See our review of the full BMJ article on sports products here.
After writing the preview for this programme my expectations weren’t set too high, but after watching the show I was left awestruck and dazed by the degree of bias and lack of any external research which seemed to have been conducted by the Panorama team. Let’s tackle some of the key points made in the order that they came up in the programme.
Carbs are bad, or is that good if they are in jam?
The start of the show went to some length to point out that sports drinks such as Lucozade and Powerade were comprised of simple sugars for the most part. The show then went on to state that they contain an average of eight teaspoons of sugar in a drink. That sounds impressively high until you realise it works out to just 160 calories. To put that in context it works out to the same carbohydrate content as a couple of slices of bread. What the programme failed to grasp is that both bread and sports drinks convert in the body to glucose, yet clearly this was an attempt to shock the average uneducated tv addict into thinking this degree of sugar content was bad.
It got worse…
Next up, the programme makers dragged out Graeme Obree, a retired cyclist who at one time held the world one hour record, but whose efforts depended greatly on a style of riding which was banned because it was said to give him an unfair advantage.
Obree has, to say the least, a history most kindly described as eccentric and he seemed a curious person to bring out to support the programme makers’ case. At the very least you would think his more well renowned contemporary, Chris Boardman, would have made a better candidate, or indeed any top class athlete without the history of eccentric behaviour Obree has shown. Regardless, the case was made that since Obree survived off bread and jam then that was clearly a superior strategy to sports drinks. It might be of interest at this point to highlight that the better athlete, Boardman, was a keen sports science advocate who experimented with a number of different sports nutrition protocols before settling on a mixed carbohydrate/protein recovery drink.
Why did the programme markers not speak to the countless non-sponsored athletes here? Who knows, maybe all they could find was one who could agree with them?
An obvious point which eluded the Panorama team is why is jam, which is basically just sugars, okay, but the same sugars in drinks are somehow worse. Please explain that one to me.
Up to this point the argument seemed to be that sugar is bad unless it comes in food, where, by some mysterious, heretofore, unknown process (to anyone outside of Panorama that is), it becomes fine to consume.
If this wasn’t illogical enough the programme went on to attack the use of carbohydrates at all, saying that water is better to fuel performance. This would be in direct opposition to the hundreds of studies showing the benefits and importance of adequate glycogen status for powering sporting performance, as well as data showing that on-board consumption of carbohydrates is critical in long endurance events to maintain performance. The fact that they couldn’t drag anyone out to support their view on this spoke volumes.
So jam and water is the ticket?
Hmmm, maybe not, because next the programme went on to attack sports drinks which contain zero calories. I was puzzled how sports drinks had gone from being bad for containing sugar (but jam and processed bread is fine) to being bad for containing no calories (yet water which does the same is ideal).
I was left with the impression that the actual macronutrient content of drinks or food was irrelevant to the points made in this segment of the show and still remain puzzled how the show could conclude with such a blatantly contradictory view on carbohydrates.
Let’s gloss over the evidence on studies
I didn’t really understand how the programme could, on the one hand, accept that studies did show the efficacy of sports drinks for elite athletes, but then still deny their usage and sale based on the fact that the majority of studies were conducted in elite athletes.
First of all, the fact is that the majority of studies are conducted on university students who are hardly elite athletes, a fact which the makers of Powerade, Coca-Cola, pointed out but which the programme completely ignored. They had just given a platform to someone saying the opposite, while Coca-Cola were left with a written statement read in a suitably dull voice by an actor. Even then, I found it interesting the programme didn’t reject Coca-Cola’s point but skirted over it. No doubt the average joe this was aimed at missed that trick of Panorama.
The show then pulled out a Eurocrat from the European Food Safety Association to support their view. Interestingly, when the makers of Lucozade, Glaxosmithkline, demonstrated that they had EFSA approval for their product claims this again got the boring voice treatment and was ignored again.
Let’s banish all athletes from supermarkets!
The actual point made by the EFSA guy they trotted out seemed to be that these products shouldn’t be sold in supermarkets because they are designed for elite endurance athletes. Amazingly, the programme host went along with this, asking why sports drinks are available alongside other drinks in a supermarket. Clearly, in the alternate reality which these public sector employees inhabit, supermarkets are only there to serve non-athletes. Presumably athletes who do attend supermarkets are expected to show their talents at turning water, if not into wine, then at least into a sports drink.
Babbling nonsense this part of the programme and by now I was getting a bit sick of the bad science, contradictions, and silly arguments made.
Usain gets delivered a thunderbolt
I can imagine, if he was as stupid as the makers hoped, Usain Bolt might be chastising himself for his consumption of sports nutrition products and cursing himself that if he’d only eaten jam and bread with some water he’d be the best sprinter ever by now, instead of which he is….oh well, let’s ignore that point!
Maybe what Usain didn’t expect is to be told that he was wearing the wrong shoes and they aren’t helping him at all except financially. The programme decided to visit ONE study showing that the use of customised trainers didn’t reduce injury rates compared to those not needing them. On the surface this sounds bad but let’s explore it further.
First, if someone’s running mechanics mean they don’t require any extra heel or foot support then that is great as it means their running pattern allows them to run both injury free and to a high level of performance. On the other hand, those who do need support from their running shoes would presumably have the kind of imperfect mechanics that makes them more prone to injury surely?
Given that we then create in the second group the same conditions enjoyed by the first, which is correcting their faulty movement patterns using customised trainers to offset their poor running mechanics, surely we would hope that their injury rates would match those of the first group?
Well, that is actually what the study showed but, in a staggering display of not understanding sports science at all, this was construed by the programme as meaning that the customised shoes were ineffective. Even though they had given the latter group the same success in avoiding injury as the first group this was taken to mean that it was a bad thing, as if a customised shoe should show less injuries compared to the injury rates enjoyed by those with perfect bio-mechanics. This is absurd as the whole point surely is to allow the group with a dysfunctional running style to run with no more risk of injury than that enjoyed by the group who had a perfect running gait.
The show attacked Puma for showing no supporting evidence for their shoes’ performance merits (world records run by Bolt not counting here apparently), although it failed to say what runners such as Bolt should run in until later in the show.
You could see that nobody on the show had any sporting expertise when they then made the point that some recent research and treadmill analysis had shown the benefits of running barefoot and ergo, this meant barefoot running was superior to running in trainers. Let’s analyse that for a second.
No runner has ever set a world record barefoot.
Many of the great African runners grew up running barefoot and continued to do so even when professional.
In the end, even among those Africans without contracts with shoe companies (the vast majority of them don’t have sponsorship deals such is their strength in depth) they all end up adopting running shoes.
Despite this abundant empirical evidence with the world’s greatest ever runners, the programme somehow touted the opinion that westerners with no running expertise, who are more likely to be out of shape, and with a running style unadapted to barefoot running, should run this way even as those who grew up running this way abandon it.
A final point to make on the running barefoot trend.
Go to a running track and attempt to run 100m pace barefoot, or even in shoes modelled on barefoot running, and see how it goes. Even though some endurance runners use minimalist shoes, you will see that it is entirely unsuitable to running at maximum pace on a hard track due to the tremendous impact forces sustained when running at maximal speed. The fact that literally not a single sprinter ever has tried this style of running might have served as a clue to Panorama but apparently not.
Clearly Usain Bolt should get rid of his shoes and go barefoot, preferably with a glass of water and a jam jar at his side.
Dehydration blah blah blah
I don’t know why the show spent so long trying to prove the point that you should only drink when you are thirsty. I don’t know of too many who would disagree really although implying over consumption of water, or any drink, can be deadly was a ridiculous argument. The fact that there have been no reported issues with those drinking while training showed just how desperate the programme was getting, literally clutching at straws to construct a ridiculous strawman argument with the point of saying what? I still don’t have the foggiest idea.
Supplements get a shelling
Finally, at long last, the programme turned its turrets onto supplements and concluded that only two ingredients had peer proven research supporting them, namely creatine and caffeine. Leaving aside the copious research on the likes of beta alanine, protein powders, nitrates, free form amino acids and others, the show singled out Branched Chain Amino Acids, which quite literally must have more supportive research behind them than just about any other nutrient.
Instead the show stated that protein powder was an expensive way to get in milk (actually milk is more expensive but let’s ignore that for now), ignoring the fact that milk is predominantly sugar and fat, as opposed to protein, making it more of a meal replacement in the way our customers would understand. This fallacy also missed out the key point that whey protein can both superior to milk protein in certain situations, while ignoring the issues many would have with milk in terms of it having excessive calories on a diet if used as a protein source. This is to say nothing of the digestive issues many would experience if the had to drink litres of it daily.
In the segment on supplements it again ignored the empirical evidence in favour of the lab. Even then, their understanding of the research was hardly thorough. In fairness to the show there are many supplements out there which are relatively untested and some have indeed been shown to be ineffective.
A bigger issue which the show highlighted is the lack of testing on new ingredients. Unfortunately, the problem faced by many supplement companies is that clinical trials cost way more than what almost any company can afford, and even if results are positive they come with twin side effects of first, making it more likely the ingredient gets regulated, and second, a greater likelihood that the company coming out and running the trial gets its product ripped off. It is important to remember that unlike the trials pharmaceutical companies pay for, there is no patent on an ingredient once a study is conducted. All you get out of it is some positive marketing followed by loss of sales and a potential ban.
Having said that, the fact the show ignored the voluminous amount of research on effective compounds with a lot of research behind them was mystifying. Even more strange is that, as with the case with sports drinks and shoes, the show completely ignored the considerable empirical evidence available to them.
Summing the programme up:
Sugar is bad except in food
Water is a better choice than carbs for fuelling training
Athletes shouldn’t be allowed in supermarkets
Everyone should take their shoes off
Drink water but if you drink when you are not thirsty prepare your funeral now
Don’t take supplements but if you still want 80 grams of protein a day from dairy sources go ahead and drink over a gallon of milk a day
The sad truth is that this show could have been much better and with a more balanced view of the issues it would have been worth a much more thorough review.
At Predator Nutrition we don’t particularly recommend anyone drink a load of sports drinks unless engaged in endurance activity and nor would I buy into fads for the sake of it. There was the potential for a rigorous debate between different groups of sports scientists but all this was missed.
The programme completely ignored the fact that some carbohydrates will refill glycogen faster than others while others will actually have a glycemic index more akin to starchy compounds (the debate on glycemic index is another issue altogether though).
When discussing supplements it referred back to research from 1932 which was bizarre as it gave the misleading impression that companies were using outdated research to support their product claims. It completely ignored masses of research published more recently, and perhaps most damningly of all, did not speak to an single elite athlete to support their view apart from somebody with a history of eccentric behaviour.
As a publicly funded organisation, the BBC should be ashamed for producing such a biased, one sided, inaccurate, not to mention misleading television programme.
Rather than being titled The truth about sports products, a more apt description might have been “This is what happens when powerful lobbies work together to produce a programme designed to encourage public support for a government tax on sports nutrition products to take the heat off an inept and underperforming government”.
© 2012, Reggie Johal. All rights reserved.