Saurabh Kapur’s quest for a muscular, athletic physique got a serious boost when he was introduced to “protein shakes” by his gym instructor about a year ago. The 28-year-old IT manager from New Delhi saw quick muscle gains, increasing his body weight by 2kg in just a month, and better recovery after his workouts. He quickly made the protein supplement, from a reputed US company, a part of his daily diet.
The problems began when Kapur went for a three-month training stint to Kuala Lumpur, and stopped hitting the gym. “I thought I’ll continue drinking the protein shake daily to bulk up quickly,” Kapur says, “but that was a big mistake.”
By the time he was back in New Delhi, Kapur had started losing muscle mass, gaining fat, and felt fatigued through the day. Tests revealed abnormal levels of blood urea nitrogen (BUN) in his body, a result of excessive protein intake. “I was having meat or eggs thrice a day as well,” Kapur confesses. It took him months of careful dieting and supervised exercises to undo the damage.
Even a couple of years back, protein supplements were a rarity in India. Now shops selling large tubs of protein powder, with labels depicting savagely muscled bodybuilders, have become ubiquitous in the metros.
“Supplementation has been part of a professional athletes’ diet for decades now,” says Ritika Samaddar, chief of dietetics at Max Hospitals, New Delhi, “but now it’s become a part of any gym-goer’s daily diet.”
South African physiotherapist Heath Matthews, director of athletic performance at the Mittal Champions Trust that works with upcoming Indian athletes, says supplementation is absolutely necessary for sportspersons. “After a heavy workout—whether it’s strength training or cardio—the body needs a protein boost to repair the overworked and damaged muscles,” says Matthews, “and drinking a protein shake is the most effective method of ensuring that there is muscle gain instead of muscle loss.” A well-tailored protein supplementation plan ensures that the body gets maximum benefit from workout routines. “The body processes protein intake most efficiently just after you wake up, or up to 45 minutes after a workout,” says Matthews, “and it’s really difficult for most people to eat the required amounts of food during these times. A glass of protein shake is the perfect solution then.”
But while a professional athlete’s diet is closely monitored, most gym-goers take protein supplements without proper supervision. “There is no doubt that protein supplements help increase fitness levels and lean muscle,” says Samaddar, “but each individual will have different requirements depending on a range of factors, including their body metabolism and how much protein they get from their normal diet. If your supplementation is not carefully calculated, it can do more harm than good.”
The US Food and Nutrition Board says that the recommended daily allowance for adults is 0.8g of protein per kg of body weight—for people looking to increase muscle mass or involved in strenuous exercise, that amount can double. Anything above these recommended levels of intake is stored as fat by the body, and also puts excessive stress on the kidneys.
“Anyone using protein supplements should go through a proper dietitian,” says Samaddar, “who will calculate the required intake based on how many calories the person is burning while exercising, and what his or her protein deficit is.”
Pandora’s powder box
An added problem is that the huge demand for protein supplements has meant that spurious products have flooded the market. Samaddar says there has been a significant increase in the number of patients coming to her after consuming spurious protein shakes over the last two years. “We had a man in his 20s who was diagnosed with diabetes just a few months ago,” she says. “After our investigations we found out that he was taking protein supplements which had anabolic steroids added to them, which led to diabetes.”
Yash Gulati, senior consultant orthopaedic surgeon at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, in fact actively counsels people not to take supplements. “For normal people who exercise and go to gyms, a good balanced diet is enough,” he says. Dr Gulati, who is on the medical committee for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, says people tend to compensate for bad eating habits by drinking protein shakes, and sometimes even use them as alternatives to a proper meal. “That is a very dangerous trend,” he says, “A protein supplement is not a substitute for a balanced diet, and people who misuse it often have massive deficiencies in essential fats, vitamins and minerals.”
He adds that gym trainers in India also often push untested local brands on unsuspecting clients for personal gains. “Anabolic steroids added to spurious protein powders are a recipe for disaster,” he says. “It leads to all kinds of problems—blood toxicity, unpredictable kidney and liver malfunctions, even excessive aggression.”
“Proper guidance is the key,” adds Matthews. “Buy a brand recommended by a good nutritionist, and make sure your total protein intake and your workout are balanced with each other.”
THE PROTEIN GUIDE
Reputed US brands are commonly available in Indian metros, and are generally a safer bet than Indian brands. Doctors stress that protein powders should not be bought or used without professional supervision—the medical condition and history of the intended user, his or her exercise regimen, and the daily protein intake from their normal diet should be assessed first. For example, protein supplements are not safe for people with gall bladder stones, kidney stones, and digestive problems.
Look out for whether protein powders contain anabolic steroids or not. Anabolic steroids are synthetic drugs that mimic the male sex hormone testosterone, that also helps in muscle growth, but have a plethora of side effects. If your jar of protein powder says “anabolic”, junk it.
Protein powders are usually categorized into three groups:
Whey isolate: This is the purest form of protein, and is very easy to digest. These are also called “fast release” powders because the body absorbs and puts them to use within minutes. Recommended for use within 30 minutes of a workout session, where they help repair tissue damage from exercise, and build muscle fibre.
Casein protein: This is a “slow release” powder, which means it takes a long time to digest. Recommended for use at night so it can use the fasting period during sleep to get absorbed slowly into the system.
Whey and complex carbs mix: This has a mix of “fast release” whey protein and complex carbs which get absorbed slowly and release energy in small bursts through the day, so it should ideally be taken at breakfast. Because of the mix of carbs and protein, this is used by people looking to gain weight.
Additional information courtesy Fitness First, New Delhi.