It is no secret that our health is our wealth, and students are more health-focused than ever before. A study of five US colleges found that two thirds of students regularly used some form of dietary supplement, and over half of UK adults use one on a daily basis.
According to the British Dietetics Association (BDA): “Vitamin and mineral supplements won’t improve performance, especially if you’re already eating a varied diet containing enough calories.” They claim that a third of adults regularly skip breakfast, thus depriving their bodies of essential nutrients such as fibre, iron and calcium, needed for normal cognitive function.
Yet cash-strapped, time-poor students such as myself can attest that maintaining a balanced diet the natural way is not as easy as it looks. The supplement industry was valued at £421m in 2016. Multivitamins remain the most popular form, pointing to the need for a general “quick fix” to avoid malnourishment, rather than the ability to invest time and effort into maintaining a balanced diet. As a vegetarian, I regularly take iron to avoid anaemia; Vitamin C and Zinc to improve immunity, and Vitamin D in the colder months of the year. However, as a gym user there seems to be something else I could be taking for the purposes of fitness. Although I used to negatively judge those who used protein shakes as being vain and purely interested in making “gains”, joining the University gym last year opened my eyes to the need for an extra helping hand in reaching fitness goals.
I am no stranger to post-workout pain that often lasts for days. This comes alongside the embarrassment of being defeated by the treadmill in front of everyone before others have broken a sweat. After consulting a personal trainer, it became apparent that casual gym users who simply either want to lose weight or keep fit are often regular users of protein supplements, which explained my seeming inadequacy. It is a misconception that bodybuilders and high performance athletes are the sole users of protein to increase fitness levels.
There are no limits on who is allowed to manufacture these products, and a cornucopia of products catering to all dietary requirements are available for almost anyone to buy and use whenever they want. The European Food Safety Authority have recalled some products including MusclePharm Assault (MPA) after it was found to contain elevated levels of Nictinic Acid. The high levels of Niacin, otherwise known as Vitamin B, carries serious risks from stomach ulcers to loss of vision. Despite the recognition of these dangers and the consequent ban upon products like MPA, there are no authorities in the UK that regulate dietary supplements.
This begs the question: is Brexit going to allow even more dangerous brands to fly under the radar?
One such brand is Optimum Nutrition. It claims to be “the world’s most trusted training partner”, and sells many “Gold Standard” muscle mass products, including a pre-workout powder that contains over half the daily amount of calories recommended for a typical adult in one serving. While this intense burst of energy helps users attain short-term fitness goals, the general consensus in the scientific community is that high protein diets are associated with kidney and liver problems. The consumption of these products in liquid form also has risks; an article by University of Glasgow Sport said that they deprive the body of “appetite suppressing hormones released as a result of chewing” whilst intestinal health can suffer from a lack of fibre, something only found in solid foods.
It is concerning that there are a lack of guidelines about the safe use of protein supplements at our gym, given the clear risks associated with them. Students need to be made more aware of which brands to trust and which to avoid, so that their health is not put in jeopardy in the long term.