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Casual Gym Goers Clueless On Protein and Healthy Supplements

Casual gym goers need to be educated on the true health benefits of diversified nutrition and the nature of protein supplements to avoid them being used to compensate for unhealthy habits, Swiss researchers have said.

In 2010, Consumer Reports found that several protein powders tested contained heavy metals including cadmium, arsenic and mercury.

Cadmium raises special concern because it accumulates in and can damage the kidneys, the same organs that can be damaged by excessive protein consumption. And it can take 20 years for the body to eliminate even half the cadmium absorbed today.

"This is a highly toxic metal, and while there are some cases where decisions have to be weighed against relative risks, accepting that you have to be exposed to any cadmium at all in your protein drink after your workout is definitely not one of them," says Michael Harbut, M.D., director of the Environmental Cancer Initiative at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Royal Oak, Mich.

"When these toxic heavy metals are combined in a product that is marketed for daily use, that raises serious public health concerns, especially for pregnant women, children, and young adults," says Burns, who has been a toxicology consultant to state and federal government agencies.

Other protein powders are filled with the same artificial sweeteners as in chewing gum such as aspartame and sucralose.

Sports nutrition products are used by an increasingly mainstream audience.

Lifestyle Users Need Education

Indeed in a recent landmark report on the sector , the European Commission highlighted the division between sportspeople and so-called 'lifestyle users'.

Yet researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) have called for greater education of such casual gym goers, who were "misguided" when it came to the health beliefs of protein consumption.

Based on an online survey of 813 Swiss adults (376 users of protein supplements and 437 non-users), they found there was a gap between consumers' perception and scientific evidence of the benefits of protein supplements.

Some consumers with low levels of physical activity believed supplements had a 'fitness-promoting' effect and the results suggested this group may even believe taking protein would somehow 'compensate' for a lack of activity or other healthy behaviours.

"The consumption of protein supplements among leisure time exercisers increases. However, most recreational physically active adults do not reach a training intensity that would require additional protein intake," the researchers wrote.

"On the contrary, the consumption of protein supplements increases the likelihood of protein and calorie overconsumption, because people probably do not compensate additional calorie intake by restricting their regular diet."

The 'Licensing Effect'

The researchers said this "ironic consequence" had been seen in previous studies on food supplements more broadly.

In 2011 researchers from the National Sun Yat-Sen University in Taiwan found evidence that supplements may create an "illusory sense of invulnerability that disinhibits unhealthy behaviours" through something called the 'licensing effect'.

"The use of dietary supplements and the health status of individuals have an asymmetrical relationship: the growing market for dietary supplements appears not to be associated with an improvement in public health," they wrote at the time.
Reasons for taking protein

The study found overall most women believe protein 'increases muscles' (cited by 57.3%) and 'regulates weight' (48.6%).

Meanwhile most men believe protein 'increases muscles' (83.7%) and 'promote regeneration' (53.7%).

Other reasons cited included 'health promotion', 'satiety' and 'energy supply'.

In the EU the following health claims are approved for protein:

- Protein contributes to the maintenance of normal bones

- Protein is needed for normal growth and development of bone in children

- Protein contributes to the maintenance of muscle mass

- Protein contributes to a growth in muscle mass

Meanwhile several attempts at gaining a satiety and weight management claim have been rejected by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).


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