Sep 2 2007

Do Sports Supplements Help?

Today’s question:

Dear Prof. Nestle,

I enjoyed your article in the recent Scientific American and thought that you would be a good person to ask the following:

Food supplements have become a huge fad among people who “work out”.
Protein powders, various lipids, amino acids and dozens of other arcane pills and potions. My step son, who is otherwise a very sensible and educated young man, indulged in some of them (maybe still does) when he lifts weights.

I tried to convince him that a normal, healthy diet is all that one needs. That perhaps these supplements make a difference to competitive athletes who want to shave a few milliseconds off their speed, or add a few pounds to their weight-lifting, but that for a person who just wishes to be fit (even REALLY fit!) they are a total waste of money. One pays tens of dollars per kg or two of protein extract. For a similar cost, relief agencies ship hundreds of times that weight of basically the same material to 3rd world countries.

Moreover, I doubt very much that most of the claims made for them have ever been proven in proper clinical trials. I’m not even sure whether some of the nutrients that are known to be part of normal metabolic pathways cross the plasma membrane that readily. And even if they do, do they provide enough extra to make any detectable difference in performance.

I raised this issue with several colleagues in our Physical Education Faculty…and they seemed equally sceptical about the value of these substances. One of them said that the supplements might help decrease the time at which one reaches a specific level of performance, but not the ultimate level itself.

What might be your thoughts?

My thoughts: I devote a chapter in my book, What to Eat, to the question of supplements. The chapters come with extensive endnotes and references, which may help convince colleagues. My understanding of sports supplements is similar to yours–they give a tiny edge to elite athletes but act as placebos for everyone else. The marketing hype is so over the top that the attorneys for several states are taking them on. But I like to put sports supplements in context: they are generally harmless and are a whole lot better than steroids. Anyone have any additional thoughts on the topic?

Sep 1 2007

Pet Food in the NY Times Sunday Magazine

Who would ever guess that pet food would be the subject of a New York Times magazine piece. It’s by Fred Kaufman, who has a history of food in America–”The History of the Stomach“–coming out next February. His NYT piece is notable for explaining the driving force behind the formulas for pet foods: keeping elimination products to a minimum. I think it’s a great piece, not least because it quotes me at length and accurately, at that.

Aug 31 2007

Can We Legislate a Leaner Nation?

My latest interview with Eating Liberally is about the policy implications of the “F is for Fat” study (see earlier post).

Aug 31 2007

Formula Industry Lobbies Against Breast Feeding

Thanks to Kerry Trueman of Eating Liberally for pointing out the investigative report in today’s Washington Post revealing how lobbyists for the infant formula industry induced the Department of Health and Human Services to tone down ads describing health risks to babies that are not breast-fed. These anti-public health lobbying efforts emerged in the wake of Congressional Hearings demonstrating widespread political interference with statements of health officials that might adversely affect some company’s products or the Bush administration’s ideology. The Post article links to two letters from a lobbyist, Clayton Yeutter, who in classic “Revolving Door” action used to be Secretary of the USDA under George Bush I. My favorite statement in his April 21, 2004 letter: “For our government to give all those mothers [those who cannot breast-feed] a guilt trip would just be appalling.” He goes on to explain that the proposed campaign would “send a risk-oriented message to [women in the WIC program]…that most of them will find incompatible with what they’re being told by USDA, and will at best confuse them, at worst frighten them.” Those of us who have followed lobbying efforts by infant formula companies (I describe the resulting boycott of Nestle formulas in Food Politics and more recent lobbying activities in the baby food chapter of What to Eat), will not be surprised. Breast feeding may be good for babies, but it is not good for formula companies–and they know it.

Aug 30 2007

We’re Smart: How Come We’re Gaining Weight?

A comment on my August 15 post, “Playing With Obesity Maps” (click on Obesity), asks: “…can you “weigh in” on…the fact is that the nation’s getting fatter even though there’s so much information available out there that should make these numbers go down instead of up?”

Sure. Happy to. We like to think that knowing what to do to stay healthy would be enough to make us do it and it would be great if it did. But mere mortals need more help than that. That’s why the social environment is such an important influence on what we do. Right now, we have a social environment that encourages us to eat more (larger portions! food everywhere!) and move less (computers! remotes! cars! elevators!). As individuals, we fight society when we try to eat less and move more. So education, which is easy to do, rarely turns out to be enough. We have to change society–and that, of course, is not so easy, not least because doing so runs up against a lot of vested interests.

Aug 30 2007

What’s My Take on Diet Books?

That same commenter had a second question: “What’s your take on all the diet books that are out there these days?”

I’m not sure which ones you mean in particular, but it doesn’t matter. They are all pretty much the same. They promise that if you just do this one thing, weight will pour off. All of them work–for some people, for some period of time. All of them say they are easy to follow and are a breakthrough, and all provide a semblance of biological rationale (some better than others). Whatever the gimmick–low fat, low carbohydrate, high volume of fruits and vegetables, low glycemic index, whatever–all have to be based on some method to reduce calories. Calories count. That’s why it matters to eat less and move more. Diets that suggest “eat more” fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, however, do make sense. But the ones that suggest eating more fat usually don’t (because fat has more concentrated calories). Whatever the diets suggest, they are unlikely to be harmful for a few weeks.

Aug 29 2007

What a Concept: Oreo Pizza!

I am indebted to Michele Simon for sending a photo of this flier for the latest innovation in home-delivered food–Oreo Dessert Pizza. I’m sorry I can’t figure out how to make the photo bigger so you can see it better, but the way this works is that with any online pizza order you get a dessert pizza worth $3.99 tossed in.   And, if you order two 20-ounce sodas, you get slap-on cooler wrappers, whatever those might be.  The flier doesn’t disclose Nutrition Facts, so you have to guess the calories.  Hint: Lots. Somebody try this and report back please.

This flier

Aug 29 2007

Leona Helmsley Leaves Fortune to Dog

Despite his name, Trouble, Leona Helmsley must have adored her dog. She left him $12 million in her will. This ought to take care of whatever he needs for the next few years, including some terrific, melamine-free dog food. According to the Associated Press, she didn’t leave a dime to two of her four grandchildren. Hey, families are like that.

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