Of late, following the spate of young celebrity deaths at the gym or during workouts, there has been a lot of talk about protein powders and fat-burning supplements causing these cardiac or neurological events. This is an over-simplification for none of these extreme events happen without underlying conditions of the people concerned. They may have had undiagnosed arrhythmia, a high heart rate or hypertension, may have not rested or slept well and stressed out their system further, perhaps had a kidney problem or may have been smokers and alcoholics. There is also no established research till now that have directly linked the use of powders and supplements to heart and kidney complications, of course, those products that are clinically tested, graded, certified and safe. Having said that, let me clarify that a healthy adult does not need any kind of supplements or powders to stay fit provided their diet is balanced between lean meats/fish/plant proteins, fresh fruits/vegetables and fibres.
ARE PROTEIN POWDERS SAFE?
Of course, many young people these days want toned bodies and develop their physique. This can be done by smart diet planning and from existing protein sources, which can build muscle, strengthen bones and power your body functions. But if you want to become a body builder and want to reach out for that protein powder, then it should be done under regulated medical supervision. Sometimes, the vulnerable older age group or pregnant women may not have the appetite for proteins as such and may have to be given supplements, like a dosage of medicine, as advised by their doctors. Also, it is the composition of the protein powder, some of which is available in the unregulated market, particularly the natural ones, that’s a cause of concern as these may contain metals and contaminants.
So what are protein powders? Basically, they are protein derived from plant sources like soybeans and peas and animal sources like eggs or milk (whey protein). These extracts are powdered and packaged for use. Those for muscle-building will have more protein than those intended for weight loss, though both goals, let me repeat, require a holistic approach of diet, exercise and lifestyle.
What’s a matter of concern then? Since there is no research data on the side effects of high protein supplementation, it is up to the manufacturers to package what they feel is safe. We do not know for sure what is going into each bottle of protein powder regardless of what the manufacturer may claim. For the sake of palatability, they may be adding sugars, artificial flavouring, thickeners, calories. And since powders are concentrated protein, you may innocently scoop heaped spoons into your glass of water or milk and end up piling more calories than you require, leading to weight gain and an unhealthy spike in blood sugar.
But what is most troubling is the toxic load. Many protein powders, particularly those labelled as herbal, ayurvedic and safe, may contain heavy metals (lead, arsenic, cadmium or mercury), pesticides or other contaminants with links to cancer and other health conditions. In the US, some of these powders were evaluated and toxins were present in significant quantities. A lot of these powders on shop shelves here are not clinically produced or standardised, so the risk stays.
Let me also add about whey protein, simply because it has ended up being demonised quite a bit. It is coming from cow milk, so it cannot be any worse. Remember, if you indeed need protein powder supplementation because you do not have enough dietary support, it is your doctor who will tell you so. And in my mind, the dosage should never exceed a teaspoon once or twice a day, which is roughly about 20 to 30 grams.
ARE FAT BURNING SUPPLEMENTS RISKY?
Many youngsters are into fat-burning supplements these days, hoping these will be the magic pill for instant weight loss. What you lose is a lot of water initially and though these supplements purportedly boost metabolism and draw energy from your fat reserves and adipose tissue, there is no research that proves that they help you drop weight substantially.
I have the same concerns about their composition as protein powders. Despite several claims about the safety of herbal weight loss supplements, they often have contaminants, metals like chromium and ingredients like usnic acid, which can damage the liver. These may contain compounds that stimulate your brain to control your appetite but they can adversely impact your blood pressure. While claiming to burn fat, all that these supplements are doing is stretching the capacities of your major organs like heart, lungs and kidneys. Never use them without consulting your doctor or co-relating with your existing medical condition. There is no cheat sheet for weight loss, you have got to do it through a holistic management of diet and exercise.