Protein Spiking- Not just a rip off, but a possible health risk?

There have been a few articles come up recently that talk about the dishonesty of some supplement companies using a practice referred to as “protein spiking”- essentially using single amino acids and other substances instead of whole proteins in an attempt to cut costs, thus altering (reducing) the true total protein content of the product (as compared to what is on the label).  As a consumer, I consider this a rip off.  But as a Registered Dietitian, I consider this a much bigger problem.

Before I go any further, let me first explain exactly what it means to be a Registered Dietitian.  Many people do not understand the difference between “nutritionist” and “registered dietitian (RD).”  Believe it or not, in many states, anyone can call themselves a “nutritionist.”  There really is NOT a ton of regulation for the use of that title or the training required.  On the contrary, Registered Dietitians (RD’s) are required to have a four year college degree with a specific subset of mandatory coursework.  In addition to an extensive list of nutrition courses, RD’s are required to take biology, chemistry, biochemistry, organic chemistry, and anatomy and physiology to name a few.  Upon completion of this coursework and a four year degree, RD’s complete a year long supervised practice internship within the nutrition field, a good part of which is spent in an acute care hospital setting working with doctors and pharmacists to treat patients with a broad range of medical conditons.  A HUGE part of the training to become a Registered Dietitian is learning the biochemistry behind specific disease states and the subsequent appropriate nutrition therapy.    Thus, we don’t just learn about “eating healthy” and “weight loss”- we learn a whole lot more about science and medicine. 


So with all that being said, I’m going to put on my “Clinical RD” hat for a minute and get back to the topic as to why this “protein spiking” is especially concerning to me.


In an attempt to reduce costs, some supplement companies have decided to put large amounts of free amino acids instead of whole proteins into their products.  This is done because protein in food products is often measured based on nitrogen content, and free amino acids contain nitrogen.  The difference is, single amino acids do not provide the same nutritional content as complete proteins (which contain ALL of the essential amino acids), and thus are not utilized in the body the same way. Although we typically associate protein powders with those looking to build muscle, not all protein supplement users are athletes or gym goers.  Some health conditions require an increased protein intake and often these patients will use protein supplements.  So if I have a patient that requires a specific amount of protein each day for something more significant than just a desire to build muscle, such as healing a major wound or recovering from a severe burn injury, and that patient uses one of these mislabeled protein supplements, he or she is not going to get the results we would anticipate and his/her health may be further compromised.


But aside from the mislabeling issue, are there in fact possible health risks associated with these “spiked proteins?  Well, that has a lot to do with which amino acids in particular these companies are using to spike their products.   The article that I had initially read stated that companies were using the amino acid glycine in their products.  Glycine is a relatively cheap, non-essential amino acid, which means it can be synthesized within the body (from serine) with a sweet taste, often used in flavoring.  Glycine is metabolized in three different pathways within the body.  In one of those pathways it is eventually metabolized to oxalate which is a major component in a common type of kidney stone.  


Now realistically, in an individual with healthy kidney function and a well balanced diet with adequate fluid intake, this shouldn’t pose too much of an issue.  However, in a person with compromised kidney function or in someone prone to or at higher risk for calcium oxalate stones, this could theoretically be a major concern.  Additionally, looking at the dietary intake of a person who we would typically expect to use protein supplements (athletes, fitness enthusiasts) we would most likely find that the individual is already consuming a high protein diet.  A high protein diet, especially from animal proteins, in and of itself can increase a person’s risk for kidney stones through a few different mechanisms.  One mechanism stems from the fact that the amino acid methionine, largely found in animal proteins,can increase calcium in the urine.  Combine this with a high glycine intake (from spiked protein powders) and that could potentially be cause for concern (increased calcium in the urine plus excessive glycine converting to oxalate = increased risk for calcium oxalate stones).  Furthermore, taurine was also listed as one of the amino acids used in spiking and some studies have shown that taurine has a potential diuretic effect.  This along with a high protein diet can lead to dehydration if a person is not drinking enough water and thus even further increase the risk for kidney stones.


One example of a population that this would be a huge concern for would be those people undergoing weight loss surgery, or other forms of gastric surgery (i.e. those performed to treat GI cancers).  The standard post-operative diet for sleeve gastrectomy and roux-en-Y gastric bypass patients consists largely of liquids, with a major emphasis on protein supplements.  It is typically recommended that these patients use high quality whey isolate supplements, however some patients cannot afford these products or simply do not like the taste and thus turn to other products on the market.  To make matters worse, a common post-operative complication of any GI surgery is dehydration.  I would hate to think that these patients are also now increasing their risk for kidney stones due to their clinically vulnerable post-operative state AND the use of mislabeled protein supplements. But it’s certainly feasible.


As if that weren’t enough, another major concern I have is the fact that some companies are using creatine monohydrate as a so called “spiking agent” in their protein supplements without necessarily listing it on the label.  The most recent studies have shown that as a supplement creatine is generally safe to use in recommended dosages in healthy individuals.  However it is recommended that creatine supplements NOT be used by people with compromised kidney function.  Patients that have End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD) requiring dialysis have increased protein needs due to the depleting nature of regular dialysis.  Some of these patients may decide on their own to use protein supplements to help support their body’s increased protein needs.  If such an individual were to unknowingly use a product that was spiked with creatine monohydrate, they may be putting themselves at risk for further compromise.  


Creatine supplements are also commonly used by both athletes and gym goers for their potential benefit in assisting with overall strength and performance.  As mentioned above, when used accordingly this is a generally safe practice.  However, if a person is already taking the recommended (or larger) dosage of creatine and unknowingly using a protein supplement that may have been spiked with creatine monohydrate, this could lead to a person significantly surpassing the recommended dosages and possibly increase the risk for health consequences.


When all is said and done, we as consumers have a right to know what is in the products we are buying.  Although the potential health risks associated with this “protein spiking” may be more pronounced in certain populations, I would still advise using great caution when it comes to choosing supplements.  It’s unfortunate that companies are getting away with both deceiving consumers and possibly putting consumers at risk, however you the consumer can do something about it.  Look for products that have undergone thorough third party testing, preferably by a reputable organization such as NSF or Informed Choice.  Choose brands that are known for having high quality standards.  Look at pricing schemes.  If a particular type of product generally falls within a relative pricing range among most brands and then there is an outlier that’s claiming to be the same type of product but it is being sold for much less, question it.  Check the labels of the products you are buying.  Read the ingredients.  If things don’t add up, question it.  Just because your favorite social media personality is promoting a specific brand or product does not necessarily mean its high quality.  Do your research.  Stay informed.  Because in the end it can make a big difference, and not just for your wallet, but for your health.

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That little thing called “genetics”

I recently read an article that talked about how people respond differently to different types/amounts of cardio based on genetic factors.  To me this seemed pretty obvious, but I don’t know if the majority of people out there see it that way.  Let me preface all this by saying, the majority of what I’m going to bring up is based mostly on personal experience, discussion with others and observation.  My college degree is in Nutritional Science (which was in fact a “pre-med” major because I used to think I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon), but in pursuing that degree, I took one class in genetics which covered nothing about training/exercise/diet.  So that is the extent of my formal scientific training in genetics. 


Regardless, I’m going to speak my mind on own my understanding of the topic as it may or may not relate to training/nutrition based on MY experience.


Genetics is something a lot of people bring up when it comes to having a certain “look.”  Typically in physique sports the top competitors have “good” genetics, or even what we may consider “exceptional” genetics based on their natural shape/structure.  For women, this may mean naturally wide/capped shoulders, tiny waist, round glutes, etc.   The fact is everyone has a different genetic structure to work with.   Unfortunately, in the physique sports, genetic structure plays a major role.  It’s not to say we have no influence on how we look.  Proper training and nutrition can certainly help to alter one’s physique in dramatic ways.  However, we are ultimately limited by our natural structure.  I think it’s very important to accept this when it comes to developing physique based goals.  Be honest with yourself and be realistic with your own physical capabilities.  We would all love to have “perfect” structure, but it’s really not worth using unhealthy/unsafe practices in an attempt to alter your own genetic structure (i.e. wearing a squeem for hours a day in an attempt to reduce your waist size) for a placing at bodybuilding show.


Another concept involving genetics that I think is often overlooked is how it may impact our nutrition and training.  This is why there is no such thing as a one size fits all training or diet protocol.  I’m going to use my own personal experience here to explain the points I’m trying to make.  I feel like I can use myself as a valid example because I’ve been an athlete for a very long time, I’ve been training for many years, I’ve worked with many different coaches and I have employed many different training and nutrition styles over the years.  In doing so, I’ve really learned exactly how my body will respond to certain things—in essence, I’ve learned my own “genetics” when it comes to training/nutrition.  


I’ve learned that genetically speaking, I build muscle very well.  Additionally, I hold onto muscle very well.  I used to joke that I could eat nothing but iceberg lettuce and my body would still find a way to utilize it.  But what does that mean in terms of training and nutrition.  Well, in terms of getting ready for a fitness competition, it meant I could afford to do a decent amount of cardio without a huge fear of burning muscle.  It also meant that I could be a little stricter with my carb intake and still maintain size.  (And as a quick note, it doesn’t mean that it was ok or ideal for me to be doing zero carbs and 2 hours of cardio for weeks on end- it just meant that I probably could do more than some others and still maintain muscle mass).  There are others out there that lose muscle with just the thought of extra cardio, and thus their training/nutrition should be tailored accordingly


On the topic of cardio (and I’d like to do a full blog one day on this topic as it seems to be one of great debate), I did a contest prep one time which included little to no cardio (at least, it was a significant amount less than my body was used to doing), and I really didn’t have great results with that approach.  In addition to my personal genetic response to cardio I also attribute this to the fact that growing up and through college, I was spending anywhere from 4-8 hours in the gym everyday training for gymnastics.  My theory is- maybe my body just needs a little more because of this (training adaptation).  There are plenty of others out there who can do an entire contest prep and get stage-ready lean with hardly any cardio at all– and honestly, if you can do it that way you should!  But that wasn’t me (and it still isn’t- to this day my body responds very well to certain types/amounts of cardio)


Another example would be my response to strength training.  Like I said, I build muscle very easily.  I know there are some competitors that typically include crossfit workouts (and/or a lot of heavy barbell stuff) while getting ready for a show.  In fact, I know of a fellow fitness competitor that trained for her last show using exclusively crossfit training (in addition to routine work)-and her physique is AMAZING.  However, personally, that approach would never have worked for me.  I did a lot of heavy training and metabolic stuff back in my day, which would have been similar to crossfit as this was before crossfit became mainstream (you can still see the youtube videos of my crazy training here https://www.youtube.com/user/Ergis1999/videos, but the fact is, that type of training was actually detrimental to MY “stage” physique.  It was awesome, I loved it, I got super strong and I had a blast, so I certainly don’t regret any of it, but it definitely did not help me out in terms of my physique round placings.  So why can some people train like that and look amazing, and others maybe not so much- well, for me, I build muscle quickly, I have a very wide and thick back, my traps insert high on my neck (they used to call me Marcus Ruhl when I trained with the guys) and I naturally have a wider waistline with very thick core muscles.  That type of training enhances all of those features– which is the opposite of what I wanted for the physique rounds.  But on a side note, my fitness routine kicked ass when I was training like that because it was the strongest I have ever been (you can see here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPRtGeDue2Y if you don’t believe me).


The last show I did back in 2013 was my ultimate physique to date.  The reason why is because I understood my body and I trained very specifically with that understanding in mind.  I used lighter/moderate weights with a VERY (let me repeat VEEEEERRY) strong emphasis on the mind muscle connection and focused VERY hard on feeling exactly what muscle I wanted to be targeting.  I also did a good mix of high intensity cardio, moderate intensity cardio- not a ton of steady state stuff- and metabolic workouts.  My cardio was geared towards preparing me for my fitness routine– I felt like none of it was “wasted” or “mindless” – each cardio workout had a specific purpose.  My nutrition consisted of a moderate amount of healthy carbs, fats and proteins- a very balanced approach- but I ate mostly fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, eggs, sweet potatoes, lean meats, greek yogurt) because these were the foods I responded best to, from both a performance and physique perspective.   I also limited gluten because I generally feel much better when I keep it relatively low in my diet (side bar here, I do not have Celiacs disease and I do not advocate a gluten free diet.  There is nothing inherently wrong with gluten, and I CANand do eat a modest amount of food containing gluten, I just personally feel a million times better when I keep it low—again, learn your body).  


I can honestly say I did NOTHING excessive or extreme for that contest prep.  It was really a matter of using all of the knowledge I had gained along the way, knowing how my body would respond to specific training and nutrition techniques and being smart about what I was doing.  And I was able to present my best physique.  It doesn’t mean that the way I trained is the ONLY way, and it doesn’t mean that the way I prepped will work for everyone.  


The point I’m trying to make here is learn your own “genetics.”  Avoid falling into the trap of following certain protocols just because other people are using them.  Learn what YOU need to do to improve YOURSELF, whether it be performance or physique based, and tailor your approach with that specific goal in mind.  If you work with a coach, make sure you are both on the same page when it comes to your goals and your genetic response (and make sure your program is tailored to YOU).  


Furthermore, be honest with yourself about your own structural and genetic limitations.  We can’t all look like Ms. Figure/Physique/Bikini (or Mr.) Olympia, just like we can’t all perform like Rich Froning or Camille Leblanc-Bazinet (crossfit superstars if you’re not familiar with the names).  I’m not saying don’t try.  It’s not the point I’m trying to make at all.  We truly have the power to accomplish great things when we work hard, believe in ourselves and go after our goals.  However, I AM saying be realistic.  Focus on self improvement in a way that’s healthy and productive, not self destructive.  Not everyone’s “end-all/be-all” is to be a Pro in the physique sports or a crossfit games competitor, and that’s OK.  Try to be the best YOU that you can be.  Learn to listen to your body.  Learn to work WITH your body, not against it. And always keep your health as top priority. Learning your “genetics” is a process, but the outcomes will be well worth it.

They say “Love your body.” But what if you don’t (yet)?

Despite an overly vain fitness industry, we are starting to see a small subset of voices like my own spreading the positive message of “love your body” no matter your shape or size.  It’s a great message with great intentions.  But what if you don’t (love your body)? Unfortunately for people with body image issues (which is many of us), it’s not something we can just “do.”  If it were that easy, we wouldn’t have these issues to begin with.  So the question is, how do you go about learning to love your body for what it is?

Some of you might be thinking “well, it’s pretty easy for someone with six pack abs, perfectly sculpted shoulders, arms, legs and glutes- features which most “fitness icons” portray- to be promoting this message, of course they love their bodies!” Perhaps, but believe it or not even those “perfect bodies” have many of the same insecurities we all experience. But regardless, what about the rest of us?  

Let me first tell you where I’m coming from so you can understand why I’m using the phrase “the rest of us” (because yes, I’m including myself).

I am a “pro fitness competitor” (albeit retired– for now) but realistically, I have been single digit body fat percentage lean.  I’ve been one of those “fitness icons” (so to speak). 

But right now I’m about 150lbs at 5’5 (I don’t actually weigh myself so I’m not sure of the exact number, but it’s around there).  My contest weight was about 130lbs (plus or minus water)- so I’m a good 20lbs heavier. My waist is probably about 28-29 inches.  I have far from what would be considered the ideal female hour glass shape.  In fact, I think my hips and waist are about the same, measured straight across.  I naturally carry my fat in my midsection, contributing to my “larger (by fitness industry standards) waistline,” and I’ll only ever have abs if I’m in contest shape.  I am FAR from “fitness icon perfect.” But you know what, that’s OK.  I’m not trying to be perfect. Because I’m happy with myself.  And regardless of any changes to my body in the future- leaner, heavier, whatever- I’ll still feel the same way.

 It hasn’t always been that way and in fact, it took me a very long time to get here.  But I believe it’s possible for everyone to come to a sense of peace with the body they are blessed with.

So how did I get here? What do you do if you know you want to get healthy and you know it’s time to start treating your body right, but you still struggle with body image? Can you improve your health and even your overall body composition (if you wanted to) all while still learning to fully embrace and love the body you have?

The answer is yes.

But it’s not as easy as so many people make it sound.  It’s a process. It takes a lot of hard work and consistency to CHANGE YOUR THINKING. But the end result is more powerful than any diet or workout you’ll ever do.

Here are some strategies that can help.

First things first, come to grips with the fact that NO ONE IS “PERFECT.”  You are not perfect, you will never be perfect, because we are not meant to be perfect.  In fact there’s no such thing as “perfect.”  That’s what makes each of us beautiful and unique.  Focus your mind on learning to love yourself for the person you are and what you can do.  Your worth DOES NOT come from what your body looks like. Period. End of story.  

Ok so now that we got that cleared up, here are a few more tips to keep in mind-

1.  When it comes to workouts, focus on function rather than a specific look.  It’s an unfortunate fact that, no matter how much work we put in, many of us just don’t have the genetics for that “ideal” physique.  So stop killing yourself trying to attain it, and stop beating yourself up for not looking like someone whose entire livelihood is devoted to his/her physique. 

Instead, focus on the amazing things your body is capable of.  Set performance and strength goals rather than “looks” goals.  Embrace how awesome it is to be able to lift more weight, or run faster, or master a new yoga pose.  And give yourself credit for making progress in these areas, regardless of what the scale or tape measure says.

2.  As I alluded to above, stop comparing yourself to the fitness icons.  Understand that for the majority of these people, their body is their livelihood.  Many are personal trainers or fitness models and their businesses are built based on their bodies.  Not to mention, they are able to spend a lot more time in the gym than most of us with jobs outside of the fitness industry.  I know I can speak for myself when I say competing got a whole lot harder after I finished school and jumped into a job that had nothing to do with fitness.  And this is not to say there is anything wrong with the fitness icons working in the business.  All I’m saying is FOCUS ON YOU, and what’s realistic for YOU to accomplish, within the realm of your own time constraints and personal responsibilities. 

3.  When it comes to nutrition, focus on health, not weight loss.  Shift your mindset toward eating healthy foods for the benefits they bring to your body, not for the amount of fat they may or may not help you lose.  Work on eating a variety of fresh foods and a balance of all the nutrients.  Treat your body well by fueling it with as much good stuff as you can.

4.  Try using positive affirmations to reinforce your belief in yourself.  Positive affirmations are simple phrases you can repeat over and over to yourself, that help you to “convince” your mind of what you want it to believe.  Try not to use any negative words.  For example, instead of saying “I will NOT say negative things about myself,” try saying “I WILL only speak of myself in a positive manner.” By using positive affirmations everyday you can help increase positive self image, even if you didn’t believe it at first (“fake it til you make it”). And you can google “positive affirmations” and find tons of examples.

5. Believe in your ability to make positive changes, even if they are small, and give yourself credit for any step in the right direction, no matter how large or small.  Focus on behavioral changes, not measured “number” outcomes (ie your weight).  The more capable and successful you feel in your ability to make positive changes, the better you will begin to feel about your own body.

6. Focus on other fulfilling aspects of your life that have nothing to do with how you look.  Friends, family, church, work, other hobbies, volunteering, teaching– find the bigger purpose in your life.  Because the truth is there is SO MUCH MORE to life than what your body looks like. And if your biggest focus in life is how your body looks, you’re truly missing out on all the joys life has to offer.

This totally sounds cliche, but remember, this is the only body you get.  You are unique.  You cannot have anyone else’s body, and no one else can have yours.  Do your best to treat your body with kindness and respect.  Be grateful for the body you have and what it can do .  Believe in yourself, stay positive and consistent, and follow the tips above, and you will be on your way to a better body image and a happier outlook, no matter your size or shape.