In January, I ended up in A&E after worsening pains in my abdomen meant I was no longer able to stand up straight.
After a scan and a little while writhing about in a most undignified manner, the doctor told me I had kidney stones, likely brought on by a disproportionately high protein intake, which my body simply couldn’t process and turned into calcified deposits in the kidneys. When these small ‘stones’ get stuck… yeah, that hurts.
Luckily, I didn’t have to ‘pass’ my stones, a phrase that still conjours up images of medieval torture, but it did get me thinking. After several years of working out and a couple of years of training seriously in the gym, I had become one of the legion of amateur ‘gym scientists’, believing my rudimentary knowledge of nutrition meant I was able to transform my physique. I believed with the right tweaking, I could make my body function more efficiently and as anyone who has ever sought to ‘make gains’ will know, the cornerstone of this process is to up your protein intake, bro! But is chuffing down as much protein as you can always the best idea for your body?
The Food Standards Agency recommends an adult consumes up to 55g of protein a day. Of course, this varies depending on body mass, gender and physical exertion, but as a rough (and most importantly, safe) guideline, it makes sense. A University of Connecticut study found that taking whey protein (a staple for most gym bunnies) over an extended period of time is linked to a higher risk of kidney problems. It can also have a seriously negative effect on other aspects of health, leading to dehydration, fatigue and even added stress on the heart.
In order for our bodies to function at an optimum level, dieticians recommend we get our protein naturally from food. The major problem is that protein peddlers are under no legal obligation to put nutritional guidelines on their products as they are classified as ‘supplements’ not ‘food.’ But when it comes to a product that provides you with a large proportion of your recommended daily intake of protein, with most shakes containing around 20 grams of protein per serving (some ‘mass builders’ even contain upwards of 50 grams and over 1000 calories), then you may have a kidney-shaped problem.
The fitness press may also be at fault here too. A quick Google search of ‘biggest mass builder’ quickly leads me to an article by one of the most well-respected and widely-read publications, Muscle and Fitness magazine, who, in their first tip for increasing muscle mass recommend 20 grams of whey protein before training, 40 after and 20-40 when you wake up. That already puts you at 80-100 grams of protein before any real 'food' has passed your lips.
Fitness professional Pola Pospieszalska says "fitness magazines appeal to our vanity, not our health" and claims we can get all we need from a balanced diet. This is something echoed by personal trainer Jade Lindsay, who has seen the negative side of a misunderstanding of diet, with clients "even developing issues with bone health." She sees many people in the gym who she feels have succumbed to a get-buff-quick culture, making supplements their first port of call.
Not all personal trainers are as responsible when the end game is physical results. I have certainly spent a great deal of time in the gym being told about crazy diet plans that contain upwards of 200 grams of protein a day. In my attempts to bulk up, this is something I too am guilty of.
Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a former wrestler and now leading physician in the field of weight loss, whose goal is to prioritise ‘lifestyle before drugs’, admits some trainers could do with further education: "A lot of trainers are starting to be up to date with the studies but there can be a lot of misinformation out there."
However, he also points out there is sometimes a conflict of interest, when a trainer is personally trying to sell a product. This is a theme picked up by Charlayne Hart, a four-time world champion fitness model who says that most trainers who advise supplements "are trying to gain an extra buck" but suggests the issue lies within the way supplements are marketed: "It’s not just personal trainers, it’s the ambassadors of these companies trying to get you to take them so they get their commission."
She admits: "I have fallen into the trap of high protein diets, not knowing too much about the long-term effects this can have on your body. I have had seriously painful issues with my stomach, an extremely blocked colon and I suffer from colitis."
What is clear is that an increase in protein is certainly not a quick fix to attain the body of your dreams; conversely, it poses serious health risks. It seems anything you need can be found from a balanced and healthy diet and that a little more understanding within the fitness industry itself would go a long way to proliferating this knowledge.
My kidneys and I would have been very grateful of the heads up.