Workout fans buying specialist fitness supplements to help fast track and improve sports performance would be better sticking to simple food options, says leading dietician Dr Carrie Ruxton.
Quick fixes to boost muscle, aid recovery or enhance fitness are often based on very little evidence yet the sports supplement market is worth £650 million a year.
The fitness industry is flooded with products claiming to improve performance and recovery, but while specialist sports foods might be worthwhile for elite sportspeople looking to gain a few milliseconds on the world record, ordinary foods offer a more effective option for people simply looking to get fit.
Dr Carrie Ruxton, a dietitian and health writer, gives her verdict on different fitness supplements and states how a good diet is key to fitness gains rather than reaching for over-hyped products.
These have come a long way from elite sport and are now seen as something to swig on the bus home. Apart from their contribution to plastic bottle mountains, what do they do for us?
Carrie says: “Electrolyte and energy drinks are often packed with sugar and caffeine but are rarely worth having unless you’re exercising hard for more than an hour. The acids in the drinks also contribute to tooth erosion“.
Simple solution: A good homemade electrolyte drink is one of the best ways to rehydrate yourself after an intense workout. Before you think they’re complicated to make, check out this simple recipe here!
BCAA (BRANCHED-CHAIN AMINO ACIDS)
These essential protein-building blocks are used to target performance and stop muscle breakdown after exercising. At £10-20 per bottle of pills, they can be a pricey addition to your sporting diet.
Carrie says: “The European Food Safety Authority looked at the claims made for BCAA but didn’t find enough evidence to support them. In contrast, there are several good studies on beetroot which show enhanced exercise efficiency, probably due to the high nitrate content which boosts circulation, muscular contraction and energy uptake by cells. Beetroot also helps to reduce muscle soreness after exercise“.
Simple solution: Beetroot is a purple powerhouse that can be bought ready to eat for a convenient and tasty way to supercharge a salad and boost nitrate and antioxidant levels to help your muscles recover faster after a workout. New research has also shown beetroots’ ability to not only boost sports performance, but also provide faster recovery in less fit individuals than elite athletes.
The go-to product for gym-goers but are they really an essential ingredient for muscle-building? Most protein shakes are based on whey, a by-product from cheese making.
Carrie says: “All protein helps to build and repair protein. However, the average person needs 45-55g of protein a day but eats up to 65-85g. Even someone exercising a few times a week only needs around 70g of protein a day so we’re getting enough in our diets. Protein shakes contain 20-40g of protein per serving which could push our daily intakes too high”.
Simple solution: Eat protein from organic grass fed meat, poultry, fish, beans or pulses 3-4 times a day to spread out your intake. These natural sources can support muscle repair more than downing a protein shake that could be full or artificial ingredients and preservatives.
A handy protein bar may seem like a convenient snack to eat on the go but delve below the packaging and you often find a less healthy alter ego. The long shelf life of protein bars can also mean a whole load of additives.
Carrie says: “Protein bars typically contain 15-20g of protein but a third of their weight is sugar which puts most of them in the red traffic light. The average protein bar gives you 150-200 calories per serving which is pretty high for anyone trying to watch their daily intake”.
Simple solution: A high protein snack is great after exercising so try a lower sugar option such as a couple of boiled eggs, hummus and oatcakes or these homemade hemp bars!
A popular supplement in the gym, creatine is actually a natural substance found in our cells that helps our muscles produce more energy. But is extra supplementation worth the hype?
Carrie says: “Creatine works but only in people who are doing regular resistance exercises and heavy weight training, according to the European Food Safety Authority. This means that regular gym-goers are probably wasting their money. Excessive creatine has been linked with weight gain, anxiety, kidney problems and nausea”.
Simple solution: The body naturally makes creatine in response to the specific amino acids found in seafood, nuts, spinach and soya. Try a Thai-style stir fry using prawns, edamame beans, peanuts and green leafy veg for a tastier way to gain muscle energy.
Natural foods, such as beetroot, eggs and responsibly sourced meat and fish can do just as much, if not more, for our bodies than expensive sports supplements. For the majority of people, exercise is part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle to improve strength and fitness and food is the key to fuelling this. To maximise fitness performance, research proves it is better to eat a healthy diet, full of natural produce, rather than waste hours seeking the latest fad.
With all that being said, supplements do serve a purpose for people who struggle with time management and busy lifestyles. The point of supplements is to, quite literally, supplement a diet where one might be missing out on certain things. Whether that be through dietary choices, allergies or lifestyle factors. As Dr Carrie has said, if we can get our nutrients from the foods we eat, that is preferable, but for a new mum, for example, perhaps choosing a well-rounded supplement that is easy to take and simple to prepare, is better than forgetting to eat! So while the preference will always be to eat whole foods over a supplement, it’s important you be the own judge of your lifestyle and figure out what is right for you. Here at H&H, we are very selective on the supplements we choose to take and recommend so if you want a list of ones we approve of, see below our top choices!