Sports nutritionist and medical professionals have different views on your supplement habit so we asked a doctor what he perceived the benefits to be and we weighed up his response against the advice from scientific journals

Once reserved for the elite, the hardcore and the obsessed but today protein powders, bars and supplements are widely used amongst anyone who enjoys exercise from body builders, professional and amateur athletes alike, with the ultimate aim of improving physical gains, endurance and assist in muscle recovery after exercise. There is no doubt that proteins and amino acids are essential nutrients required for normal muscle growth, development and maintenance. There are a multitude of studies that look at the effectiveness of supplemental protein, with the vast majority suggesting there are indeed benefits including the enhancement of muscle mass and performance. However, this does not happen in isolation, this requires intensive, regular exercise in order to note significant gains. It is interesting to note that in previously “untrained” individuals that muscle mass and strength are negligibly influenced by protein supplementation in the first few weeks of resistance training. As the frequency and intensity of training increases protein supplementation will begin to play role.

Decide on your quality

Diet is an absolutely essential part of muscle development and supplements are there to do exactly that, supplement, not replace normal protein. With such a vast array of products on the market it is often difficult to choose if you should take a supplement, and if so which one, and also to weigh up the risks and benefits.

Ultimately, the quality of any protein powder is determined by how much protein you obtain from each serving, the amino acid profile, the cost, taste and number of additives to name, but a few key factors. For the best results, I tend to focus on yield (the actual amount of protein you obtain form each serving) and Amino acid profile. I’d also suggest you aim to choose a low fat, low carbohydrate, high protein powder. While you require all three to aid muscle development, balance is key. The difference in protein content in various powders can be phenomenal, do not simply pay for a brand name, the proof is in the numbers.

Look carefully at the concentration and type of branched chain amino acids or BCAA’s included in the protein you are buying. Leucine is one of such BCAAs and is thought to be one of the most important. It is truly amazing how different the content of each product is, whilst the protein and amino acid content may be high, here are just a few hidden ingredients to look out for:

1. Artificial sweeteners

Including sucralose, aspartame, saccharin to name but a few. While the presumption is that these are “better for you than sugar” this is not quite true. There is no good evidence that they reduce weight gain, type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome and some studies actually show an increased risk of adverse health outcomes.

What the science says…

He’s certainly got a point. A paper in the Canadian Medical Association Journal found artificial sweeteners can be linked to long-term weight gain and upping your risk of obesity and heart disease. Ouch! Perhaps it’s best to stick to sugar, or at the very least use proteins with the lowest levels of artificial sweeteners.

2. Milk powders

Milk powders are a cheap bulking agent and widely used in Protein powders. They are high in lactose sugars which is terrible if you are lactose intolerant. This can contribute to gastrointestinal upset including which can cause bloating, and loose stools.

What the science says…

Though they’re cheap, milk powders are safe, even for young children, says a paper in the journal Allergy, Asthma and Clinical Immunology. They can have the minerals and vitamins you find in normal milk so although they’re cheaper, they won’t do you any serious harm, unless you are lactose intolerant like the good doctor points out.

3. Oils and fats

Oils and fats are added to protein supplements to increase richness; they are non-essential ingredients which can contribute to hypercholesterolemia. It is a fairly common phenomenon to see high cholesterol levels in body builders and athletes despite their immense fitness levels and generally healthy eating, this is a likely contributing factor.

What the science says…

The doctor is 100% correct, so check what kinds of fats are in your supplements because it’s better to have more from unsaturated sources. These are linked to lower mortality rates while the reverse is true for trans fats and some saturated fats, found a 2016 paper JAMA Internal Medicine. Like the doctor said, know what you’re eating and you’ll be healthier for it.


Dr Daniel Fenton works at the London Doctors Clinic as a general practitioner but also specializing in sexual and reproductive health