About 15% of a person’s body weight is made up of protein. We all need protein in our diet – it is the building block for body tissues, including muscles, a source of energy and gives structure to hair and fingernails.
In recent years protein supplements – available as powders, bars and drinks have grown in popularity, particularly with regular gym-goers. It is accepted that individuals require different amounts of protein based on their activity levels and type of training that they do. However, the majority of the UK population would obtain sufficient protein by consuming 0.8g of protein per kg body weight, which can easily be obtained from a person’s daily diet. When individuals are performing a high volume of endurance or strength training this would require more protein – 1.2-1.4g of protein per kg of body weight and 1.4-1.8kg of protein per kg of body weight respectively. Consuming more than 2g per kg body weight will not increase benefits.
Muscle gains are generally higher at the start of a strength training programme; the rate of gain will then gradually slow down as you reach your personal genetic potential. Males can generally expect to gain more than females as they naturally have higher levels of anabolic hormones. Men can expect to gain approximately 0.5 – 1kg of muscle per month and females approximately 0.25 – 0.75kg of muscle per month. If weight gain is greater than this it is generally due to an increase in body fat as well as muscle.
As outlined above, it is accepted that some individuals require additional protein to support their training programme and build and repair muscle tissue. For the majority of people this can be achieved through consuming high quality, protein rich food – meat, fish, nuts, pulses, gains and eggs. Protein shakes can be useful to supplement a nutritionally balanced diet, if protein requirements are high, but for most people they are unnecessary.
This view is supported by research including Peter Lemon, protein researcher and professor at the University of Western Ontario. At best protein supplements are therefore a waste of money – at worst they can lead to overdosing on protein which can lead to weight gain or in some individuals’ dehydration, kidney damage and constipation.
It is a myth that consuming protein supplements while not undertaking enough exercise will generate additional muscle. Additional protein will only be used if muscle tissue is stressed and needs to be repaired. This will only be achieved through an effective strength training programme. Extra protein does not automatically convert into extra muscle and if you consume more protein than your body uses, it will be stored as fat. Overconsumption of protein may in some individuals cause other health risks including decreased bone density and kidney damage.
Taking a creatine supplement is marketed as a quick and effective way for people who exercise or do sports to increase their energy levels and also to achieve a bigger, more muscular body shape. A survey commissioned by The Independent newspaper found that 44% of elite athletes were using the supplement regularly, which included 100% of rugby league players and 100% of weightlifters.
Creatine is an organic acid which is made in the liver from amino acids and can be found naturally in many common foods including beef and seafood. Approximately 95% of creatine is stored in skeletal muscles with the remainder found largely in the brain, heart and testes.
During exercise the energy for a muscle to contract is provided by ATP (adenosine triphosphate). Creatine can help in the formation of ATP, and therefore within the muscles acts as an energy source for short bursts of exercise. Creatine can also helps in the synthesis of protein, which further promotes muscle growth and development.
The body’s creatine supply is not limitless and the average human has between 3.5 and 4 grams of creatine per kilogram of muscle. During exercise if a muscle’s supply of creatine has been used the muscle must rest before it can exercise again. Studies have shown that the human muscle can store up to 5 grams of creatine per kilogram.
While research shows that increased levels of creatine have been found to decrease fatigue, reduce the time needed for recovery and improve performance, the effects are marginal for all but the most elite athletes. Creatine supplementation may be of benefit to bodybuilders and those who undertake strenuous activity, but it is unlikely that an individual would want or need to take creatine if they aren’t doing this. Supplementation has failed to provide advantages for endurance sports activities like distance running, some studies even show it worsens performance.
Creatine in muscle also attracts water and therefore causes cell volumisation which in turn can lead to an increase in body mass due to water retention. This may give an appearance or feeling of bloatedness. Although the side effects of creatine supplementation are not as severe as taking steroids, there have been a number of reported side effects including gastrointestinal upset, tendon injury, headaches, hepatic and renal dysfunction and muscle cramps. The side effects are possibly due to water being drawn into muscle cells.