Better living through chemistry?

In 1996, Fatboy Slim released his debut album, ‘Better Living Through Chemistry’. It’s certainly true that modern Chemistry has given as a wonderful array of new materials and compounds, which have profoundly benefited lives all around the globe. Moreover, advances in our understanding of food chemistry and technology means that today’s athletes now have access to an amazing array of sports nutrition products. But is high-tech nutrition always better than the more old-fashioned, and arguably, more natural approach to sports nutrition?

Protein and muscle growth

Nowhere is sports nutrition technology more in evidence than in protein formulas. You want whey protein? Sure, but do you want whey protein concentrate, whey protein isolate, hydrolysed whey protein, micro-filtered whey protein or anyone of these combined with other exotic nutrients such as HMB and creatine? With such specialised products available, it’s natural to assume that a bog-standard naturally protein-rich food must be inferior in terms of performance. But a study by US scientists suggests that this might not always be the case*.

In this study, researchers compared the effects on muscle recovery and growth of consuming pure eggs whites (a common powdered protein supplement) to consuming whole eggs. To do this, resistance trained subjects underwent a bout of resistance training designed to stimulate muscle growth. After training, they then consumed either 18 grams of protein as pure egg white or 18 grams of protein from whole eggs (containing the egg yolk and other components such as fat). The really nifty part of this study however was that the protein used in the study contained special type of radioactive label, which enabled the researchers to track where the amino acid building blocks from the egg protein ended up once absorbed into the body.

Whole eggs are best

What the researchers observed is that when the subjects ate the whole egg or the egg whites, the same amount of dietary amino acids became available in the blood. In other words, getting your protein from whole eggs or just from the egg whites seems to make no difference in terms of dietary amino acids that end up in the blood after eating.

Normally, this measure generally gives an indication of how potent a food source is for the muscle-building response. However when the researchers directly measured protein synthesis in the subjects’ muscles, they found a very different response – the ingestion of whole eggs immediately after resistance exercise resulted in much greater muscle-protein synthesis than the ingestion of egg whites. For recovery therefore, whole eggs were most definitely superior to isolated egg white protein.

This difference has nothing to do with the difference in energy content of whole eggs and egg whites (whole eggs containing 18 grams of protein also contain about 17 grams of fat, whereas egg whites have no fat). We know this because previous studies show that simply adding fat to an isolated protein source in the diet after exercise does not boost protein synthesis. The researchers concluded instead that “consuming egg protein in its natural matrix has a much greater benefit than getting isolated protein from the same source.”

*Am J Clin Nutr 2017 106: 1333-1334

Don’t turn your back on nature

This study highlights an inescapable fact; while we currently know a lot about sports nutrition, there’s far more we don’t know. A whole food may typically contain many thousands of biologically active compounds, many of which will work in harmony to produce a beneficial effect in the human body. This is why extracting one or even a few key nutrients from a food and then selling it as supplement may not be the soundest nutritional strategy. And it also explains why some of the early antioxidant nutrients containing a few single nutrients were not only ineffective in boosting sports performance, but (in some cases) actually harmed it!

Does this mean you should bin all your sports supplements? Of course not. But what it does mean is that underpinning any nutritional plan should be a diet based on whole, fresh unprocessed foods. Because while human chemistry is undoubtedly advanced, Nature’s chemistry is even better! So what is the optimum strategy for protein consumption? How much is optimum, what types and when? You can find out the answers to these questions and guidance on how to put together an optimised protein  plan – both natural and supplemented – in the article below. Andrew Hamilton, Peak Performance editor



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