Supplementing your lifestyle: 'Cheap is not necessarily good. Supplements can be contaminated'
Protein bars and shakes are de rigueur for gym users but do they offer any real benefits or can they do more harm than good
Wind the clock back 20 years and the only people who went to the gym were bodybuilders and fitness fanatics - people with an unusual level of interest in keeping their bodies in top shape. But today it's a different story.
Now supermarkets stock gym gear, whey powder and protein shakes; protein bars are available in almost every shop in the country; half the population seems to live in active wear, and young people are increasingly spending hours every week pumping iron.
With this increased interest in fitness has come an increased interest in, and market for, supplements. The subject has been in the news this week after Kerry footballer Brendan O'Sullivan was handed down a 21-week ban for testing positive for the stimulant methylhexaneamine (MHA) following the 2016 National Football League.
Methylhexaneamine is a mild stimulant that was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency's banned list in 2010 and it seems that O'Sullivan ingested the substance in a contaminated supplement. Meanwhile GAA star Dick Clerkin wrote in the Irish Independent earlier this week about a drug test he took in 2009, during which it occurred to him he couldn't be sure of the content of supplements he had purchased online.
It turned out he was clear, but with these incidents raising the issue of supplement culture among Irish gym goers, the question remains, is it rapidly becoming the norm for fitness fans to take sports supplements?
"Gym culture has become normalised in recent years," says Karl Henry, personal trainer and fitness expert on RTÉ One's Operation Transformation. "It's normal now to go to the gym at 6am before work, or afterwards on your way home. It's a regular thing to do; today, if you don't go to the gym you're probably the odd one out in your group of friends."
Henry isn't a fan of supplements, instead preferring to handle issues surrounding nutrition in his clients with dietary changes.
"We don't encourage people to use supplements - we encourage them to eat real food first. We look at their diets to make sure they're getting a good spread of nutrients, with lots of fruit and vegetables and lean protein. We'll sometimes recommend a multivitamin, but that's about it," he says.
"But the supplements market has gone nuts. Walk down the street now and you'll see people chugging back protein shakes and eating protein bars left, right, and centre. They're overused, and I personally believe it's more of a trend or fashion. The reality is that a chicken breast and an apple would be just as beneficial and a lot cheaper."
One amateur athlete who swears by supplements is 38-year-old Dublin man Brian Martin, who does high intensity interval training, plays American football and practises martial arts on a weekly basis.
"I use protein shakes after the gym to help my muscles recover after a heavy workout, on the recommendation of my personal trainer. It helps me out as I'm trying to build muscle," he says.
In addition, Martin takes Omega3, glucosamine for his joints and a multivitamin supplement every morning.
"To pre-game for American football, I'll take a pre-fuel Kinetica (protein) shake because it prevents lactic acid build up in my muscles. In addition, I drink three litres of water every day. This definitely helps prevent burn out."
According to Orla Walsh, a dietician who specialises in sports nutrition and who works with elite athletes, supplementation has its place, but is almost certainly unnecessary for the average gym goer.
"The use of supplements has definitely increased in Ireland. It's a growing market, but not all supplements are created equally," she said.
Walsh recommends that if someone is going to purchase supplements, they should look for those which have been 'batch tested,' an industry term which means that a supplement has been certified to only contain what it says on the label.
"High-performing athletes have to be careful of which supplements they take, because it's not unheard of for supplements to contain things which they shouldn't. For this reason, athletes typically look for batch-tested supplements, where the manufacturer guarantees the purity of their products," Walsh says.
However, she also says that for the average gym goer, someone who isn't an elite athlete, taking supplements often isn't necessary.
"It can be overkill. Many people who take supplements get very little benefit from them. They might take whey protein and maybe branch chain amino acids (BCAA) supplements, but there is very little benefit in taking these things at the same time," she says. "It's not unusual for people to take multiple supplements, but often they are wasting their time and money."
Walsh says that not all supplements are necessarily a bad idea. For example, whey protein has been studied and found to be extremely good at stimulating muscles to rebuild faster after they've been broken down in training. Likewise, vitamin C and zinc can be helpful as can creatine, which can help people build muscle.
"If you use a reputable brand, take it in the recommended doses and you're not taking it unnecessarily, then these things can be fine," she says.
Supplements can be expensive, and as a result lend themselves particularly well to being purchased online. Gym goers looking to save a few quid can easily buy their powders online and have them delivered to their homes, ready to be whizzed up in the blender to make shakes and smoothies.
"We get people coming in all the time, particularly parents concerned because their kids are getting deliveries of big tubs of powders from online vendors and they want to know if it's safe for them to take," adds Henry.
"But it's one thing taking something because you've been recommended it by someone with a qualification, a sports nutritionist for example. It's quite a different thing to watch a YouTube video and then order something online."
Henry notes this is something he's seen many people do, and that they often have very little idea of what is being delivered.
Walsh agrees, pointing out hat if you're going to buy supplements online, you need to make sure that you're getting them from a reputable source and that if possible, they are from trusted brands.
"Cheap isn't necessarily good. Supplements can be contaminated with other substances, either on purpose or by accident... a company might add hormones to their supplements to make the benefits of their product appear better than they actually are," she says.
"Do you really want to be taking the risk of ingesting hormones that are going to mess with your body without being aware that you're doing it? I certainly wouldn't. By sticking with a batch-tested supplement, you can be reasonably sure you're getting what it says on the tub."