In my nutrition class this week, there was a great quote from the New York Times Magazine article The Age of Nutritionism
A great conspiracy of confusion has gathered around the simplest questions of nutrition. Much to the advantage of everyone involved. Except the eater.
What this means is that commercial food, health, and other “nutrition” companies have overcomplicated nutrition to the point of intentionally confusing the consumer so that they will rely on them for food and nutrition advice. However, this advice is in the best interest of the companies, not always the consumer. It leads to advice that, while not totally wrong, is often misleading.
Rather than focusing on the overall picture of total nutrition, we have become focused on micro-managing nutrition. All you need to do is walk into a health food store to see a huge array of “natural” products promising to do anything from grow/strengthen your hair, increase muscle, even improve organ functions. The product claims are impressive. However, they don’t always work.
Two commonly used examples are protein and supplements other than basic multi-vitamin/mineral. While no one will debate that protein and individual amino acids are essential to life, what people often don’t know is that they usually aren’t directly absorbed from foods. Instead, your body will break apart food protein then re-assemble it into the forms it needs most.
The idea is that by adding more protein (either by eating more meat or taking supplements) will enhance muscle building since muscle is made from protein. It doesn’t really work that way. Adding more protein to the system, will only have a small effect. It can even overload it by forcing the body to produce more enzymes to breakdown the added protein instead of allowing other uses. Muscle use builds muscle, not eating muscle.
However, the average American tends not to get enough protein so increasing the amount of protein you eat is probably a good idea. Just be sure it is a lean protein source so you don’t also increase fat intake. Protein powders and supplements aren’t usable for muscle building, They are excess protein that is often used in energy stores or made into fat. The best way to build more muscle, is to add only a little more whole protein along with increased strength training.
What about specialized amino acids? Examples of these would be creatine, lysine, and tryptophan. The theory here is that if aminio acid A does X than if you want to improve X, you should increase A intake. Again, it doesn’t work that way. Our bodies usually make enough by itself. More importantly, the are made in the proper proportion to other body chemicals. Our bodies are not designed to handle larger amounts of single amino acids or those in unnatural combination such as those found in supplements. Changing the balance of even one, may have harmful, sometimes even deadly, side effects.
Also, body chemicals are made and work only at specific locations. Many are destroyed later on in the system. Adding more through supplements may have no effect because it might not reach the target location it is designed to work upon. The best advice if considering specialized supplements is to check with a physician to see if you really have a need and will get the desired benefit if you take it.
I would urge you to do some real research of the scientific basis and function of a supplement before you take it. Don’t rely on manufactures or testimonials. These are the worst advice because do you think a company will print a negative or neutral testimonial on its package? No. Nor do they tell how realistic or typical the testimonial is of the general user. Most likely it will be the best results they print, often accompanied with something like “results not typical” in small print. Also be wary of medical/research supporting claims on packages. These are hired to prove the product, and are not always unbiased in their trials. They are paid to get a good finding to promote the product. Supplement claims are only loosely regulated by the FDA.
If you are healthy, or even overweight, and looking to improve your performance, stick to eating healthy. A proper balanced diet including whole grains, fruits, and colorful vegetables with limited excess fats, refined carbs, and sugar (empty calories) is still the best way to go. It is easy and cheap, with no bad side effects. Supplements are unnecessary for average adults and even recreational athletes.
When it comes to specialized nutrition, you aren’t always what you eat unless you get back to basics. It’s always best to get your nutrition from food. Your body takes what it needs and discards the rest. If you eat healthy and in moderation, you will be healthy. If you don’t then you won’t.
When shopping, try to get 75% of your foods without labels. These would be things like fruits, vegetables, raw meat, and other whole foods. I know things like baby carrots, potatoes and raw nuts have labels because they are in a bag, but they count as no label because they are the basic, unprocessed food. Then get the remaining 25% of your groceries with labels. Look at the ingredient list on these and try to keep them as short as possible. Some people call this doughnut shopping because you stick mostly to the outer aisles of the stores. Just be sure to stay away from the bakery and deli.