Making gains: The problem with protein: bigger, bulkier, but not a magic bullet

For teenage rugby and GAA players, bigger is better – and that means the potentially dangerous world of supplements

I used to see these oversized, slightly sinister-looking plastic tubs with mysterious labels piled high in shops that I passed by but never went into. Now there’s one sitting on my kitchen counter.

With a 16-year-old boy in the house and pre-season rugby training in full swing, it’s hardly surprising.

The use of protein supplements has gained momentum over the past decade, with a mushrooming range of products muscling their way on to mainstream supermarket shelves.

So of course younger age groups are gulping down their protein shakes – even though sporting governing bodies, such as the GAA and the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU), do not recommend them for players under 18.


At best, it seems, protein supplements are a waste of money for under-age players; at worst they may have a detrimental effect on their long-term health.

While excess protein is excreted because it can’t be stored in the body, some research has suggested a high-protein diet may have adverse effects. There are studies that show a possible link to kidney disease, prostate cancer and diabetes, but nothing conclusive.

None of these products has been tested on teenagers and, for ethical reasons, never will be because their bodies are growing and it is a minefield, says Safefood's chief specialist in nutrition, Dr Marian Faughnan.

“Of course teenage boys are tempted,” she says. “They want to be bigger, they want to be bulkier.”

The important message for 99.9 per cent of teenagers is that they will get enough protein from their diet, she stresses. Through dairy, meat, fish and perhaps nuts and pulses, they are getting plenty of protein. It is a “challenging message” for parents and others to get across, she acknowledges, because, like the rest of us, “teenagers want to hear ‘here’s the magic bullet’.”

The estimated 26,000 boys aged 15 to 18 who play rugby in this country see how their heroes on the international team pump up that little bit more every year.

As Andy McGeady illustrated in this newspaper in February, the 1980 Irish side that played England averaged 13st 12lb (88kg) per man. The team playing England in 2014 was close to 16st 7lb (105kg) each.


Nóra Ní Fhlannagáin, a performance nutritionist with the IRFU, is travelling around the country this summer working with 500 of the best under-17 and under-18 players who are chosen for development squads in each of the four provinces. She encounters confusion among parents and young players alike over the question of protein supplements.

“There is a lot of marketing and at the younger age they are unsure if they need it. They can’t afford it and don’t know if they are supposed to be taking it.”

However, she finds young people are intelligent enough and very cautious about taking anything. “The whole supplement industry is notoriously poorly controlled: it is shocking what they often put into supplements to bulk them,” she says.

In 2010, a Consumer Reports survey of 15 brands in the US found that some protein drinks were contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury which could reach harmful levels in the recommended three daily servings.

Some supplements have also been found to be tainted with steroids.

Although the scientific evidence is there, Ní Fhlannagáin says, of the benefit for senior athletes of consuming a protein drink to aid recovery straight after training, it is not recommended for the under-18s for two reasons.

“The biggest one for me is that our young rugby players are not really at a stage in their rugby career where they need it.” Instead she wants them to be developing a good relationship with food, learning how to cook, and understanding where protein comes from.

If and when they progress to academy rugby, they will have a much higher level of training and will have conditioning coaches and nutritionists.

“At that point they have such a good understanding of food and nutrition and all the things that impact sport, they can go up to the next layer and supplements can help you to become a national-level athlete.”

However, for the under-18s, aside from the fact that they are still growing, she says, “We don’t have evidence to show that concentrated protein is safe in young rugby players.”

It is hard to know, she says, because “essentially whey protein is just a milk extra” – a byproduct of cheese production – but “it wouldn’t be a risk I would be willing to take if I had kids”.

Besides, if you take protein in isolation, such as in whey, you are not getting the iron, vitamins C, A or B, calcium or potassium, and all the other things that come in milk that are really important for development, she points out.

Quick fixes

The one thing about protein-enriched milk – another popular product pandering to people looking for extra protein even if it does push up grocery bills – is that you are still getting your other nutrients, she points out, with something added. But the “cost for the amount of protein you’re getting – you might just as well drink an extra 100mls of milk,” she remarks. “Bang for your buck – I am not buying it.”

Ní Fhlannagáin's job is to convince youngsters of the benefit of whole foods. She worked with Ireland international Andrew Trimble on videos (his for young players, hers for parents) showing how the optimum 20g of protein to consume after training to aid recovery and growth is much better found in the fridge (for example milk, eggs, slices of chicken or beef, salmon) rather than in tubs of protein powder.

Currently she is piloting a series of 10 e-modules on nutrition for young players that will be rolled out from September.

She and her IRFU colleagues try to impress on players that, whether it’s training or nutrition, there are no quick fixes; it is all about consistency.

And apart from urging them to wait until they are 18 before considering supplements, she says she encourages them to use critical thinking rather than succumbing to peer pressure.

While coaches following the IRFU guidelines know they should not recommend the use of protein shakes, players seem to believe they silently condone it. So does the organisation encourage coaches to discourage the practice?

“We would probably encourage them to discourage it,” replies Ní Fhlannagáin, sounding a little doubtful. “That is where there is a fine line in our control because many coaches are not employed by the IRFU,” she points out, “but they would follow our guidelines.”

When inactive, overweight and obese teenagers are much more prevalent, it would seem that parents of sports-loving youngsters with an eye on healthy eating would have little to worry about. So is there a point when they need to start being concerned?

"This is a really central question," says Harriet Parsons, services coordinator with Bodywhys, which supports people with eating disorders.

“At what stage do you get worried about normal healthy exercise and normal healthy eating, and when does it start to become something that is more than that?”

One indicator, she suggests, is when their whole life seems centred around ensuring they get their gym time and they won’t do a normal activity because it might stop them going to a gym.

Other signs include huge amounts of time spent in the gym, an over-focus on image and a marked change in personality, with mood swings.

“They will get anxious and panicky if something interferes with their ability to do their exercise. That is when you are getting into more problem territory,” she says. And “a line is crossed” when they seem to be doing it more for image reasons than for improved performance at sport. “It is no longer a means to an end.”

Eating disorders

Parsons believes eating disorders are an increasing problem among boys and men, although the official breakdown is still 10 per cent male and 90 per cent female. However, it is recognised as probably being around 25:75 now, she says, “and for binge-eating disorder it is 50:50”.

“Muscle dysmorphia”, also known as “reverse anorexia”, is the term for when a person becomes obsessively focused on the feeling that they are too small and not muscular enough.

For those experiencing distorted body images, she believes it’s not so much that they are not seeing themselves the way everybody else sees them, it is more that when they look at themselves they don’t see themselves as a whole.

“We do that as well when we look in the mirror – we see our hair, we see our face, we don’t see ourselves the way everybody else sees us. They are focusing on one part and that part loses the context from the rest of the body and if there are negative thoughts and negative self-beliefs they are concentrated on – ‘if I get this part perfect, then I will feel better’.”

For more information see Eat 2 Compete on; Fuel Your Body – For the Teenage Sports Person, on; and


‘Beach body’ pressure and other summer body issues The long school holidays in the wake of exams can be a difficult time for teenagers who are struggling with eating disorders.

“When they have the exams coming up, they have that goal and can structure their days around that,” says Harriet Parsons, services coordinator with Bodywhys, which supports people with eating disorders. “It means they have a strict routine, and they feel better when that is happening.”

In the holidays there is no goal, no structure “and that is when things get very difficult for them”.

Parents need to be aware of these triggers, she says, and although holidays should be a relaxing time, it is advisable to incorporate some routine and structure.

There’s also the whole “beach body” pressure to deal with, she says. In addition, when people have more time on their hands, they think they should be exercising, “and then the exercising gets out of hand”.

Teenagers aged 15 to 18 made up the second-highest category of callers to the Bodywhys helpline last year (the majority of callers were aged 25-35). And there was an 84 per cent increase in people using its online support group for teenagers, YouthConnect.

The weekly online chat forum on Sunday evenings, for those aged 13 to 18, is popular because they can remain anonymous while sharing their feelings. “They can talk there about their struggles at home and their struggles in school, and it is a confidential space,” she says. There are two facilitators and if there is a serious concern about somebody, they will follow it up.

A common theme, Parsons reports, is teenagers talking about how it is difficult for families to understand what is going on in their heads. Although a teenager might be looking better, he or she might be feeling worse.

It is a real trigger for relapse, she explains, that as a teenager physically starts to look better, people close to them tend to relax a bit and may not be as attentive, whereas that’s when they really need to be attentive.

“People will say ‘I am worried about getting better, because if I look normal people will think I am fine and they won’t be there for me any more’. “An eating disorder is an expression of the difficulties they are having,” Parsons adds. “It is not really about food and weight but that is what even they talk about when you ask them about it. You have to get behind that and see how it all connects with their feelings about themselves.”

Bodywhys helpline 1890 200 444;

Making gains: Getting teens to hear the message about healthy eating Don’t make mealtimes a battle ground is the advice given to anxious parents of small children who have just discovered the power of food refusal.

Another decade or so on, when parents no longer have total control of the food available to their offspring, putting up a fight is even more futile.

Typically, those with sons struggle to keep enough food in the house and worry about them eating too much of the wrong things. Daughters are a source of worry when they appear not to eat enough and then may lapse into bouts of comfort eating.

It’s a “really tricky time” for teenagers and for parents, says Safefood’s chief specialist in nutrition, Dr Marian Faughnan, as young people become more independent and more involved with friends and sport and other activities outside the home.

“Being able to sit down for a family meal is logistically harder,” she points out, so there needs to be negotiation between parents and teenagers on when, where and what they’re eating.

Pocket money is also a big issue, she suggests, because they are likely to use it to buy food that is too high in fat, salt and/or sugar and that is so easily available everywhere they go.

There are ways to encourage healthy eating without being confrontational, although with teenagers it can be quite hard to avoid confrontation, she admits. Steps parents can take include: Try to involve teenagers in some of the food shopping and preparation.

Agree that if they miss dinner time, there will be a meal ready to heat up; this will stop them filling up on unhealthy snacks.

Decide as a family not to keep large supplies of “treat” food in the house.

Focus on providing breakfast, as that’s one meal they are liable to skip.

Likewise, make a point of having fruit and vegetables available as many teenagers don’t eat enough fibre.

Dispel the “high fat” myth that hangs over dairy, as 42 per cent of teenage girls are not getting enough calcium. Five servings of dairy a day are recommended for teenagers and these can be low-fat milk, yogurt and cheese.

Insufficient iron is another predominantly female problem – “a little bit of red meat the size of the palm of your hand twice a week is good”, says Faughnan.