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Spa food: How Safe?

By Sherry Kughn
News Bureau

April 7, 2004 -- Shakes and power bars sold at the spa are packaged as prettily as candy. Their labels state that consumers can use them to more effectively lose weight, gain muscle and increase stamina. Spa food is convenient, often sold straight from the cooler in the form of shakes and drinks or sold from the counter as a nutrition bar. But is the spa a place qualified to offer nutritional advice?


Staff writer Sherry Kughn is a Jacksonville State University graduate student majoring in English. She works in the JSU News Bureau through the Graduate Assistantship program. She has 12 years news experience at The Anniston Star and served for five years as The Star’s executive secretary. Sherry can be reached at

Shakes and power bars should not be used to substitute for a well-balanced diet consisting of complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products.

- Dr. Tim Roberts

"Shakes and power bars should not be used to substitute for a well-balanced diet consisting of complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products," said Dr. Tim Roberts, a Jacksonville State University assistant professor of Family and Consumer Sciences. "These products tend to be high in protein and may serve as a 'quick' energy source following periods of moderate to intense exercise."

Most shakes and power bars consist of whey protein, eggs, and/or soy protein for the purpose of building muscle after exercise. In addition, simple carbohydrates (sugars) are added as an energy source for the body's cells with vitamins and minerals aiding in the metabolic process. The ratio of proteins to carbohydrate varies among the various brands, and both tend to be okay for the consumer.

A dangerous scenario, though, may occur when a diabetic has uncontrolled blood sugar (blood sugar levels are not within normal range 80 to 120 mg/dl), according to Roberts. For instance, if a diabetic's blood sugar were to drop too low during exercise, the individual could exhibit nausea, cold sweats, dizziness and even coma. Therefore, individuals should always monitor their blood sugar before, during, and after exercise.

The balance between blood sugars, exercise, and food intake should never place a person into a "yo-yo" situation, said Roberts. The diabetic who is careless with their medication and their sugar intake, and the person who is unaware they are diabetic can get into a situation where their blood sugar goes up too high and then down too low. This might cause an out-of-control situation that could have devastating results.

Spa food is similar to other "nutrition" foods sold in health section of grocery, department, and specialty stores. They often contain chemicals, herbs or added vitamins that might cause contradictions with medications and/or food allergies. Common herbs are sometimes added to processed foods. One example is the flavoring of the herb licorice. It can raise blood pressure and counteract the effects of drugs used to treat hypertension. People taking blood pressure medications might want to check labels before eating any processed food. Ginseng is a stimulant that might increase a person's stamina, but it can also raise the blood pressure and cause the side effect of anxiety.

Care needs to be taken, too, because the health food industry grew quickly. In 1997 the entire sport nutrition industry was about $1 billion and by 2002 it was $6 billion. Regulating and testing each product is an overwhelming task, and the consumer should realize that not all the effects of supplements and their combinations may be fully understood. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994 boosted the responsibility of the supplement food industry by requiring labels for each product and requiring the listing of essential nutrients in those food substances, such things as garlic, fish oils, psyllium, enzymes, and glandulars.

The DSHEA also requires companies to state whether the product should be taken as a pill, tablet, or liquid; whether it should be labeled as a dietary supplement; and whether it contains one or more of the following ingredients: a vitamin, a mineral, an amino acid, or a "concentrate, metabolite, constituent, extract, or combinations of these ingredients."

Brandi Green, a registered/licensed dietician and co-owner of Nutrition Challenge, Inc., in Oxford, says too much protein consumed from any source might be dangerous. "Protein is broken down by the kidneys," she said. "If a person is eating extreme amounts and not drinking enough water, too much protein can lead to kidney damage."

How much protein is enough? The size of a person and their lifestyle is the consideration. The average person, though, on a normal diet, should consume about one ounce of protein for breakfast, about three ounces for lunch and about three ounces for the evening meal. Proteins vary widely in fat content, too, said Green, and lean proteins are better. The non-dieting person should watch the intake of too many fatty proteins, such as cheeses, some forms of beef and pork. Even chicken and fish, if fried, can add too much fat to the diet. Spa food, too, can contain as much or more fat as natural foods.

Green said buying spa food is convenient but a little too expensive. She said she sometimes carries nutritious snacks to eat on the way home from working out, such as peanut butter crackers or half a sandwich. "People can certainly get the same nutrition from other foods," she said.

A sampling of the expense of spa foods at a local health spa show nutrition bars cost $1.75 to $2.25. Nutrition shakes costs $2.25 to $3.25. Bottled water costs $1.75. Foods made or packaged at home costs a fraction of that cost.

The average sports nutrition product (spa food) may or may not be effective for the average consumer in reaching their goals of losing weight, building muscle, and increasing stamina, nor will they harm the healthy consumer. They are pricey and should be consumed with caution by those who are less than in the best of health.

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