A few months ago, a young man from Kolkata whose dreams of a perfect body had ended in agony lodged a complaint with the police. He was admitted to Apollo Gleneagles Hospital for swelling in his neck and breathing difficulty after having taken a protein supplement recommended by his trainer at the neighbourhood gym. He was promised it would give him six packs in two months and a 10-kilo weight loss. Instead, the gullible would-be Mr. India was taken to a super speciality hospital in Hyderabad from Kolkata for treating further complications.
A recent Assocham study concluded that 60-70 percent of dietary supplements being sold in India are spurious, unregistered and unapproved. Forty percent of the Indian dietary supplement market comprises vitamins and minerals followed by 30 percent of herbal supplements, 10 percent of probiotics, 5 percent of omega-3 fatty acids, 15 percent of proteins, amino acids and other supplements. These come in the form of tablets, capsules, soft gels, gel caps, liquids and powders that are sold over the counter in unregulated fashion.
The Indian market for dietary supplements is currently around $2 billion and could double by 2020. Walk into any chemist and ask for training supplements; chances are the dispenser will point at shelves packed with rows of attractively labeled and packaged foreign jars that promise muscle growth, endurance and strength with whey protein, nitric oxide, creatine, betaine and other muscle building energy-boosting chemicals.
Doctors are worried. “Of 100 patients with AVN (avascular necrosis), 5-7 percent cases are due to the intake of steroids,” says Dr. KK Mishra, a senior orthopaedic surgeon at Primus Hospital, Delhi. AVN is a condition where bone tissues are damaged and die because of non-supply of blood causing joint fractures. “Excess protein is bad for the body. The result can be kidney malfunctioning and other complications,” says Dr. Shreekant Sharma, senior medicine consultant at Moolchand Hospital, Delhi. After the Kolkata youth’s complaint, food inspectors and health officers cracked down on gyms operating without proper licenses and trained inspectors.
“People aged between 20 and 50 come to us complaining of weakness, muscle pain, sudden weight gain and ugly blots on their skin. These are early symptoms of steroids misuse,” adds Dr. Mishra. Further intake will lead to genital atrophy and swelling, sexual dysfunction, sterility and other complications. Too much protein is not safe either. Hyderabad-based holistic nutritionist Sridevi Jasthi says, “Over-intake of protein will lead to excess lactic acid production, more than the body can take.”
The Kolkata boy is comparatively lucky. Last year, a young Bengaluru boy died after taking supplements recommended by his local instructor. Dr. Hari Kishan Boorugu, consultant physician, Apollo Hospitals, Hyderabad, says, “The amount of intake in most cases goes unchecked. This may lead to disturbed levels of uric acid which can lead to liver and kidney issues.” Though the gyms are full of young women in spandex tights and running shoes pounding the treadmills and moving the elliptical cycles, the pressure on young men to look good makes them consume steroids and protein supplements indiscriminately. Fashion trends support the image of the lean and mean dating machine.
The sale of slim-fit clothes for men at the apparel store chain Lifestyle International reportedly is 80 percent of their inventory while Arvind Lifestyle Brands has an annual growth rate in this segment of 30 percent. Young men like Delhi businessman Rajesh Dhingra fit the slim-fit user’s profile. He fell in love last year and proposed to Sujita (name changed) who worked out at the same gym in an upmarket Delhi mall. But his girlfriend wanted him to get a Salman Khan body by their wedding day.
With his erratic working hours and the late night partying, Rajesh didn’t have enough time to put into exercise. Until a friend suggested steroids and multivitamins as a shortcut. Rajesh’s muscle mass started to build up. He was getting decent-sized biceps. But alongside, his blood pressure began to spike. He was becoming aggressive and losing hair. Sujita was not sure anymore she wanted to marry him. “One day I had a blackout while pumping iron and my gym buddies took me to the hospital. It was a steroid complication. I was lucky it was caught in time,” he says. Sujita and he have broken up. Hyderabad-based professional bodybuilder and celebrity trainer Afzalpaasha Mohammad says, “There’s a misconception that the only way to have a ripped body is to succumb to supplements.”
This is young India now. Social media exposure and net connectivity have exposed the young Indian to innumerable fashion, cosmetic and health trends. Gympik, India’s largest fitness discovery platform, reveals the value of the Indian fitness industry is over 4,500 crore and climbing. Sagar Pednekar, technical training head, Gold’s Gym India, started on the muscular road in 2007 when a buffed-up member of the gym where he was working as a trainer refused his help for a bench press since Sagar weighed only 55 kg. In six months, Sagar took his weight to 75 kg through an extensive protein diet that included 30 eggs a day, 1 kg of chicken, four apples, five sweet potatoes and other natural proteins.
He tabulates three types of bodybuilding protein supplements:
• Isolate, a complete protein that contains all essential amino acids which the body requires.
• Concentrate supplements that have high levels of amino acids that boost the levels of bioactive compounds and carbohydrates.
• Blend protein, consisting of various protein sources.
The ace trainer warns of the danger of taking anabolic supplements: “These are basically foreign agents injected into the body and could lead to kidney dysfunction, impotency, heart attacks and strokes. Since they are artificially produced hormones, they obstruct the natural functioning of the body. Because of the addictives in them, users are hooked.”
Another Gold’s Gym trainer and weightlifter, Kochi-based 27-year-old Relinraj, who takes a scoop of protein supplement powder daily, has a contrarian view. “You can get it naturally from egg whites and sprouts, but I need more.”
From the traditional akhadas to neighbourhood gyms, personal trainers and customised fitness plans, the Indian body building scene has expanded to international levels. Young muscle builders are vying for IFBB professional status and Olympia titles from bikini to super heavyweight. Last year, India’s first Olympia Amateur event was hosted in Mumbai, and body building federations are sponsoring more events.
The Indian Body Builders Federation, certified by the Union Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports and other international bodies, has organized over 50 Mr. India contests. Yearly ticketed events such as Fitex India, Musclemania, and BodyPower India Expo are held in major Indian metros. It’s at events like these supplement companies and fitness equipment manufacturers meet new customers. Besides, there are custom fitness plans for aspiring bodybuilders like the Kris Gethin Muscle Building trainer, available through All Access, Bodybuilding.com.
A Thamim, a trainer with the 02 Health Studio in Chennai, says that supplements can cause palpitation, hormonal imbalance, shivering, hair fall and restless sleep. Adds Ramya Ramachandran, Chennai-based dietitian: “According to the Australian Sports Anti-Doping Authority, almost one in five supplements contains banned substances.”
Aminder Singh, founder, Team Aminder Online Training Programme, points out that over the years the number of teens facing complications because of supplements misuse has gone up. “Each month we receive queries from at least 25 to 30 teenagers who are keen to build a muscular body fast. Every second person uses shortcuts. Unfortunately, many training centres are openly using anabolic steroids to lure such desperate clients while earning quick money with cuts from distributors and manufacturers,” adds Aminder. Never buy from gyms, advises Dr. Mishra, “Many gyms add steroids in their protein supplements for quick results and to impress customers.”
Indiscriminate internet health and medical advice are playing havoc with body shapers. Says Dr. Anup Dhir, senior consultant and cosmetic surgeon, Apollo Hospital, Delhi: “Many people ignore doctors because they think all information is available on the web.” The muscle mantra is no pain, no gain. After an excessive workout supplemented by unregulated supplement intake, many get pain in their muscles and joints, and take painkillers. “Painkiller addiction can be deadly. In serious cases, you may need emergency treatment,” cautions Dr. Dhir.
It’s not just men who want to add muscle to their lives. Lalitha Laxman, female bodybuilder and fitness consultant at SQUATS Diet and Fitness Centre in Bengaluru, remembers her journey. “I was looking for the most effective and quickest way to lose fat and get a toned body. My research led me to weight training. My waist dropped from 34 to 24 inches.” Lalitha agrees with Aminder that with the right diet, no supplements other than a multivitamin and a teaspoon of fish oil daily are necessary. Including a variety of fruits and veggies along with fatty fish twice a week is her mantra. “The more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism,” she says.
There are conflicting views among different professionals on steroid abuse. Shweta Mehta, the Roadies Rising winner (2017), doesn’t find anything wrong in them. “Every woman should take supplements since we don’t get enough from our food,” she says. Two-time Mr. India Runner-up from Bhubaneswar, Janmejaya Mohanty believes only home-cooked food does not make a bodybuilder. “You require the support of supplements,” says he. Sports physio Mukti Prasad Dash expresses concern, “Youth today want to have bulging muscles within a few months. While treating bodybuilders in Bhubaneswar, the common problems I’ve observed are liver disorders, skin problems, low immunity and osteopenia. Then I come to know they are consuming different supplements and anabolic steroids without expert guidance.”
Shweta, however, listens to her coach’s advice on supplements dosage and gets regular health checkups twice a year. She stunned judges and the audience when she did squats with cricketer Harbhajan Singh mounted on her shoulders in a reality show. Kochi-based fitness trainer Shibin PV says, “Suppose you need 100 grams of protein, you will only get 2 or 3 grams from an egg white. The calculation is 2 grams of protein for every kilo of body weight for weightlifters. So you have to take food supplements.” But bodybuilding coach and secretary of Odisha Bodybuilding Association Babuli Swain says, “There is no quick-fix to shore up muscles.”
A Danish study done by Copenhagen University Hospital indicates an overdose of antioxidants in the form of vitamin A, E and beta-carotene increases mortality by about 4 percent. Another study from Denmark finds that a high level of vitamin D is linked to increased risk of certain cancers. However, India is experiencing a vitamin crisis.
Seven-year-old boy Raman (name changed) was diagnosed with fatigue, loss of appetite, weight loss and a few hormonal problems. “Tests revealed he had hypervitaminosis D (higher levels of vitamin D). His parents had put him on a longtime regular dose without consulting a doctor. Excess deposits created various complications,” says Dr Durga Prasad, senior paediatrician at Apollo Hospital, Hyderabad.
A recent survey by National Institute of Nutrition indicates almost 50 percent of children and adults are deficient in minerals and vitamins such as iron, folate-B9, calcium, vitamin A, riboflavin-B2, thiamin-B1 and vitamin C. Another study by Metropolis Healthcare of Chennai shows 75 percent of Indians are low in three vital vitamins namely vitamin D, B12, and B9 (folic acid). “Popping pills without advice from doctors is a primary cause for hypervitaminosis,” says said Dr. Priyanka Rohatgi, senior nutritionist, Apollo Hospital, Bengaluru. “Five percent of every 100 patients have complications related to excess vitamin D. Overdose-related complications of vitamin B12 are seen in 5-7 percent cases. Eight to 10 percent of patients aged above 40 years suffer from excess calcium intake,” she adds.
From January, the Food Safety and Standards Association of India has enforced standards for eight categories of health supplements and nutraceuticals as the first important step to ensure food regulations, labeling and stop misuse. For the Kolkata man and Rajesh Dhingra, this may have come a bit late. But for others who vie for the perfect body with unregulated diet supplements and unprofessional advice, it could not have come sooner.
With inputs from Ayesha Singh, Meera Bhardwaj, Tanmay Das, Shevlin Sebastian, Sujitha J and Palaparthi Srividya