As convenient as protein powder, gels, and workout supplements are for refueling, ODing on them could be robbing your body of key nutrients

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
August 13, 2015
Corbis Images

Sports supplements like protein powder, shakes, bars, and gels are some of the best inventions for health-conscious people. They provide a nutritious alternative to junk food, a convenient post-workout snack, and even an easy meal on-the-go. But convenient fuel is a slippery slope, and some people are actually relying on the supplements so much they're neglecting whole food and harming their health in the process, says a new study presented at the American Psychological Association's annual convention.

In a survey of 200 men, one in five said they regularly replaced meals with protein drinks or bars, and 40 percent said their use of the supplements was increasing, according to the study. This isn't a big deal on it's own, but 30 percent of the guys surveyed fessed up to having concerns about their own supplement use-yikes! And they're not the only ones worried: Eight percent reported that they've been told by their doctors to cut back on the bars and gels and three percent have actually ended up in the hospital with kidney and liver problems because of their nutritional choices! (Find out The Not-So-Healthy Truth About Nutrition Bars.)

While the study only included men, fit females' reliance on protein powders and energy bars is just as worrisome. A 2013 survey in The FASEB Journal found that 50 percent of recreational female endurance athletes said they use these types of products, with other sports showing even more useage-up to 100 percent for bodybuilders.

"Women are vulnerable to this too as there are many supplements-especially protein shakes-marketed towards women for weight loss," says Jennifer Sommer, R.D., a board-certified specialist in sports dietetics and nutrition manager at the Eating Recovery Center in Denver. "And both men and women are equally vulnerable to the messages society gives them about what their bodies should look like or what is ideal," she adds. In fact, that new research found that some fit folks are taking their supplement consumption so far that the researchers worry it's becoming a new type of disordered eating.

But is drinking a few too many protein shakes really that big of a deal? Well, the protein itself isn't so much the issue, says Shawn Talbott, Ph.D., a nutritional biochemist who specializes in sports supplements. Unless you have liver or kidney problems, it's pretty darn difficult for excess protein to cause health problems, he says. (How Much Protein Do You Need?)

But you certainly can overdo it on all of the additives in sports supplements like vitamins, creatine, caffeine, fat burners, and energy boosters-especially if you're combining products or taking more than the recommended dose. Talbott says he often sees this "if one is good, then more is better" mentality in his practice. He routinely counsels people who are taking dozens of different supplement products at the same time, the ingredients overlapping so much that they're often ingesting 10 times the recommended daily values of certain vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. All of this can lead to a toxic overload that can cause cellular damage and hurt your kidneys, liver, and heart. Sports supplements have even suspected in several deaths over the past few years.

Still, overdoses are relatively rare. Rather, poor nutrition is the biggest issue Talbott has with overusing protein powder and other supplements. There are a lot of "unbalanced" products that have added sugars, artificial flavors, preservatives, and other non-natural things you don't want to eat a lot of. Plus, protein products aren't meant to be meal replacements, so they're almost certainly deficient in things like fiber and phytonutrients-compounds that provide a myriad of health benefits (and can be found in whole foods), Talbott adds. (Be wary of these 5 Weird Signs That You Could Have a Nutritional Deficiency.)

And it's not just about the effects on your body. Over-reliance on protein shakes and supplements can have mental repercussions too, Sommers says. "People may feel distress if they are unable to use their 'safe foods' and plan their whole day around their workout and supplement use. They may even avoid social situations where they would be expected to eat," she says. "If a person who is susceptible to an eating disorder gets caught up in supplement use it could exacerbate the situation." She adds that this could be a type of orthorexia, an eating disorder that focuses on eating only "healthy" foods. (Read up on one woman's Fight with Orthorexia: How Healthy Habits Turned into an Eating Disorder.)

So is your daily breakfast protein shake a problem? As long as you're not regularly using it as a meal substitute and are watching the portions, you're probably fine, Talbott says. Like many things, protein powders, shakes, and bars are best when used in moderation-and as part of a balanced diet of whole foods.

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