It is a situation every student athlete knows all too well. Maybe it’s after a 6 a.m. practice, and you have 20 minutes to clean up before your 8:30 a.m. Or maybe you just finished an afternoon practice and need to get to a meeting. Whatever the case, the need to eat and refuel does not go away just because there is no time, and in these cases, supplements such as protein bars and shakes often end up serving as a meal replacement. While useful, these foods are not as great as they may appear, and definitely warrant user caution.
Post-workout, the body has a 45 minute period known as the “window of opportunity,” where it is receptive to nutrients. As most athletes know, this is the crucial window that the supplement industry has capitalized on. In the name of convenient and efficient recovery, companies have mass-produced powders, bars and pills that have infiltrated every aspect of the active world. Just go to any gym and count the number of shaker bottles with varyied colors of workout beverages, and you can see the tangible success the industry has had. With pre-workout powders that promise to make your workout amazing with their special, non-NSF certified “explosion blend,” to post-workout BCAA powders and whey proteins that swear (without evidence) that you will recover much faster if you drink their chemicals, supplements have disrupted our relationship with food, and turned working out into an expensive, unhealthy gig.
Nowadays, instead of reaching for a sweet potato, peanut butter or fruit, we have begun grabbing some whey protein and chugging down a shake. Instead of fueling our bodies with whole foods with real nutrition, we grab a FitCrunch Bar that has been puffed up with 35 grams of protein (which no, will not all be absorbed) and sweetened with sorbitol, sugar, maltitol, sucralose and propylene glycol monoesters. Instead of taking five seconds to grab a handful of almonds and a banana, we grab a Muscle Milk shake, effectively eliminating the need for thought that concerns proper health.
This substitution of whole foods for supplements is problematic in many ways. Firstly and perhaps most obviously (although people still act surprised), supplements are just not healthy. Most are highly processed, and with many, the athlete is consuming more protein than they need. In those that are stuffed with vitamins and minerals in an attempt to make the health food section, the body does not absorb them as well as it would if they came from real food. Even Quest Bars or “organic” protein powders that are marketed as part of a clean diet only serve to end up distracting the consumer from real foods with real nutrition and cost a lot more.
Furthermore, the vast majority of supplements are not monitored, meaning that every time you bite in, you have to trust that the ingredients on the label are actually all that’s in there. This is a major issue for any student athlete who wants to maintain eligibility, as these products can have banned substances. While it may seem like something that never happens, and it is easy to ignore, there have been cases of athletes consuming products that they claimed they had believed to be clean. Turns out the substances can taint the user with testosterone boosters, weight-loss drugs, etc. Unless you are buying some crazy foods, choosing to stick to whole, real foods would completely eliminate this risk.
I am not saying that it is necessary to give up all supplements forever. Even as I am writing this, I am snacking on the sweet taste of protein blend, erythritol and soluble corn fiber that you can only find in an extremely processed S’mores Quest Bar. Sometimes, it is better to eat poorly than not at all, and also, sometimes things taste good. What I am saying is that we need to get back to choosing whole foods whenever humanly possibly, instead of having supplements be the go-to snack. When there is time, opt for the food that does not come in a package, and see how that changes recovery and performance.