are all great sources of vitamin C and will get you to 200 mg in one easy hit. The catch is our bodies process vitamin C very quickly, so the best approach is small regular doses of vitamin C, which is why supplements are popular. And they are particularly helpful in winter. A major meta-analysis showed that if you take regular vitamin C supplements you’ll probably get the same number of colds as those who don’t – but the colds won’t last quite as long. Interestingly, a small number of studies have shown that people exposed to short periods of extreme physical stress (including marathon runners and skiers) who took vitamin C, halved their risk of getting a cold. The important thing is that you don’t overdo it. While overdosing isn’t really an issue, too much vitamin C can cause unpleasant side effects including nausea and insomnia.
Read more about the merits of vitamin C here.
Vitamin D is a powerful nuclear receptor-activating hormone that is critical to the immune system and linked to the reduction in Type 1 diabetes. It also plays an important role in helping us absorb the calcium we eat. And, it can ease the impact of seasonal affective disorder. We get most of our vitamin D from sun exposure, but now, as we are increasingly vigilant about skin cancer, experts say we’re not getting enough vitamin D. Some even believe the lack of adequate vitamin D supplementation has reached epidemic proportions, and that it may be the biggest medical mistake of the past century! There’s a lot of confusion about how much vitamin D your body needs (read about the statistical blunder and Finnish testing here), so you’re best to seek personal advice from a medical professional for advice.
Magnesium is known for its important role in muscle and nerve function and energy production, yet findings on how it enhances exercise performance are mixed. Many people turn to magnesium supplements to help improve their quality of sleep. It’s estimated that 50 percent of people in the US and Europe get less than the recommended daily amount of magnesium, which is 400 – 420 mg per day for men and 310 – 320 mg per day for women. This doesn't cause an issue in the short term, but chronically low levels can increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and osteoporosis.
WHAT SUPPLEMENTS DOES RACHAEL NEWSHAM TAKE?
“With more and more supplements on the market, it gives us all greater awareness of what’s available and what steps we can take to take care of ourselves. But it can tip a little too far, and it’s not beneficial if you start to obsess over supplements. For me, taking supplements is not about improving athletic performance. I do a lot of physical activity and ask a lot of my body, with a cyclical workload that goes up and down. Taking supplements helps me feel confident that, across the ups and downs, I am investing in my health and giving my immune system a fighting chance.” Rachael Newsham, Les Mills Program Director.
Remember, if you’re a normal healthy individual, you should be able to get all the vitamins and minerals your body needs through a healthy, balanced diet. Supplements are not necessarily a bad thing, but for most of us, they are not essential.