I work with a lot of people in the CrossFit community and what I’ve noticed is they take their protein shakes and other sport supplements very serious. When I start talking about replacing their much loved chocolate flavoured whey protein shake with real food, I often get I few eye rolls. But I get it, optimising your performance is a delicate and fine art of doing the right amount of the right thing at the right time.
So let’s consider three of the most popular sport supplements: creatine, beta-alanine and BCAA’s.
Similar to protein powders, creatine, beta-alanine and BCAA’s can be obtained from real food. The whole idea of the Art of Undieting challenge is to fuel your body with delicious real food. Does that mean that you have to get rid of the huge tub of creatine you got on a special at Dis-Chem?
To answer that question, let’s first consider why certain foods are removed from your diet when you do the Art of Undieting challenge. When you do the challenge your are expected to fuel your body with real unprocessed food and to avoid processed and inflammatory food. Inflammation is the leading cause of most lifestyle diseases and has a huge impact on our health, overall wellbeing and ability to lose weight.
So, the first question is then: Are creatine, beta-alanine and BCAA’s processed? Yes, of course! No one will argue that it’s not highly processed. The second question is: Are creatine, beta-alanine and BCAA’s inflammatory?
This is where it gets interesting.
- In 2013 a study was done in Brazil to evaluate the effects of creatine supplementation on oxidative stress and inflammation markers after acute repeated-sprint exercise in humans. It was found that creatine supplementation does have anti-inflammatory effects.
- A 2018 study by the Institute of Exercise Physiology and Wellness, demonstrated that beta-alanine supplementation for 14 days resulted in several improvements in physical performance, cognitive function and mood during a 24 hour simulated military operation, but did not appear to influence markers of inflammation.
- In another 2018 study it was found that elevated BCAA levels can generate inflammation and oxidative stress.
So, it seems that creatine has anti-inflammatory properties, beta-alanine has no real impact on inflammation and that elevated BCAA levels can cause inflammation.
The last question we have to consider is whether creatine, beta-alanine and BCAA’s can be obtained from real food.
- Creatine is an amino acid derivative constructed from arginine, glycine and methionine. It is produced naturally by the body in the kidneys, liver, and pancreas. Creatine can also be obtained from food (particularly red meat). If you include red meat in your diet, you’re getting plenty of creatine for your baseline needs, and probably plenty to support a moderate amount of strength training and muscle mass. But past a certain level, muscle gain is unnatural, and if you’re going for that as a goal, then extra creatine is one of the safest “unnatural” methods for getting you there. Always read labels and watch out for added junk.
- Beta-alanine is a non-essential amino acid. Unlike most amino acids, it is not used by your body to synthesize proteins. Instead, together with histidine, it produces carnosine. Carnosine is then stored in your skeletal muscles. Carnosine reduces lactic acid accumulation in your muscles during exercise, which leads to improved athletic performance. The top food sources of beta-alanine are meat, poultry and fish. Most people get sufficient amounts of beta-alanine from their diets.
- BCAA stands for Branched-Chain Amino Acids. Amino acids are the building blocks of protein: the point of BCAAs is that instead of eating the protein and then having to break it down yourself, you can just skip straight to the broken-down form. BCAAs don’t provide all the amino acids found in a complete protein; they only have three (leucine, isoleucine, and valine). The rationale for this is that various studies have shown anabolic benefits for these three in particular. There’s some evidence that BCAAs provide a minor fatigue-reducing benefit when taken during a workout, and supplements are just more convenient for that – you probably wouldn’t want to stop in the middle of a workout for some scrambled eggs, but you could easily toss back a few pills. If you’re eating enough protein from food, you’re already eating an adequate amount of leucine, isoleucine and valine without even having to try. There’s no reason why a healthy person shouldn’t be able to break down the protein in food to get them. Also, keep in mind that elevated levels of BCAA’s can cause inflammation.
It is important to know that these supplements aren’t superior forms of protein, it’s simply more convenient forms that taste like chocolate and not a piece of meat. All you need for optimal performance can be obtained from real food. If you are doing the Art of Undieting challenge, try to fuel your body with unprocessed real sources of protein for the duration of the challenge. If you choose to add supplements (ideally later on), always check the ingredients and watch out for added junk like sugars, sweeteners and fillers. If it tastes like chocolate, it probably contains added sugar or sweeteners.