Are protein powder and gym supplements for weight loss safe? Find out here

Recently, a New Delhi youth ended up in the ICU reportedly after excessive consumption of protein powder and gym supplements.

ByChetana Belagere

Published Feb 22, 2023 | 8:00 AM Updated Feb 22, 2023 | 8:00 AM

Experts weigh in on whether or not it safe to consume protein powders and gym supplements? (Wikimedia Commons)

A couple of days ago, a 22-year-old youth in Delhi landed himself in the ICU with extremely low oxygen levels after he allegedly consumed an excess of gym supplements.

While gym trainers claim that these supplements improve one’s fitness and also help in weight loss, doctors whom South First spoke to called this a “dangerous” trend — one that was completely unnecessary for fitness.

“The number of people opting for such supplements had come down in the last two years, but it seems to be picking up again,” explained Dr Gopikrishna NS, a physician from Bengaluru.

“Taking gym supplements without proper medical consultation can lead to complications — from frequent headaches to severe metabolic derangement,” he explained.

When the body suffers

The young man from Delhi was rushed to the emergency ward in a comatose, critical condition. He had extremely low oxygen levels and required ventilator support. It was found that he had severe muscle breakdown.

Doctors at the PSRI Hospital in South Delhi told reporters that he suffered from multiple severe metabolic derangements, along with high levels of muscle enzymes and creatine phosphokinase.

This suggests that there was muscle tissue breakdown. He also had extremely low calcium levels.

Doctors claimed that he was also diagnosed with toxic encephalopathy, a brain dysfunction due to exposure to toxins, and rhabdomyolysis, which can occur due to excessive consumption of gym supplements.

When his urine samples were tested, there was no trace of any substance abuse. However, after the boy gained consciousness two days later, he revealed that he took various kinds of protein shakes and gym supplements.

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Losses in the quest for gains

Speaking to South First, Bengaluru’s Fortis Hospitals Senior Consultant of Internal Medicine Dr Aditya S Chowti said that excessive use of gym supplements could cause common side effects like digestive issues, headaches, nausea, and jitters.

Protein powder, shakes and gym supplements if not taken in consulatation with docs, they can lead to health issues, warn experts.

Protein shakes and gym supplements, if not taken in consultation with doctors, can lead to health issues, warn experts. (Creative Commons)

“Some supplements may also interact with medications or worsen underlying health conditions, including high blood pressure or heart disease,” he said.

Meanwhile, consultant dietician Dr Swetha Adarsh from Bengaluru told South First that straining one’s body through excessive workouts could add to the stress on organs like the kidneys, heart, and lungs.

“The kidney is the organ that helps digest and assimilate proteins in our body. When excess protein goes into the body, there is stress on the kidneys, which can lead to renal failure. When someone consumes whey protein, which is suggested in many gyms these days, it can affect heart activity. A few studies have shown that it can lead to heart arrhythmia and even cardiac arrests,” Swetha said.

She added that these supplements can even lead to irritable bowel syndrome and unwanted weight changes can also cause an imbalance in other nutrients.

What the experts say

Chowti explained that gym supplements can be safe as long as they are used in moderation and are taken under the supervision of a qualified healthcare professional.

He said, “It’s important to understand that not all gym supplements are created similarly, and their safety and effectiveness depend on various factors, such as specific supplements, the dosage, the individual’s health status, and whether they are taking any medications for other ailments”

Meanwhile, Dr Rajeev Jayadevan, a gastroenterologist from Kerala said that reports of this young man with rhabdomyolysis requiring ICU treatment did raise the question of the safe use of supplements, especially by those who use them for bodybuilding.

However, he added, “It may be wrong to blame supplements indiscriminately. It is often the wrong use of a product that creates a problem.”

He said that rhabdomyolysis can occur from excessive use of herbal supplements such as ephedra, a plant-based supplement.

Also read: What is Paleo diet? Why are doctors warning people against it?

“It can also occur with overdoses of protein supplements like creatine, especially in the setting of over-exertion and dehydration,” Jayadevan explained.

When the muscle is sufficiently damaged, breakdown products enter the bloodstream and affect the kidneys, he said.

“Life-threatening electrolyte abnormalities can also result. For example, hypocalcemia, a dangerous drop in blood calcium level, can occur in such situations,” he explained.

Metals, steroids, hormones…

Adding to this, a senior consultant neurologist at Apollo Hospitals in Hyderabad, Sudhir Kumar, who is also a fitness freak, said that dietary supplements used by gym-goers may not be safe and are not even needed by most of them.

He added that studies in the past few decades have shown that these gym supplements could be contaminated with heavy metals, steroids, hormones, and stimulants.

Gym supplements coupled with excessive workout can cause problems to the body. (Creative Commons)

“Heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic have been found in food supplements. These toxic heavy metals could get into the dietary supplements due to poor-quality manufacturing processes via contaminants present in the soil. These heavy metals have toxic effects on the kidneys, liver, muscle, and brain. The recent case in New Delhi could be due to heavy metal toxins present in dietary supplements,” Sudhir explained.

Doctors added that steroids — and in some cases engineered steroids (to avoid detection by testing kits) — are other common undesirable components identified in supplements recommended for gym users.

Sudhir said, “They can help in muscle ‘bulk’ building, however, can cause several adverse effects such as a rise in blood pressure or blood sugar and increased risk of infections. Certain hormones and prohormones, including testosterone, are also used in the gym to rapidly build muscles. Excess of this can result in loss of libido, infertility, and impotence,” he warned.

Ask your doctor first

Sudhir said that the main reason for the lack of safety in gym supplements was that they were not regulated or monitored by the FDA, DCGI, or any other agency.

They come under supplements and not medicines, and hence they need not undergo rigorous clinical trials to prove their safety or efficacy.

However, Sudhir said, dietary supplements may be useful to some people, such as those who are underweight or those who are unable to consume healthy foods (due to allergy, lactose intolerance, or lack of availability).

Representative pic of sources of healthy protein. Instead of protein powders experts suggest alternate ways to increase protein intake in a person's daily life.

Instead of protein powders, experts suggest alternate ways to increase protein intake. (Creative Commons)

But even these supplements should be taken after consulting a physician and qualified nutritionist, he said, adding, “All doctors warn that a gym trainer without any formal training in nutrition is not the right person to recommend dietary supplements.”

Chowti concurred, adding that it was crucial to do thorough research on the products one is consuming and seek guidance from a healthcare provider.

“A healthcare professional can provide advice on the safety and suitability of a particular supplement,” he said.

Jayadevan stated that if one was really looking to add more protein to their diet, it would be available in natural sources like egg, meat, fish, milk, curd, and pulses.

“If in doubt, it is best to check with the family doctor or a qualified dietician. Unfortunately, there are far too many products available to make a more specific recommendation at this point,” he said.

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