The Risks of Protein Products & Nutritional Supplements

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You’ve probably seen plenty of people whose daily routine includes a plastic bottle containing a metal mixing ball. The blended beverage-of-choice inside often is a protein product or nutritional supplement aimed to help athletes, weekend warriors and average Joe’s alike improve their health and wellness and build muscle. But, before you pick up products of your own, consider the following recommendations from UnityPoint Health Certified Athletic Trainer, BreAnn Drees, M.S., A.T.C., C.S.C.S., to see if protein products and nutritional supplements are right for you.

Benefits of Protein & Supplements

A well-balanced diet can allow athletes to train harder, perform better and recover faster following workouts and competitions. If individuals are lacking certain nutrients from their diet, dietary supplements can be utilized to reach those necessary levels.

  • Protein is important for growth and repair of tissues, and calories from protein should make up roughly 15-20 percent of an individual’s diet.
  • Vitamin supplementation may be utilized for individuals with a vitamin deficiency or diet-lacking essential nutrients.
  • Calcium supplements may also be necessary, especially for individuals who do not consume dairy products.

"Supplements can be beneficial," Drees says. "But, we still recommend individuals obtain nutrients primarily from food, as the body is better able to utilize this form of the nutrient."

Supplements can be found in many forms, such as protein products, which are available in bars, shakes, powders, etc. Caffeine is another common supplement that can be consumed in a pill or through diet, like energy shots.

However, Drees also notes that marketers target audiences who desire certain characteristics, such as weight loss, increased muscle mass, etc., and promise many benefits, but aren’t able to support these claims. There is very limited research on these products.

Potential Risks of Products

"Supplements can be dangerous. Too much of anything, including protein, can be stored as fat in the body, and while vitamins and minerals are essential to sustain life, it is possible to overdose on vitamin and mineral supplementation," Drees says.

She breaks down the possible associated risks that can result by incorrectly using protein products and nutritional supplements:

     Type of Supplement       Associated Risks
  • Dehydration 
  • Muscle Cramping 
  • Kidney Damage
  • Weight Gain
  • Gastrointestinal Distress 
  • Muscle Cramping 
 Excess Vitamin C
  • Kidney Stones
  • Diarrhea
  • Headaches
  • Nervousness
  • Irritability
  • Increased Heart Rate

In addition to these risks, protein products and nutritional supplements aren’t currently regulated by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under the same regulations as traditional food, making it difficult to ensure safety of these products. Drees recommends asking your provider before making a product purchase.

"Because the FDA does not regulate supplements, it is impossible to compare products. Many stores that sell these product lines hire sales associates that are not adequately trained to give nutrition and supplement advice," Drees says.

Consult Your Provider

Before you decide to try a protein product or nutritional supplement, consulting your provider is the best first step.

"Medications and supplements, whether they are over the counter or prescribed, have side effects. There is also a risk of drug interaction while taking supplements, as well as risk of overdose and impaired health. That being said, all supplements should be taken under care of a provider," Drees says.

Contact your UnityPoint Health provider to learn which products or supplements may fit best for your health and wellness goals.