Articles Tagged with: Blog

Should you get your Vitamin D from sunlight or diet?


The question

Vitamin D is absolutely integral to human health! This vital ‘nutrient’ provides many benefits to the body. Even though we still refer to it as a vitamin or a nutrient, the vast majority (approximately 90%) of active vitamin D3 in the body is produced when our skin is exposed to sunlight. So that’s it then, we should get our vitamin D from sunlight, debate over! Not so fast! This topic is a little more nuanced than that. Sufficient, effective sun exposure on a regular basis can be tricky to achieve. It is certainly possible to consume vitamin D from the diet, but there are only a very limited number of food sources that contain sufficient amounts to meet daily requirements. As a result of these 2 key issues, it is now estimated that 40-75% of the world’s population is vitamin D deficient! (1) That´s right – you could be one of the 7 out of 10 people with low vitamin D, so read on to learn how to resolve this. 

Functions of vitamin D

Firstly why do we need vitamin D? Scientific studies have shown that vitamin D is needed for and supports a wide range of health-related functions: (2)

  • Necessary for bone strength by aiding the absorption of calcium, phosphorus and magnesium to lay down new bone tissue
  • Helps to regulate vascular health and may positively influence blood pressure
  • Stimulates insulin secretion from the pancreas and may reduce diabetes
  • Supports both infectious and inflammatory immune system response
  • Potent antioxidant properties with some research suggesting potential for anticarcinogenic properties and reduced cancer mortality
  • Supports oestrogen production, may help to regulate the menstrual cycle and reduce symptoms of PMT
  • Has beneficial effects on the brain and may reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia

Vitamin D from sunlight

If sunlight exposure is the primary method of receiving up to 90% of this incredibly important nutrient, then we really should understand more about the complex relationship between sunlight and human exposure.

Standing outside on a bright sunny day, feeling the warmth of the sun on your skin, is a prized experience in the colder climates both north and south of the tropical and sub-tropical regions of the world, especially after a long winter season. Whereas for those living in the relentless heat of the tropical zones, it is an ongoing, daily battle to keep cool and avoid sunburn with much less fluctuation across the seasons!

Exposure to the rays of the sun (UVB wavelength) is known to help generate vitamin D through the conversion of a naturally occurring precursor under the skin called 7-dehydrocholesterol (7-DHC). This is converted into pre-vitamin D3, which is then rearranged into the active form of vitamin D3.

The standard guidelines indicate that the body needs a minimum of 20-25 mcg or 800-1000 IU of vitamin D per day. Although, it must be noted that reaching this minimal nutrient status is a different matter to preventing all adverse effects from insufficent vitamin D. A group of scientists in the vitamin D research community are advocating a daily requirement 4 times higher at 4000 IU per day to ensure optimal health effects (1). However, reaching this level of vitamin D from sunlight alone on a hot summer’s day would likely lead to sunburn for lighter skinned people.

Sunlight stimulates the conversion to vitamin D3

How much vitamin D is actually produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight depends upon a range of factors, including:

  • Time of day
  • Season of the year
  • Geographical latitude
  • Altitude
  • Length of sunlight exposure
  • How much skin is directly exposed to the sun
  • The colour or pigmentation of the skin

Time and season

Both the time of day and the season of the year make a difference to our ability to get vitamin D from sunlight exposure. This is related to the angle of the sun’s UV rays passing through the earth’s atmosphere and also the proximity of our geographical location on the globe to the sun itself.

The changing path of the sun in the sky throughout a day

In the early morning and late evening, the suns rays shine upon us at a sharper angle, causing them to pass through a greater distance of the earth’s atmosphere. The atmosphere helps filter the suns rays reducing Ultraviolet intensity (UVI). Lower UVI at these times of day means less conversion of 7-DHC to active vitamin D3 as well as less chance of sunburn. Conversely, the higher the sun is in the sky, the more direct the sun’s rays are in relation to our location. This means less distance to pass through the atmosphere, higher UVI and more rapid conversion of 7-DHC to vitamin D3, but also a much faster sunburn time too.

The earth spins around a central axis point, however, that axis is not vertical, it sits at a titled angle of 23.5 degrees in relation to its orbit around the sun. It is this tilted axis that gives earth its annual seasons. The northern and southern hemispheres gradually change in their position to the sun, being closer in the summertime and further away in the wintertime. This change in distance between the earth’s surface and the sun alters the length of day and the peak UVI. The UVI at midday in the summer will be much higher than UVI during winter midday. As already stated a reduced UVI will affect the rate of conversion to vitamin D3. It has been well documented that vitamin D deficiency rates are higher in winter months. (3) In the temperate and frigid zones of the earth, above and below 42 degrees latitude, there will be periods during winter (approximately November to February) when it will be very difficult to convert any 7-DHC to vitamin D3 at all, due to limited UVB radiation that can reach the earth’s surface.

Sunlight exposure and UVI changes across seasons

Latitude and altitude

In addition to the time of day and season of the year, the latitude on the earth’s surface will also play a part in the angle of the sun’s rays through the atmosphere. The further north or south an individual is positioned on the planet, the more atmosphere sunlight will need to pass through and the lower the UVI will be relative to equatorial zones at the same time of year.


The ozone layer is the portion of the earth’s atmosphere that largely protects us from the strong UVB rays that cause sunburn and stimulate vitamin D conversion. Some UVB does still makes it through the ozone into the atmosphere below (troposphere). The higher the altitude above sea level, the greater the UVI will be due to the thinner atmosphere present at that location to help filter UVB rays. UVB radiation increases approximately 7% every 1000m in elevation above sea level (4). As a general rule, higher altitudes result in cooler temperatures, but conversely higher altitudes also mean a higher risk of sunburn due to increased UVB exposure. The higher UVI at altitude also speeds up the conversion process so that more vitamin D is formed in less sunlight exposure time.

Higher altitude leads to greater UVB exposure

Length of time and amount of skin exposed

Body surface areas – rule of 9’s

Regardless of the time of year or the geographical position on planet earth, the length of exposure time to the sun’s UVB rays is directly correlated to a greater opportunity to covert 7-DHC to vitamin D3. But this time of exposure for vitamin D production must be balanced carefully against the risk of burning the skin and causing damage as a result. The skin coverage of the clothing we choose to wear and the colour of an individual’s skin will also play an important part in determining the time exposed to UVB necessary to reach our daily vitamin D from sunlight requirement. The image below will provide some guidance regarding the percentage of skin exposed to sunlight based on which body parts are clothed or not.

The general guidance offered is to expose 18% of the body (face, arms and ahands) to the summer sun around mid-morning or mid-afternoon for 6-10 minutes in order to stimulate the conversion of up to 1000 IU of vitamin D. In the winter times this exposure may need to be increased up to 45 minutes. Well, at least these general guidelines apply to sub-tropical and temperate zones and lighter-skinned people. These rules will need to be adapted for hotter tropical zones and darker-skinned people.

Skin pigmentation

Fitzpatrick skin type classification

The natural pigment in human skin, called melanin, is present in varying amounts and gives rise to the different shades and colours of skin across the human population. Melanin absorbs and prevents UVB from passing through the skin layers. This helps to reduce the risk of sunburn and skin damage, but it also means that less vitamin D from sunlight is produced under the skin of those with higher melanin levels. There are 6 types according to the Fitzpatrick skin type categories. Type 1 is the lightest skin through to type 6 the darkest pigmentation. It is estimated that darker-skinned people may require 3-6 times longer sun exposure to produce the same relative vitamin D as lighter-skinned individuals.

Dietary vitamin D

So where does dietary vitamin D fit in after this extensive focus on sunlight exposure and all its compounding variables? Firstly, it should be quite obvious that getting enough vitamin D from the sun during the warmer summer months should be relatively easy to achieve with daily, fairly short outdoor sun exposure, even for those with darker skin. The summer is the least likely time to experience vitamin D deficiency.

It is the winter season when dietary sources of vitamin D become a very important contributor to maintaining our levels of this beneficial nutrient. The increased risk of vitamin D winter deficiency can be offset by carefully planning some simple inclusions in your diet. This is especially important for those living in the temperate and frigid zones, above and below 42 degrees latitude north or south.

Tropical, Temperate, and Frigid Zones on Earth

Vitamin D is a fat-soluble nutrient, meaning it is only available within naturally occurring foods that have sufficient amounts of fat contained within them. The richest sources being primarily from fish and shellfish. Some food sources may be fortified with vitamin D (synthetic form added), but keep an eye out for the addition of the less effective, cheaper vitamin D2 form, instead of the more beneficial active vitamin D3 form.

Top 10 naturally occurring food sources of Vitamin D

Cod liver oil has been used as a nutritional supplement for hundreds of years, especially in the colder, temperate countries in the northern hemisphere. Whilst science now understands the benefits of omega 3 fats and vitamin D, perhaps traditional wisdom had worked out there was something good in this particular oil that helped them weather the physically challenging winter months a little better. Cod liver oil is a food ‘supplement’ and whilst it is the richest source per 100g, it will usually only be consumed 1-2 tablespoons (15-30ml) per day. This small amount will still deliver 1500-3000 IU so is a useful additional source of vitamin D.

A few commonly consumed foods, not sourced from the oceans, that provide smaller amounts of vitamin D include egg yolks (2.6 mcg/100g), butter (1.4 mcg/100g), and beef liver (1.1 mcg/100g). These fatty, naturally occurring foods will help contribute small, but beneficial amounts to our personal vitamin D reservoir during the short days and longer nights of winter.

If the above foods are difficult to source or just not to your taste preferences, then the use of supplementation may be warranted during winter months. In 2011 researchers at Bastyr University in California ran a study comparing vitamin D3 supplementation in 3 different forms; oil drops, capsules or chewable tablets. They showed that when taking high doses of 10,000 IU (250 mcg) of vitamin D3 daily for 12 weeks, all 3 forms proved to be both safe and effective, and significantly increased levels in the blood (6). The recommended daily intake varies depending upon the organisation you choose to rely upon from 1000 IU (25 mcg) to 4000 IU (100 mcg) per day.

Conclusion: Vitamin D from sunlight or diet

So as it turns out, it is not a matter of sunlight versus diet in the vitamin D stakes. Both have their place throughout the seasons of the year. When the sun does makes an appearance during the spring, summer, and autumn seasons we should seek to enjoy some regular exposure on our skin to allow for natural vitamin D formation. Not only it is good for our biology, it is also good for the mind and emotions to get outside and bathe in sunlight. If we get sufficient sunlight during the warmer months, supplementation will not be necessary at that time of year.

  • Between 6-20 minutes of summer sunlight for skin types 1 – 3, between 20-45 minutes for skin types 4 – 6 of summer sunlight – the variation will depend on the time of day, season, temperature, latitude, and altitude.
  • 18% (face, hands and arms) to 36% (face, hands, arms & legs) of the skin’s surface should be exposed to sunlight.
  • Sunlight for vitamin D should not be hindered by sunscreen, which potentially blocks the UVB rays we need to facilitate vitamin D conversion.
  • If your shadow is longer than you are tall, then the UVI is lower and slightly longer time in the sun will be required, if your shadow is shorter than you are tall then UVI is higher and shorter times in the sun are advised.
  • Sun exposure to get sufficient vitamin D will not require any reddening or burning of the skin.
  • If exposure to the sun will go beyond the individualised time limit for optimal vitamin D, then it would be appropriate to cover the body with clothing or to utilise a thorough covering of sunscreen to prevent sunburn.

During the winter months when sunlight is rare, we must then become more dependent upon natural dietary sources of vitamin D from cod liver oil, fish and seafood. If this is not practical and you want to be certain, then also including a good quality vitamin D3 supplement to ensure our physiological needs are met may be an important strategy during the colder months of the year.








If you enjoyed reading this blog or have your own thoughts or opinions on the subject, then please comment below. Please visit our blog archive for more great reads. You may also want to watch some of the expert interviews via the Fit to Succeed podcast.


Big News! Accredited fitness education online

We are very pleased to announce that our 5-star rated, online personal training course has now been recognised by the international fitness standards organisation, Europe Active! We can now state with some pleasure that we offer professionally accredited fitness education.


In fact, we are the very first training provider across all of Europe to successfully demonstrate that we can meet all the rigorous theoretical, practical, and assessment standards required by Europe Active through the use of a purely online learning model of delivery. By developing innovative online learning together with expert, personal tutors supporting our students, we have finally cracked it! We were able to build upon the earlier success of our parent company, Keilir Academy, who received Europe Active accreditation in 2017 for their blended learning, online/face-to-face IAK personal trainer certification programme.

Europe Active Accredited PT course standards

It has taken a huge amount of work to break this new ground, as Europe Active, quite rightly, wanted to be sure that students taking our personal training course were not at any disadvantage compared to those who choose a more typical face-to-face learning approach. The Nordic Personal Training Certificate offers an exceptional opportunity to become a skilled, internationally recognised fitness professional regardless of your location across Europe. This is especially helpful to those who live outside of the big cities and towns who may have found it difficult to attend a face-to-face training course, where the majority of training providers within the fitness industry are located. We are proud to have proven beyond any doubt that we provide a truly effective learning journey for our current and future students who embark on our accredited fitness education.

Approved EREPs logo

All our Nordic Personal Training Certificate graduates are now eligible to be registered on the European Register of Exercise Professionals (EREP’s). This provides each graduate with professional recognition for their personal training certification across numerous European states and with each of the EREP’s national partners, which includes REP’s organisations in Russia, Australia, the United States, India, and the Middle East.

EREPs courses by country March 2020

Find out more about our high quality, accredited fitness education and online personal trainer course by visiting the NPTC course page.

Did you know, 74% of PT’s rate their job as highly satisfying? Start your journey to become a personal trainer and experience a job that you enjoy every day.

Read all our independent reviews from certified students on TrustPilot.


Top 3 Principles to become a successful online student


Whilst taking an online course can be a great idea, becoming a successful online student may require a little more self-discipline and self-organisation than working as a student in a live, in-person learning environment. In this blog, we highlight the 3 primary principles and a range of important habits associated with successfully achieving within an online learning environment. 

Principle 1: Motive

The first and foremost principle for success on any course of study is to leverage a proper motive to learn. It is possible to find a true motive in a wide range of ideas and rationale, but when there is a key personal driver that underpins a choice to further your education this can really help. Try to find value in the current topic you are learning and why it matters and applies to you personally. Write down a clear ‘big-picture’ goal that creates a passion and determination to achieve each time it is viewed can help provide a real kick any time you find motivation waning. Chart your successes, no matter how small. Record each time you master a new concept or pass a short online quiz. It is important to see how far you have come as well as the remaining work required. Many online learning platforms may well provide clear tracking of completion and assessment successes to help you see your achievements. 4 motive-related habits to develop are:

  • Find personal value in what you are currently learning
  • Set your goal to mastering the content and skills
  • Take daily steps that create self-belief in your ability to learn
  • Feel the challenge of success, not the fear of failure

Principle 2: Opportunity

A big part of being successful in education is to ensure that you can carve out the necessary opportunity, to begin with. Being able to assess your own time availability, current commitments, stress levels, and willpower is an important part of being successful. You may well have the ability to learn and develop new skills, but if life is too busy, you have over-committed yourself, or you are under huge stress, no amount of inherent learning skill will make up for a lack of opportunity to actually invest in education in the first place. Understanding your own learning style and pace of learning is also helpful. An online module may recommend 50 hours of learning for a typical student, but if you know you from past experience that you take 10-20% more time to absorb the knowledge and master the skills, then it is important to account for this in your personal scheduling of time.

Prioritizing study time to be fixed at a time of day with minimal distraction is important. As online study is completed on a computer, tablet or phone, this can mean that you may be open to receive messages, emails, and social media notifications that can easily side-track your focus on a regular basis. Research has shown that for every distraction that pulls you away from a learning task, it takes even more time to then switch back and re-focus again on the learning material. Many modern computers/devices may have a ‘focus-assist’ setting which blocks notifications and messages to minimise unwanted distractions during a study period. Television should be off and mobile phones switched to ‘Do not disturb’ to allow better focus on coursework in order to be a successful online student.

Learning tends to be more successful when spread out over several shorter sessions, rather than one very long, intense session. Whilst some people feel they are highly focused and can get in the ‘zone’ for long study sessions, research has shown that up to 90% of the content from a very long study session can be dimmed from memory within the next 7 days. Shorter 20-40 minute topical sessions can be more effective at improving longer-term memory of the information learned.

Scientific research has also shown that stress is the thief of memory, so look to ensure that you are not feeling stressed or under pressure when trying to learn information. Perhaps a reason why last-minute ‘cramming’ is not always a very successful approach to learning. 4 habits to maximise the opportunity to learn are:

  • Create and plan for a clear time to learn
  • Space out study time across several shorter sessions
  • Protect your study time and take measures to avoid distractions
  • Clear your mind of stress and worry beforehand

Principle 3: Means

Once motivation is in place, and learning opportunities have been planned and created, it is then important to ensure you provide the means for learning to take place by understanding effective learning methods. A good online learning course should be structured in such a way as to already provide many of the varied means to support your learning preferences. Good online learning should include visual, auditory and kinesthetic methods, such as video, audio, reading, writing, software interaction, problem-solving, physical practice, self-testing, quizzing etc. However, the student can take many steps themselves to help improve their chances of learning and understanding course materials. The following 8 habits may really help to improve student actions to maximise online learning:

  • Re-watch or re-read material that needs clarification if not fully understood the first time
  • Highlight course notes or summarise the main points as a first step to learning the content
  • Create brief revision flashcards to self-test and review key concepts
  • Record key content in your own words to help translate information into more familiar language and terminology 
  • Create visual knowledge maps or drawings to help condense information and enhance visual memory recall
  • Explain freshly learned content to someone else and have them restate what you taught – check against notes/course content for accuracy
  • Record yourself explaining the learning content to camera or over audio then listen back for accuracy checked against notes or course materials
  • Where appropriate engage in practical, hands-on activities and tasks to improve learning through kinesthetic means. 

Conclusion: Being a successful online student

These 3 primary principles of learning can provide a solid foundation upon which to build effective learning processes and improve your educational journey. However, take note, that education is really a personal journey of self-development in line with a guided curriculum. You may discover your own preferred learning approaches that help you to become a highly successful online student. 

Happy studying online!


To read more on this subject and benefit from 20 learning habits you may wish to read the book How to be a Successful Student by Professor Richard E. Mayer. 

To learn more about our excellent online fitness education courses, please browse our courses menu, including our accredited personal trainer course.

In defence of processed food! Is it really that bad?

In defence of processed food blog


The inclusion of processed food in our diets has for many years been commonplace. In the United States research has shown that more than 60% of the daily diet[1] comes from highly processed foods. In European countries, the figure is also quite high, particularly in The United Kingdom where 50% of household foods are highly processed, and also in Germany where highly processed foods comprise up to 46% daily intake[2]. It should be noted that some European countries, like Italy and Portugal, consume much less at only 15% highly processed foods.

Is the inclusion of these high levels of processed food in the modern diet a significant problem to our overall health? Should we remove all processed foods and turn to a natural, unadulterated, real food diet? Would that resolve our modern health crisis? Human beings seem to love contrasting information as a means of creating a powerful statement or highlighting a concern. Contrasting creates an apparent black and white scenario, associating facts that are usually unfairly compared. This is often the case in relation to food and diet, where the common sharing of opposing, contrasting positions is used to create shock value and fear. Food and dietary intake are rarely black and white. They are usually varying shades of grey. Let’s investigate this important contrast further.

What is processed food?

Food processing has been defined as ‘any method used to turn fresh foods into food products’[3]Even this basic definition would indicate that food processing occurs at home in our own kitchens with even the most naturally produced, raw, whole foods. Processing food is an everyday requirement for turning basic ingredients into an enjoyable meal or snack. However, there is a difference between home-prepared food and industrial food preparation.

The general public appears to correctly understand that there is a sliding scale with regards to industrial food processing, and it appears there is a prevailing belief that the more processed our food is the lower its nutritional value upon consumption[4]. The following table defines a range of the most common food processing methods and the primary purpose of applying each within an industrial setting.

Food processing methods

The purpose of food processing

As strange as it may sound there are some genuine and appropriate reasons for allowing foods to go through factory processing. It really is not all bad. The primary purposes of food processing can be summed up in this shortlist:

  1. Increase palatability, digestibility, appearance, taste or smell
  2. Preserve or improve the nutritional value
  3. Improve food safety by reducing harmful organisms
  4. Food preservation and maintain food qualities
  5. Extend shelf life and lengthen food transportation options

Perhaps one of the most important reasons listed above is the need for food producers to extend shelf life and to preserve foods in a safe and edible state. By ensuring that this happens effectively food companies can increase their sales and reduce their food wastage, simply due to slower food spoilage providing a greater window of time for transportation and for a consumer to purchase it. It also means that food lasts longer in the consumer’s cupboards after purchase and can contribute to their nutritional needs over days, weeks or months depending on the recommended storage length.

However, this desirable benefit of longer shelf life is constantly being weighed up against the current negative perception of nutritional damage and the inclusion of undesirable food additives in processed foods. This is the healthy consumer’s modern dilemma! But is it as simple as minimising processed food, and eating more unprocessed, whole foods to guarantee better nutritional sufficiency? It certainly sounds good in principle, but does this mentality stack up under closer investigation?

Nutritional value of processed foods

Scientific research on the impact of processed food on its nutrient density has been very well established. Therefore, it stands to reason that modern Western diets would be nutritionally depleted as a result of such high intake of ultra-processed foods. A recent population-wide study confirms the impact that high consumption of processed foods has on the overall nutritional density of the diet[5]. The study established that the average dietary content of protein, fibre, vitamins A, C, D, and E, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, and calcium in the US diet decreased significantly as the energy contribution from ultra-processed foods increased. Unfortunately, they also noted that total carbohydrate intake, added refined sugar, and saturated fat in the diet increased as a direct effect of more processed food consumption. These specifically add more nutritionally depleted calories to the diet, increasing the risk of obesity.

In addition to establishing the nutritional deficiency of a highly processed foods diet, another recent study[6] clearly showed the powerful impact that a processed foods diet can have upon appetite, food intake, and the resulting likelihood for weight gain. The meals presented to the subjects during the study period were matched for calories, energy density, macronutrients, sugar, sodium and fibre. However, they were instructed to eat as much or as little as they wished during each 2-week period of the crossover trial. As it turned out, energy intake was greater by an average of 508 kcals per day during the period when subjects ate the highly processed food diet in comparison to when the same subjects ate the whole, unprocessed food diet. Weight gain also changed in direct association with the dietary variation and the energy intake changes. It appears that eating nutritionally poor, processed food increased the biological drive to consume more calories in the search for the missing nutrients, despite there being an abundance of energy consumed.

Processed food categorisation

It is important to note that the studies explained above were carried out on a category known as ultra-processed foods. This opens the question as to the nutritional impact of lesser methods of food processing and how do we categorise these. The University of Sao Paulo in Brazil created a categorisation system based on the level of processing of different foods, known as the NOVA food classification system[7]. The table below outlines how processed foods can be successfully categorised using this recognised system.

NOVA categories 1 & 2
NOVA categories 3 & 4

Nutrient comparisons of NOVA foods

To help highlight the point about the level of food processing and the nutritional content of food, please refer to the randomly selected examples below to see how much of a difference food processing makes to the nutritional value of food. The comparisons include group 1, 2, 3 and 4 foods from the NOVA food categories described above.  It is important to note that the following food and nutrient analyses may not be representative of all foods that fall within a specific NOVA processed food category, they are just examples for illustrative purposes.

Colour key in nutritional tables:
Green highlighted row: Higher nutritional content
Grey highlighted row: same nutritional content
Group 1 processed food: raw versus frozen peas
Group 1 Raw versus frozen peas - nutrient table
Group 2 processed food: coconut oil versus raw coconut flesh
Group 2 coconut oil versus raw coconut flesh - nutrient table
Group 3 processed food: Canned peaches versus raw peaches
Group 3 Canned peaches versus raw peaches - nutrient table
Group 4 processed food: White bread versus whole grain bread
Group 4 White bread versus whole grain bread- nutrient table

Defending against nutritional decline

The examples above show that processed food categories 2, 3 and 4, show a significant reduction in the nutritional value of the food product when compared to a similar, unprocessed option. Category 1, minimally processed food, did show a reduction in nutritional value compared to the unprocessed option, but it was only minor, and the resulting food product still delivered a substantial nutritional punch.

It is likely that other processed foods may show greater or lesser nutritional reductions within each NOVA category compared to the examples shown above. Just because a food has undergone industrial processing does not mean that the food should be completely discounted in terms of its nutritional contribution. We must acknowledge that ultra-processed foods do still provide a level of nutritional value to somewhat justify their inclusion in modern diets, although in most cases, nutrient levels are substantially diminished compared to a similar unprocessed or minimally processed parent food. So, there is usually a preferred or better option to consume to help promote human health than ultra-processed foods.

To finish up this discussion, here are 3 important takeaway messages:

  1. Basic food processing helps to increase shelf life, reduces food spoilage, and helps to increase the range and availability of many foods.
  2. Minimally processed foods still offer some of the benefits of food processing, while still retaining a significant proportion of the original nutritional value of the food.
  3. Ultra-processed foods should, ideally, be reduced and avoided where possible due to the significant reduction in nutritional value, the increased calorie density, and the increased presence of non-nutritive food additives.

A side note on food additives

It is important to note that processed and ultra-processed foods are more likely to contain both artificial and/or natural food additives, and other food-like ingredients to deliver the manufacturers intended taste, texture, smell, colour etc.[8] It is fair to say that food additives have received a lot of negative attention over the years. Perhaps, as a result of the more technical naming associated with additives, and a lack of understanding regarding their purpose in processed food, they tend to be poorly understood.

Over-simplified anecdotes have been re-iterated around the internet, such as, ‘If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, then don’t eat it’. Such phrases are generally unhelpful and have likely caused an over-reaction against food additives. If food experts and nutritionists are really honest about the science, the vast range of food additives (over 300 additives and 2500 flavouring agents)[9] are regulated very tightly, are utilised in very small levels, and have been deemed to be safe for human consumption within the current allowable limits. There is a small range of food additives that have come under more intense scientific scrutiny due to some negative reactions recorded within the literature, and in some cases, these are supported by reports of negative effects from the general public too.

If you are interested in digging a little deeper into the more concerning additives, then here are a few suggestions that may be worth a little more investigation.

  • Artificial colours: Hyperactivity in children is a potential side-effect for the following food colours – E102, E104, E110, E122, E124, & E129
  • Preservatives: Sulfites, nitrates and nitrites for curing meats are considered to be mildly carcinogenic
  • Artificial sweeteners: Aspartame and saccharin have a checkered scientific history as potential carcinogens – there are cleaner alternatives e.g. Stevia
  • Flavour enhancers: Some people have demonstrated high allergic sensitivity to monosodium glutamate

Learn more on the subject of nutrition by studying our online Nutrition for Health and Fitness Certificate.











Sleep chronotypes, training adjustments, trackers and more: How do you feel podcast

The author of our Sleep Recovery Specialist course, Ben Pratt, recently featured on the How Do You Feel Podcast, hosted by Casey Zavaleta, from Toronto Canada. Casey asked some great questions that led to a really worthwhile discussion that covered an interesting range of topics surrounding sleep, fatigue, exercise and training, stress physiology and much more. Enjoy this audio interview:

In this episode, Ben and Casey discuss the following topics:

  • Why Ben prioritizes sleep above fitness and nutrition
  • How to improve your sleep quality
  • Sleep phases
  • When and how to change your training program if you haven’t slept well
  • How exercise can be detrimental if you haven’t slept enough
  • Stress and sleep
  • How hormones are affected by sleep
  • How sleep affects your appetite and body composition
  • Sleep chronotypes and how to determine yours
  • Differentiating your habits from your chronotype
  • How chronotype changes with age
  • What to do to feel better in the morning
  • Creating a nighttime routine
  • Mind stimulation at night
  • Whether supplemental melatonin is effective or not
  • Oversleeping
  • Repaying sleep debt on the weekend
  • Social jet lag
  • How to get better sleep as a shift worker
  • The accuracy of sleep trackers

Learn more about the Sleep Recovery Specialist Course:

  • Use Code sleepnow10 for a 10% discount on the course!

37 fascinating facts about sleep and health

Sleeping man wearing smart wristband tracker for sleep tracking
Sleep and Health, Michael Grandner PhD

Sleep and health book

A few months after the release of our short online course, the Sleep Recovery Specialist, Academic Press published a significant scientific reference book titled Sleep and Health, edited by Michael Grandner PhD. This naturally caught our attention on the subject as previously there has not really been a single book to refer to across such a wide range of important topics related to sleep and human health. We contacted Grandner directly expressing our interest and as a result, we were pleased to be given the opportunity to review the full book. So here is our book review.

Tart cherry juice

It has been quite a mission to read this 512-page book, but the insights and information contained within have been fascinating! Essentially the book is a compilation of 37 different chapters that have been written by a combined total of 84 different expert authors from around the world. Something that became apparent in our research into the Sleep Recovery Specialist was the extensive volume of scientific research that has been completed on the subject of sleep. It can certainly be overwhelming to trawl through such vast levels of information. Sleep and Health does a superb job of pulling the existing research together into one helpful and well-organized resource. If sleep is a subject that you are keen to have a more in-depth understanding of, then you would do well to turn to the extensive, yet concise bank of knowledge found in Grandner’s book, Sleep and Health.

Asleep with a book - sleep and health

37 facts about sleep and health

To be honest, it would be impossible to try and cover the full scope of this book in a single blog post, so perhaps the best way to give you a flavour of what is available to learn is to share a single fact or principle found within each of the 37 individual chapters contained within the book. So, enjoy these 37 fascinating facts about sleep and health:

Digital devices interfere with sleep
  1. Sleep need is defined by individual genetics and physiology and does not change after losing a night of sleep or oversleeping on the weekends.
  2. The age-adjusted estimated prevalence of insufficient sleep (≤6 h) was reported to be 35.1% of the US population.
  3. The sex differences in subjective sleep complaints are amplified with ageing, with middle-aged women demonstrating an increased risk of insomnia, poorer sleep quality, and more frequent awakenings, despite reporting earlier bedtimes and longer sleep duration compared to men.
  4. Approximately 80% of older adults aged 71 and older had obstructive sleep apnea and the incidence increased 2.2 times for each 10-year increase of age.
  5. Previous studies have shown associations between sleep-related beliefs and sleep health … Those who express generally positive attitudes about sleep are more likely to experience better quality sleep in general.
  6. Most existing data suggest more disruptive and less efficient sleep in lower social-economic status individuals.
  7. Those living in areas that are brighter at night have a later bedtime. Thus, city dwellers often sleep less than their rural counterparts as a result of these physical features of urban neighbourhoods.
  8. Human health can be negatively affected due to inhibited melatonin production because of exposure to bright light at night, especially blue light.
  9. There is a growing body of evidence that the mental engagement (and distraction) that electronic devices provide, may interfere with sleep.
  10. Sleep tracking devices now boast the capability to monitor physiologic data previously unavailable outside the clinic, including movement, respiration, body position, heart rate variability, and even EEG.
  11. There are two recommendations associated with exercise in the context of sleep hygiene: (i) exercise is good for sleep and should be encouraged but (ii) exercise too close to bedtime is detrimental to sleep and should be discouraged.
  12. Objective scientific validation is well behind evaluating sleep tracker technology at the pace in which new technology is introduced to the public. In general, the quality of the data and the consumer usability of the devices are in opposition.
  13. Younger adults were more likely to use mobile phones at night than older adults, and were more likely to have shorter sleep duration, and increased tiredness. Symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress were associated with the use of mobile phones at night.
  14. People’s attitudes about health and their health behaviours do not exist in isolation; they effect, and are affected by, the attitudes and behaviours of others. The more two individuals interact, the greater role this social context will have on their health behaviours.
  15. Late sleepers exhibit a shorter sleep duration, consume more calories at dinner and after 8pm, consume more fast food and full-calorie soda, and have a higher BMI compared to normal sleepers.
  16. A large epidemiologic study on short sleep duration (sleep <6 h) showed an increase in the risk for elevated blood pressure by 8% in a population of 162,121 adult men and women free from major diseases including obesity.
  17. Individuals who report poor sleep quality have a 40% increased likelihood of having diabetes. This risk is comparable with family history, being overweight, and higher than physical inactivity.
  18. Several studies suggest that humans’ metabolic systems do not adapt to disrupted sleep-wake patterns.
  19. Tart cherries have been shown to improve sleep quality and reduce insomnia symptoms. This may be explained, in part, by the rise in circulating melatonin concentrations that occurs after daily ingestion of tart cherry juice.
  20. Multiple cross-sectional studies have reported that greater sedentary behaviour is associated with lower sleep efficiency, higher daytime sleepiness, and greater odds of having short sleep duration, poor sleep quality, and sleep problems.
  21. Binge drinking, of ≥5 standard alcoholic beverages, has been associated with insomnia symptoms in multiple populations, including adolescents, young adults, college students, older adults, Veterans, and firefighters.
  22. Current smokers accrued 24% more stage 1, light sleep, but a significantly lower percentage of stage 3 deep sleep than never smokers; this would indicate shallower, more disturbed sleep.
  23. Those who had a circadian preference for evening time were three times more likely to consume high dose caffeinated energy drinks and report daytime sleepiness compared to those with a preference for morning time.
  24. Accumulating evidence points to the role of short sleep in the development and progression of age-related diseases, many of which include alterations in immune functioning.
  25. Among the most reliable effects of sleep deprivation is the degradation of attention, especially vigilant attention.
  26. In one study, a single night without sleep was associated with fewer creative responses and greater difficulty letting go of unsuccessful strategies.
  27. Bedtime procrastination has been associated with lower overall self-control as well as poorer sleep habits and lower self-reported sleep duration.
  28. Up to 90% of individuals with Major Depressive Disorder experience insomnia. Those with insomnia, compared to those without, are twice as likely to develop depression. These rates have been shown to be 4 times greater in adolescents.
  29. Multiple studies to date suggest a shift toward a predominance of sympathetic (stress) modulation during both wake and night time periods in individuals with chronic insomnia, due to decreased parasympathetic (relaxation) activity that occurs during sleep.
  30. Both dietary weight loss and exercise have been shown to improve and even cure sleep apnea. Avoidance of sedating medications and abstinence from alcohol are encouraged in all patients with obstructive sleep apnea.
  31. Sleep restriction (1.5 h less than habitual sleep duration) in children for 1-week is associated with a significant increase in calorie intake per day as well as alterations to the hunger hormone, leptin.
  32. Among 8–12-year old children, shorter sleep durations are associated with heightened emotional responses, including sadness, anger, fear and disgust.
  33. Contrary to popular belief, adolescents require just as much sleep as they did when they were a few years younger with 9.25h of nightly sleep being considered optimal through the teen years.
  34. Demands from both the work domain and from the family domain can restrict the time available for sleep. Studies describe sleep as the “victim” that suffers due to time-based conflict between work and family roles.
  35. Sleep health is a multidimensional pattern of sleep-wakefulness, adapted to the individual, social, and environmental demands, that promotes physical and mental well-being.
  36. Disruptions during sleep due to sleep apnea can confer symptoms of daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and inability to sustain attention – these deficits are amplified under mundane conditions or while doing overlearned activities that require sustained attention, such as, for example, driving long distances.
  37. There is an epidemic of sleep disorders among police, firefighters, and emergency medical service providers. Efforts to improve sleep have the potential to vastly improve the safety, health, and performance of this vulnerable group, benefiting not only them but the public that they serve.
Sleep loss causes stress

Find out more about sleep and health book

If you enjoyed these 37 fascinating facts, one from each of the chapters in Sleep and Health, and are really looking to study the deeper details on the subject, then please find out more about the book by visiting the publisher’s page at Academic Press, or by visiting the Amazon page. The purchase price is quite high, even for an academic book, although the level of knowledge and detail provided is probably a fair reward for the cost invested.

Find out more about our sleep certification

Sleep Recovery Specialist

Sleep is so integral to the goals of health and fitness professionals, both personally and for their clients, that we decided to create an online course targeted specifically to personal trainers, fitness instructors, strength coaches, sports specific trainers, and fitness professionals more broadly. We invite you to find out more about our innovative online course, the Sleep Recovery Specialist.

Personal Training students feature in International women’s football match


The Algarve Cup 2019 tournament

The 2019 Algarve Cup was the 26th edition of the international women’s invitational football tournament held in Portugal between 27th February to 6th March.

During the tournament, on 4th March, Scotland (FIFA ranking 20th) played against Iceland (FIFA ranking 22nd) in an exciting matchup that delivered 5 goals in total with Scotland taking the victory. The full match reports, can be found on the Scottish FA website and also the Icelandic FA website.

In addition to the exciting game and football talent on show, there was another lesser known fact about this specific football match. There were also four personal training students/graduates from the same school playing alongside each other during the match.

Icelandic football team:

Image result for iceland flag

Playing for Iceland, Dagný Brynjarsdóttir was the very first graduate of the Nordic Personal Training Certification (NPTC), obtaining her European Level 4 personal training qualification in January 2018. Regarding her learning experience, Dagný said: “The NPTC is a great programme which gave me the opportunity to study while pursuing my professional football career.”

Sigriður Garðarsdóttir, also playing for Iceland, is the most recent graduate of the NPTC programme (per date of publication). She achieved her Level 4 personal training qualification in February 2019, just a few days before this international game with Scotland. In respect to her journey to becoming a certified personal trainer, Sigriður rated the NPTC course as “Excellent,” and that she would “recommend the course.”

Needless to say, here at Nordic Fitness Education, and our mother training company Keilir Academy, we are very proud of both of these personal training graduates. We wish them continued success both on the football field and through their educational achievements as certified personal trainers.

Glódís Viggosdóttir, who was selected in the starting 11 for this match, is currently halfway through the NPTC programme. Similarly to her football skills, she is performing very well in her studies to date.

Scottish football team:

Image result for scotland flag

Finally, on the Scottish side, Fiona Brown, who played in the second half of the game, is also halfway through her NPTC studies. Fiona is proving to be a very capable student as she works towards her Level 4 personal training qualification.

The team here at Nordic Fitness Education will continue to support both Glódís and Fiona as they work hard towards the completion of their Level 4 personal training certifications. No doubt they are gaining valuable knowledge that will help support them as they continue to play football at an international level.

We wish all four women the very best as they continue with their national football careers.

Could you become a certified personal trainer?

Undertaking a career in personal training can be a great option for those who are seeking a secondary field of expertise to focus their professional careers. Whether you work in sport or perhaps in some other field of expertise, why don’t you find out more about the Nordic Personal Training Certificate.

The NPTC programme has been fully accredited by Europe Active to meet all the required professional fitness industry standards across the European region. NPTC graduates are eligible for registration with the European Register of Exercise Professionals.


Exercise for weight loss – is this the best strategy?

Scientific observations across many years, thousands of individuals engaging in regular exercise, and a European fitness industry worth more than €26 billion serve as a clear indicator of the great benefits that being active can do for the human body. However, we must be honest about the fact that exercise for weight loss is not the cure-all panacea that it is often portrayed to be.

The elephant in the fitness room

Perhaps the biggest ‘elephant in the room’ in relation to exercise and fitness is its impact upon weight loss! Exercise for weight loss is promoted as the answer in almost every magazine, blog and exercise video. It is even a major component of many government strategies for overcoming obesity and the world’s ballooning waistlines. It seems that no matter what, exercise attracts all the attention when it comes to answers for weight loss. There is plenty of ongoing debate over dietary factors in terms of how they impact weight loss, but exercise appears to rarely get questioned?

One of the aspects of weight loss that muddies the waters is that most people do not apply a single change when they try to lose weight and lower their body fat. Weight loss usually results from a series of combined changes to an individual’s daily practices. There are many different strategies in the scientific literature that could be applied alongside exercise to help achieve weight loss such as:

  • A low calorie, low fat, or low carbohydrate diet
  • Increasing protein in the diet
  • A high fibre diet
  • Reducing sugar intake
  • Removing processed food
  • Improving sleep
  • Reducing stress and increasing relaxation
  • Detoxification protocols
  • Increasing activities of daily living
  • Using weight-loss supplementation
  • Lifestyle behaviour changes
  • Increasing public/group accountability
  • Alcohol reduction etc. etc. etc.

It is rare that exercise for weight loss with no other associated change in behaviour is the strategy of choice. Perhaps that is a good thing too! The scientific evidence is in support of this statement too.

Exercise for weight loss evidence

If you put aside all other ways and focus upon exercise alone as the sole strategy for reducing body weight, it is lacking in punch. Don’t get me wrong it does have a positive effect, but the effect is fairly small! Certainly, nothing like what is proposed across the internet or modern social media channels. In 2006 an independent group of scientists representing the renowned Cochrane Collaboration published a meta-analysis (Shaw 2006) that looked at this very issue…by asking the question, ‘how effective is exercise for managing overweight and obesity?’ The research reviewed studies that only utilised the gold scientific standard of randomised controlled trials (RCT). These RCT’s looked at weight loss periods between 3 to 12 months in duration comparing different weight loss methodology. Here are the facts which summarise their scientific findings on the matter up to 2005:

  • General exercise as a lone strategy provided weight loss between 0.5 – 4.0 kg
  • Low-intensity exercise as a lone strategy provided weight loss between 0.0 – 6.3 kg
  • High-intensity exercise as a lone strategy provided weight loss between 1.3 – 8.9 kg
  • Applying diet as a lone strategy provided weight loss between 2.8 – 13.6 kg
  • When diet was combined with exercise it provided weight loss between 3.4 – 17.4 kg
  • Diet combined with high-intensity exercise provided weight loss between 6.4 – 19.6 kg

Out of the 6 different strategy options looked at above, it is clear that a general exercise programme is the least effective of all the methods applied. High-intensity exercise as a lone strategy does improve things and appears to be about twice as effective as general exercise. However, all three lone exercise strategies fall well short of lone dietary or combined exercise and dietary strategies. The authors of this study provided some very good summary statements which help to bring in a few other considerations than just the factual weight loss ranges shown above:

  • These findings are consistent with previous reviews (Miller 1997;McTigue 2003Douketis 2005) that demonstrate only modest (less than five kg) weight loss with exercise alone as a weight loss intervention, and improved weight loss with diet and exercise compared with exercise alone.
  • The results of this study support the hypothesis that vigorous activity is more effective than moderate or light intensity exercise in stimulating weight loss…However, high-intensity exercise was only significantly better than low-intensity exercise at inducing weight loss when undertaken without dietary change. When diet was also modified, exercise intensity did not significantly increase the degree of weight loss.
  • Both low calorie and low-fat diets were used as comparison dietary interventions across clinical trials. Both were more effective at facilitating weight loss than exercise alone. This is consistent with the findings of other studies that also demonstrate dietary modification is superior to exercise in obtaining weight loss in overweight and obese adults (Curioni 2005Hansen 2005).

Exercise is beneficial

You may be thinking that exercise for weight loss is not very helpful and that a diet alone would be best to lose weight? Well, there are other benefits that should not be overlooked in relation to applying exercise as part of a weight-loss strategy. These ‘additional’ benefits certainly warrant the inclusion of exercise in the battle of the bulge. The study authors state:

  • Positive effects on CVD risk factors were demonstrated with exercise interventions in overweight and obese adults in this study. Those who participated in exercise interventions alone reduced systolic and diastolic blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and fasting serum glucose. They also increased HDL levels. The changes that were statistically significant compared with no treatment were changes in diastolic blood pressure, triglycerides, HDL and glucose… These changes were independent of significant weight loss. Weight loss does not appear to uniformly improve cardiovascular risk factors, particularly if 5% or less bodyweight reduction (Douketis 2005).
Exercise for weight loss


In short, exercise imparts considerable benefits to the cardiovascular system that help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk, even in the face of minimal weight loss. There are also many other benefits from exercise that would literally take a textbook to fully explain. We are not discounting exercise at all. But we need to be honest about its fat burning capacity as a sole strategy – it just is not that powerful! So the real take-home messages of this weight loss science blog are simply:

  1. Weight loss is best achieved through carefully planned dietary modification combined with the appropriate application of higher intensity exercise methods
  2. Exercise is very effective at reducing heart disease and metabolic health risk factors regardless of weight loss and as such is a necessary part of a healthy lifestyle
exercise benefits

Perk up your posture


We are living in a modern world that often requires us to engage in repetitive movements. Often we may need to adopt long-term fixed positions that impact on human posture and movement capacity. Office employment, manufacturing work, packaging lines, schooling, computer gaming, driving, commuting, long distant flights and many other elements of modern living dictate our set bodily positions on a daily basis. As human posture adapts to our modern environment the knock-on effect on our movement capacity can have significant negative implications on physical fitness, movement purity, and even athletic performance.

Impact of prolonged seating at a computer work station

What is posture?

Posture has been defined as the ‘attitude or position of the body’ which should be able to fulfil three important functions:

  1. Maintaining the alignment of the body’s segments in any static position: supine, prone, sitting, quadruped, and standing
  2. Anticipating change that will allow for engagement of voluntary, goal-directed movements such as reaching and stepping
  3. Reacting quickly to unexpected perturbations or disturbances in balance or centre of gravity

This clearly indicates that the concept of posture includes both a static and an active/dynamic state of being. Maintaining effective posture is vital for balance and control of the body when motionless as well as during a wide variety of different types of human movement. To provide for the long-term health of the spine, shoulders, hips, knees, ankles and feet, developing the ability to stay within optimal postural parameters is a desirable goal at all times when holding static positions or moving in three dimensions. This is much easier said than done as postural position is predominantly controlled through subconscious neural controls and is rarely at the forefront of our daily thinking.Anatomical anterior posture

Male anterior
Anatomical anterior posture

Human movement

The conscious mind is usually preoccupied with goal-oriented movement, rather than the exact positioning and motion required for each specific joint involved in a larger chain reaction of physical movement. Thank goodness for that! Can you imagine trying to apply your conscious mind to control every muscle, joint and body part to synchronize different joint angles, tempo’s, range of movement, joint impact, joint loads, and other biomechanical responses just to perform the basic function of walking? The conscious mind boggles at such complexity. Thankfully our more powerful subconscious brain can manage all of these immensely detailed neural functions without our focused mind needing to be invested in this.

The body has numerous sensory receptors, called proprioceptors, found within the muscles and joints that help to provide neural feedback regarding one’s own limb and spinal position, speed of movement, and the forces passing through the muscles and joints in order to subconsciously control any necessary response. Perhaps the most well known of the primary 6 categories are the muscle spindle and the Golgi tendon organ. All proprioceptors constantly gather vital information on behalf of the nervous system to ensure we are fully aware of and can respond to our own daily movements and the forces that we are subjected to constantly throughout each day.

Sway posture
Sway posture with altered spinal alignment

Muscular imbalance

Where joint or muscular dysfunction has crept in unawares, resulting in posture and movement purity corruption, subconscious human movement may no longer fall within an optimal range. Such adulterated movement will likely lead to a shift in centre of gravity, faulty loading through the muscles and uneven forces passing through the joints (see sway posture example above). If left unchecked the chronic application of such faulty movement can lead to muscular tension, fascial adhesions, joint wear and tear and the gradual breakdown of important structural tissues. These undesirable, dysfunctional outcomes can be managed and reversed if they are identified, and a suitable corrective strategy is introduced and applied.

A corrective strategy should involve a carefully planned process of adjustment and relearning of motor control. An effective way to support a client and plan to correct their faulty movement patterns is as follows:

  • carry out a postural assessment and identify any existing faulty positioning
  • carefully assess movement purity and identify any visible restrictions
  • determine the dysfunctional muscles based upon the posture and movement assessment observations
  • mobilise joint and muscle range of motion where limitations exist
  • select relevant activation exercises for any under-active muscles within the kinetic chain
  • apply an appropriate level of intensity within each stage to ensure good position and technique are always paramount
  • gradually progress the physical challenge towards optimal function, provided movement purity is maintained

It would be impossible in a simple blog to cover all variations in postural position and movement dysfunction. But here is an example of a common and relatively simple dysfunction to address.

The Flat Back posture

Flat back posture
Hyper kyphosis of the thoracic spine

Joints position:

  • Thoracic spine in a flexed position – resulting in protracted shoulder girdle
  • Cervical spine in an extended position – resulting in forward head carriage
  • Pelvis is in a posterior tilted position
  • Hips are in an extended position

Overactive, shortened muscles that most likely require stretching:

  • Hamstring group
  • Rectus abdominis
  • Upper trapezius
  • Sternocleidomastoid
Stretches for kyphosis

Underactive, lengthened muscles that most likely need strengthening:

  • Mid-trapezius and rhomboids
  • Neck flexors
  • Lumbar erector spinae
  • Iliopsoas
Exercise for kyphosis

These stretches and exercises may become part of an effective workout preparation strategy for 10 minutes before each gym session. They can even be done as part of light activity on a rest/recovery day. Committing to the regular application of such a strategy can be a powerful tool in resolving postural imbalances. This will, in turn, improve functional daily movement, which ultimately will lead to better performance in the long term.

Check out our course

We teach similar posture and movement analysis content within our flagship certification, the Nordic Personal Trainer Certificate, within the Testing and Movement Screening module. To find out more, click the link above or visit our website

Protein problems? Food and Powders revealed (Video)

Food sources rich in protein

In the quest for bigger muscles, increased sporting performance and greater nutrient density many people turn to protein-rich foods and powdered protein shakes. With the widespread knowledge that protein is necessary for muscular development, it has been one of the mainstays of sports nutrition for many years. However, there are still a few concepts surrounding protein that dominate our choices, and sometimes these may not be based on a full understanding of the truth. This short video will lay down the foundational components behind protein consumption. Watch right to the end to get the 2 simple, but essential factors. After the video please continue reading the rest of the blog below the video.

Protein problems: Convenience

Often the increasing pace of life and lack of time to spend on cooking good food has caused athletes and recreational exercisers alike to seek out a convenient source of protein that can quickly and simply meet this need. This marketing niche has been dominated for some years by manufacturers of protein shakes and bars. While it is true that powdered shakes and bars provide a solution for quick and convenient protein, it is just not as simple as gulping down a shake and here comes bulging biceps and rippling pectorals!

The protein supplement market is overflowing with hundreds of different brands all claiming to be the best with a ‘proven’ track-record for achieving the most effective results. The sort of benefits and claims promoted tend to focus on protein density, product quality, ease of digestion, higher bioavailability, increased recovery, faster muscle growth and increased tissue density. It is quite likely that even the most committed bodybuilder, athlete or keen exerciser realises that some of the advertising used may push the boundaries of accuracy to some degree. If that is the case then what really makes a good protein powder and what should be avoided?

Protein problems: Protein sources

There are several different types of protein used within most brands. Animal-based protein powders are usually based on dairy derivatives such as whey or casein, or from egg white albumin due to its high protein content. Plant-based protein powders are usually derived from pea, soy, hemp, or rice. These proteins vary in their biological value (BV) – which is the amount of consumed protein that is absorbed and incorporated into your cells (Also discussed in the video above). Most protein powders have strengths and weaknesses. Consider the following:

Rice protein (BV 83%) – Hypo-allergenic, gluten-free, neutral taste, economical. 100% plant-based. May be derived from genetically modified rice.

Egg protein (BV 100%) – Fat-free, concentrated amounts of essential amino acids. May upset stomach in some people. Should be completely avoided in those with egg allergies.

Milk protein (includes whey (BV 100%), casein (BV 77%), calcium caseinate, and milk protein blends) – May enhance immunity, high in BCAAs, contains lactose, highly studied. May cause digestive upset or other symptoms in people sensitive to whey, casein, and/or lactose. Should be completely avoided in those with dairy allergies.

Pea protein (BV 65) – No saturated fat or cholesterol, highly digestible, hypo-allergenic, economical. Rich in lysine, arginine and glutamine. 100% plant-based. Low biological value compared to other plant proteins.

Hemp seed protein – Provides omega-3 fats, most forms provide fibre, free of trypsin inhibitors, can get in raw form, high in the amino acids, arginine and histidine (commonly low in many protein foods). 100% plant-based. Biological value (the amount absorbed) generally reported being lower than most other protein powder sources.

Soy protein (BV 74%) – May have benefits for cardiovascular disease, contains some anti-nutrients, may be derived from genetically modified soy. 100% plant-based.

Whey protein

The most commonly used by far is still whey protein derived from milk, though the popularity of pea protein (derived from yellow split peas) seems to be on the increase with significant financial growth in this market being reported over the last 5 years. Whey is the liquid portion of milk left behind when the curds are separated in the process of making cheese or Greek yoghurt. Before the creation of protein shakes, whey liquid was an unwanted by-product of cheese manufacturer and was often disposed of in animal feeds, perhaps to the benefit of the livestock!

Whey protein

Whey liquid is a highly bio-available source of proteins, rich in branched-chain amino acids that are easily digested and quickly absorbed into the bloodstream. This is one of the main reasons why it has been promoted so heavily for muscle growth and development. The problem is that whey protein only constitutes about 1% of whole milk. Whey proteins are in solution within the liquid water that is separated from the curds. This means that to get a significant amount of whey protein a large volume of bitter-tasting, whey liquid would need to be ingested, perhaps more than anyone would be prepared to take in a day. A quick thought at this point is if it is only present naturally in milk in very small concentrations why seek to ingest it much larger volumes? The problem of accessing large amounts of whey is the problem that the protein manufacturers have solved by concentrating and drying these sparse proteins into a concentrated powder, making it easy to ingest 20g or 30g of whey in one simple drink. Approximately 2 litres of milk would need to be consumed in order to get the same volume of whey. So how is it done? What manufacturing processes have been used to extract such a beneficial, elusive protein from milk for the convenience of the muscle seeking public?

Protein problems: Processing

There are several different techniques used to make protein powder. They involve various separating, filtering and concentrating processes to remove the elements that are not wanted and keep the fractions of liquid that contain the sought after whey protein. Whilst it is unlikely all methods are used to make a single brand of powder the following processing options are available for use by the protein manufacturer:

  • Ultrafiltration, microfiltration, cross-flow filtration and diafiltration
  • Ion exchange
  • Hydrolysation
  • Spray drying
  • Freeze drying

(To more fully understand the industrial process you may wish to review this article on Healthcloud or if you really are inspired to geek-out on this issue then you can review the full process explained in the Dairy Processing Handbook).

A selection of the above processing methods are used to produce virtually all varieties of whey protein on the market today including whey protein concentrates, whey protein isolates or hydrolysed whey proteins. Each of these processes places the fragile whey proteins at potential risk of physical change. Each process, bar freeze-drying, exposes the whey to heat and pressure alone or both together at the same time. This can denature the whey protein molecules, which means it changes the proteins specific shape and structure. The higher and longer the heat is applied the greater the structural denaturation of the whey molecules will likely be.

Some of the processing methods listed above use acidic chemicals, electrical current and enzymatic actions to separate out the whey proteins. These will also impact the whey proteins altering them from their natural form. Denatured proteins can still be utilised by the body, but there is evidence that that may have reduced benefit, are digested more slowly, and for some may even cause digestive distress altering the internal environment of the gut, which can be expressed within the body as bloating, gut irritation, flatulence or loose stools. Any protein powder or bar that causes any of these unwelcome side effects should be avoided as it may be a potential sign of low quality, less effective product. It may also be a sign of low-level digestive problems that may need to be more carefully addressed to return the gut to good health.

Processing whey isolate

Protein problems: Cold processing

Some consumers may seek to avoid protein denaturation by purchasing ‘cold processed’ powders. The term implies that heat is not used in the processing of the whey liquid. This is simply not true. ‘Cold processed’ is a patented term that indicates the powder has been produced with temperatures that do not exceed 50°C. This temperature was chosen because proteins become denatured more rapidly at temperatures above 55°C. Cold processing at these lower temperatures legally only needs to refer to the various filtering stages and does not mean that pasteurisation of the original milk has not occurred. Pasteurisation is a process that happens back within the jurisdiction of the original dairy that the whey liquid was sourced from. Milk is flash heated to 72-75°C for up to 15-20 seconds and then cooled. Pasteurisation will occur before the whey is separated from the curds. This means that some proteins will already be denatured before the filtering stages even begin. But does denaturing protein actually diminish the effectiveness of the shake in supporting muscle growth and repair?

Protein problems: Results

We must still acknowledge that scientific research into most varieties of protein supplements for muscle growth does indeed show a positive result. Many of these studies compare the result of people taking a protein supplement to those who take no enhancing supplement. Differences in body weight have been observed across 12-18 weeks of supplementation and training that range from virtually nothing up to 4kg of lean mass. This suggests that taking a protein shake may not necessarily guarantee muscle growth, but is fairly likely to help in some way if the only change in diet was to take the protein powder. Interestingly scientific research that compares the results of taking regular whey protein to other sources of food protein is significantly more difficult to find. There are a few studies that provide an insight into how effective whey is in relation to results obtained using other proteins.

Cow and milk

In comparisons to casein protein (the curds), whey has been found to be absorbed quicker in the intestine, but casein ultimately stimulated more long-term muscle growth. This information has changed many protein formulations and it becoming more common to find whey and casein blends on the market today. Hang on a minute! Whey and casein blends? Isn’t that how nature packaged it, to begin with – funnily enough, we call that milk!

Other areas of research into the volume of protein needed to stimulate muscle development have suggested that even active individuals probably get enough protein from a varied, whole-food diet and that extra supplementation is not essential but may provide benefit. Of course, this is not usually supported by the protein powder manufacturers who have invested large amounts of their own money to prove otherwise. Many individuals want to support muscle tissue in the most convenient way without the lengthy effort of addressing dietary change. There is no doubt drinking a shake 3 times a day is a simpler solution that trying to ensure the daily diet is on point.

Whey and casein powders tend to be quite bitter and unpalatable on their own so often other ingredients are added to improve taste, texture, flavour, blend-ability and colour. Keep an eye out for artificial sweeteners like aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and acesulfame K to name but a few. Read the label and be discerning in your choices. There are many grades of protein powder on the market. If you are determined to use a protein shake, what quality of product should you be looking?

Protein recommendations

  • Only purchase cold-processed, pure whey protein concentrates – they may not contain as high a level of pure protein as isolates, but have been subjected to fewer stages of processing and are less likely to have suffered as much denaturation
  • Try to determine the quality of the original milk the whey powder was manufactured from – organic, grass-fed milk is best as it will not have pesticide, hormonal or antibiotic residues and if processed carefully may possibly have better overall nutrient value
  • Avoid protein powders that contain added sugars, sweeteners, bulking agents, emulsifiers, preservatives, colours and flavours whether ‘natural’ or artificial
  • If you prefer a plant-based powder, such as rice or pea protein, then buy organic varieties and increase the volume slightly to compensate for the relative biological value e.g. If the BV is 80%, then increase the serving size to 125% of the stated dose which will then, following digestion, overcome the 20% non-absorbed protein.


Perhaps the most important final thought is that supplementing with protein powder will likely have little benefit if the total diet is not of good quality in the first place. Always include adequate amounts of high quality, naturally occurring foods that are rich in protein at every meal such as eggs, fish, meat, poultry, game, nuts, seeds, and protein-rich pulses and legumes. Protein powders are, after all, a supplement, not a protein replacement.

Do you want to learn more about nutrition? Get qualified with our excellent online course, the Nutrition for Health and Fitness Certificate from Nordic Fitness Education.

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