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Are supplements effective? Supplements have become a staple for gym rats, but research suggests they may not be as effective as we once thought

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By Eamonn Valelly, Contributor

McMaster has become one of the few Canadian universities to partner with TDF Sports, a plant-based nutritional supplement company. McMaster’s director of athletics and recreation, Shawn Burt, explained that this partnership will expose our varsity athletes to supplements that will help them pursue excellence. 

A closer look at research on supplements reveals that their beneficial effects may not be so clear. Professor Stuart Phillips is one of the head researchers in the kinesiology department at McMaster University. He is a professor in the department of kinesiology, the director of the Physical Activity Centre of Excellence (also known as PACE) and director of the McMaster Centre for Nutrition, Exercise and Health research. Phillips is a colleague and friend of Darren Burke, CEO of TDF Sports. Consulting Phillips about this new-found partnership was essential because of his extensive knowledge in nutrition, athletic performance and the outstanding relationship between the two. 

Phillips shared a 2017 meta-analysis paper, written by him and his research team, to use as a reference for our interview. A meta-analysis combines multiple, related research papers and their results. By evaluating studies who share similar objectives and follow similar criteria, a meta-analysis can provide a conclusion on a commonly studied effect. Phillips’ paper looked at randomized controlled trials that included participants using resistance exercise training (for example, lifting weights) and the effect of protein supplements on these participants.

Protein supplements were ingested by subjects through multiple forms: plant-based protein supplements, animal-based protein supplements and standard meals. The study’s results were consistent across all supplement forms. As long as each participant was ingesting 1.6 grams of protein for every kilogram of their body weight per day, they experienced an increase in fat-free mass (muscle hypertrophy) and an increase in strength determined by a subject’s one-rep-max (weight that subject could lift in one repetition).

Our bodies require 20 different amino acids. At the microscopic level, long chains of amino acids make up all proteins in all living things. The order of amino acids in their long chains determines a protein’s function and structure. Nine of the 20 amino acids are classified as essential because humans do not produce them organically. We need to ingest essential amino acids through our diet, whereas our body can produce non-essential amino acids on its own. It is important for protein supplements to contain all essential amino acids, otherwise there will be a very limited ability for our body to put on muscle mass. 

“I have long been an advocate of consuming whole proteins, whether it’s from food or concentrated forms that you get in supplements,” stated Phillips.

With that being said, Phillips stressed that consumers need to understand that exercise provides the biggest stimulation of performance gains. 

“A striking majority of the gains and benefits from exercise actually come from doing the action, lifting the weight, following the program,” Phillips said.

TDF Sports advertises a very popular product in the nutritional supplement world, branched chain amino acids. BCAAs are popular due to their alleged association with decreased recovery time after a workout, improved performance and diminished effects of delayed onset muscle soreness (burning and tightness in your muscles following an intense bout of exercise). 

“Concepts like delayed onset muscle soreness are proxy markers for recovery, they are anything but the ethos for all recovery. It’s a little bit of a stretch in my mind to make these claims, especially considering how subjective the concept of recovery is . . . these are what we call soft-word claims that are present on packaging and marketing material. People need to understand that these claims are not held to a rigorous standard for nutritional supplements,” Phillips explained.

BCAAs comprise three of the nine essential amino acids. TDF Sports claims that their fermented BCAAs retain the benefits of BCAAs. Yet, a 2018 experimental research paper concluded that the effects of BCAAs are negligible if consumed with the baseline recommended daily protein intake of 1.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, per day. 

Leucine is one of the three BCAAs in the popular TDF Sports product. Leucine has been proven to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, aiding with the development and repair of muscle proteins. However, for muscle-protein synthesis to occur, the body needs to have access to all of the essential amino acids. Supplementing with only these three amino acids may have no effect, according to a separate meta-analysis by Phillips and his team that has yet to be published.

“Isolated BCAAs are a very popular supplement, but in my opinion—and with a little bit of inside information—we have an ongoing meta-analysis on the effects of BCAAs and we found absolutely zero benefit of taking only those three [branched chain] amino acids, as long as you have sufficient protein in your diet,” Phillips said.

McMaster is renowned as one of the most research-intensive universities in Canada. For them to partner with a company selling products that still carry a degree of uncertainty raises some questions. 

“I think the biggest advantage you get from a supplement standpoint is convenience. That is the most significant advantage TDF has over food,” Phillips said.

Where the McMaster-TDF Sports partnership seems to make the most sense is for the student-athletes here at McMaster. Student-athletes have extremely busy lives, balancing their games, practices, other forms of training and their studies is inarguably difficult. Finding the time to eat a full meal and take in all the nutrients they need to be getting to maintain performance at a high level must be tough and so these supplements offer varsity athletes at McMaster an opportunity to conveniently nourish themselves fully without having to think or worry about how.

 With regards to the research of Phillips, it appears as though supplements, in general, may not be as effective as previously thought. Even though they can provide some of the necessary nutrients, so long as you are ingesting the amount of protein you need to be, it does not particularly matter whether it comes from protein powder or food you get at the grocery store.

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