What is the difference between healthy sports supplements and dodgy ‘fat burners’?

Ireland's first IFBB fitness pro Claire McGrath.

Three experts explain to Joanna Kiernan the differences between dodgy unregulated ‘fat burner’ products, and a healthy supplement plan as part of your fitness regime

Fitness supplements are so widely consumed these days that we all have some knowledge of the area, even if it is just peripheral. From the massive powder-filled tubs to the tiny promises of super energy surges in little packets like stars in a real life Super Mario Brothers game, the Irish fitness market is saturated with choice. There are stand-alone fitness supplements shops on almost every corner and protein bars in every petrol station; suddenly it is not just trendy to be health conscious, to ‘eat clean’ and ‘train mean,’ it is a way of life.

According to a recent Euromonitor report, protein powders are the most popular type of sports nutrition product in Ireland, with ready-to-drink protein products close behind. Between 2012 and 2013, Ireland’s protein bar market grew by 9.5%, and has continued to skyrocket ever since.

The fitness supplement industry is a global business worth over €65 billion annually, but with no independent regulation for these products, many of which are now bought online, should we be asking more about what we are putting into our bodies?

Performance nutritionist with the Irish Institute of Sport, Dr Sharon Madigan, certainly believes so.

What is the difference between healthy sports supplements and dodgy ‘fat burners’?

“The biggest concern I have with these products is contamination and, unfortunately, there are lots of contamination issues around supplements because they often come from factories that produce other things,” Dr Madigan explains. “There have been a number of positive drug tests because athletes were taking supplements that were contaminated with products that would test them positive in a WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) drugs test, so that is a big issue for me working in elite sport.

“But there are other issues out there too in terms of who is actually making these products. At the moment you or I could go out buy a whole load of something, put it in some big jars, put any name I want on it and be selling it by the end of the week; so who knows where the stuff is coming from?” Some companies in the industry have sought to distance themselves from this school of thought, however, by self-regulating through the Informed Sport quality assurance programme.

“It doesn’t give us 100% guarantees, but it certainly helps us decide that it is a product you would consider,” Dr Madigan adds. “Products that have been through this process display a gold logo with the words Informed Sport on them, which gives some assurance. When some facilities making these products have been explored, it has not just been contamination issues, which could lead to anti-doping problems that have been found, but things like glass, rat droppings and all sorts of goodies have gone down the conveyor belts in these places.”

In April, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) hosted an open meeting to discuss the effect on young people (aged between 13-35 years) of performance nutrition and the proliferation of related food products and supplements.

“Regrettably, sound nutritional advice is often drowned out by misinformation including ‘fat burner’ claims and extreme high protein diets that are inadequate in many essential nutrients,” Dr Mary Flynn, chief specialist in public health nutrition said at the time. It is not just the absence of a healthy, balanced diet that was at the centre of many speakers’ concerns, but the sense of the unknown. In 2013, the IRFU advised players under the age of 18 not to use sports supplements, saying they may be risking their health by doing so, acknowledging the fact that, as yet, we simply do not know what effects products like protein, creatine and pre-workouts may have on a young person’s body.

Fitness supplements are a key part of personal trainer and bodybuilder Claire McGrath’s daily routine, but they are, she stresses, a delicate science.

Claire competed in the Arnold Schwarzenegger World Fitness Competition in May
Claire competed in the Arnold Schwarzenegger World Fitness Competition in May

“You do not want to replace food with supplements, so I always try and eat my protein,” Claire tells me.

“However, there are times when it is useful to have a protein shake straight after a heavy weight-training session for example because you have a window then where your muscles are more responsive and absorb more protein and they need it to repair.”

“BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) shakes are really important. I drink them all day long because basically if you are low on food it means that you won’t be breaking down your muscle. I take a lot of vitamin C as well because I am doing a lot of bodybuilding at the moment and Vitamin C helps me to get rid of water in my body and makes me look tighter,” Claire adds. Claire has become the first ever IFBB (International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness) fitness pro in Ireland after competing in the Arnold Schwarzenegger World Fitness Competition in South Africa at the end of May.

What you should take, Claire explains, is dependent upon your specific training goal.

“Supplements can help you hugely,” Claire says. “For strength, for example, if you take creatine, it helps your energy output; protein seems to be the go-to product for people looking to put on size, but there are probably a lot better supplements you could be taking.

“I am a brand ambassador for Physiques.ie so I get a lot of questions from people about different products. I have trialled so many of them at this stage and I know the ones that work for me now, but most people are very uneducated and it is such a complicated market,” Claire adds.

“It is really scientific, so you need to know and research what you need.

What is the difference between healthy sports supplements and dodgy ‘fat burners’?

“I take a pre-workout product for example, which helps the blood flow to your muscles and helps your muscles swell faster, which helps them to grow and keeps them fuller for longer, but a lot of people don’t know why they are taking them, they are just taking them because they think they should. If you have someone with high blood pressure taking something like that, it could be quite bad for them so people definitely need to do their research,” Claire cautions.

However, with fitness supplement market here growing by the day, Claire understands how it may be difficult for newcomers to filter through all of the noise.

“There are a lot of crap products out there, and there are a lot of good products. It is very hard to know what is good,” Claire admits. “A lot of the proteins are really bad, they are cheap and they are badly monitored; so you may not get exactly what it says on the tub. You need to go for a good quality product that is regularly tested. You have to pay for good quality supplements; I would not recommend buying the cheap stuff at all.”

Dr Sharon Madigan believes that many members of the #IrishFitFam are now gambling with their health by taking a supplements-first approach to nutrition.

“If you Google search ‘sports nutrition’ these days the first thing that comes up will be supplements. That’s not sports nutrition, that’s just product placement,” she says. “There is a time and a place for things. We have athletes who are travelling the world and food safety and hygiene in some places may be a bit of an issue, so we have to prepare our athletes and make sure they get the nourishment that they need, but that is part of a bigger nutritional strategy, it is not a case of buying this stuff from a guy down in the gym,” she says.


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