Should I Get a Flu Shot?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Drugs and Health, Health Current Events, Healthy Lifestyle

The Truth About About Flu Shots That Nobody Else Is Telling You

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 should I get flu shot

It is flu season again, and the annual debate about whether everyone should get a flu shot is heating up. On the one hand we are told that the flu shot saves thousands of lives and everyone should be vaccinated. On the other hand we are being told that the flu shot is deadly and we should avoid it. As usual, the truth is somewhere in between.

When you examine the scientific literature it is clear that:

  1. The risks of the flu shot have been greatly exaggerated.
  2. The benefits of the flu shot have been greatly exaggerated.
  3. The medical profession has not leveled with us about the real reason they recommend that everyone get a flu shot.

Flu Shot Side Effects

The greatest fear of vaccination and therefor flu shot side effects for children has been the claim that the flu vaccine causes autism. It is easy to understand how the hypothesis arose that vaccinations and autism might be linked, because the first symptoms of autism usually appear around the time that children are completing their initial series of vaccinations.

However, clinical research has not substantiated that any causal relationship between vaccinations and autism. It isn’t that scientist haven’t looked. A number of clinical studies have looked for a link between vaccinations and autism and have failed to find any. The age of onset and prevalence of autism are virtually identical in vaccinated and unvaccinated children.

However, most vaccines still contain mercury, and mercury is a neurotoxin. So if you are getting your child vaccinated, I recommend that you insist on getting a mercury free vaccine. You may want to inquire about the preservatives and additives in the flu vaccine as well, because some of them are also toxic.

Beyond that the biggest concerns are severe allergic reactions and an autoimmune response called Guillian-Barré syndrome which causes symptoms ranging from muscle weakness and fatigue to partial paralysis. These side effects are real and they are serious, but they are also quite rare. They affect somewhere between 1 in a million to 1 in 100,000 children, depending on the vaccine.

In short, flu shot side effects risks are real, but they have been greatly exaggerated by some in the media.

Let’s Talk Science

It turns out that the benefits of the flu shot have been greatly exaggerated by health professionals and the media as well. However, to properly understand why the messages you hear are a bit misleading you need to understand some scientific jargon, namely the difference between relative risk and absolute risk.

Relative risk describes the effect of an intervention for people with a certain condition. In this case, relative risk would be the effect of the flu shot (intervention) for people who have been infected with the flu virus (condition). Relative risk is often used in media reports because it magnifies the effect of the intervention. In short, it makes the intervention look really good.

Absolute risk describes the effect of an intervention on the probability that you will develop a certain condition. In this case absolute risk would be the effect of the flu shot on you actually getting the flu. Since this takes into account your probability of being infected by the flu virus as well as the relative risk reduction once you have become infected, it is a much smaller number. Absolute risk is a much better measure of the actual benefit you can expect to receive.

 

Is The Flu Shot Effective?

flu shot side effectsThere is always year to year variation in the severity of the flu and the effectiveness of flu vaccines. In addition, many other viruses that cause flu-like symptoms and are completely unaffected by the flu vaccine.

For example, both enterovirus D68 and the Ebola virus are in the headlines – enterovirus D68 because it has hospitalized so many kids this fall and Ebola virus because it is so deadly. Unfortunately, the flu vaccine has no efficacy against either of those viruses.

In addition, there is also significant variation in both the efficacy and evidence for efficacy in different population groups that is generally not acknowledged during the annual campaigns recommending that everyone should get a flu shot. To better understand that we need to look at the efficacy of the flu shot in each population group individually.

 

Is The Flu Shot Effective in Children Age 6 Months To 2 Years?

In 2010, the US Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices began recommending flu vaccination for all healthy children older than 6 months. However, in 2012 the Cochrane Collaboration conducted a systematic review of all published clinical studies and concluded that for children in that age group currently licensed flu vaccines “are not significantly more effective than placebo”. [To fully understand the significance of that statement you need to know that the Cochrane Collaboration is an independent, non-profit organization that promotes evidence-based medicine. In fact, in the medical community Cochrane Collaboration systematic reviews are considered to be the gold standard for evidence based medicine.]

Summary: This is one of the groups at greatest risk for developing severe complications to the flu, so it is disappointing that the flu vaccine is not more effective for this group. I will talk about the best way to protect this group below.

Is The Flu Shot Safe & Effective in Healthy Children Age 2 To 7 Years?

This is the age group for which immunization makes the greatest sense, and the nasal spray gives the best results for this group. According to the 2012 Cochrane Collaboration review the flu shot reduces the relative risk of the flu by 48% and the nasal spray with attenuated live virus reduces the relative risk by 83%.

Since around 16% of unvaccinated children catch the flu in an average year this translates to an absolute risk reduction of 3.6% for the flu shot and 17% for the nasal spray. That is a smaller number, but still significant. This, of course, varies from year to year dependent on how well the vaccine matches the strains of virus that are actually circulating through the population.

Summary: The science behind vaccination for this group has shifted significantly in the past few years. The evidence for the efficacy of the flu shot in this age group has increased while the evidence for harm has deceased. The fear of the flu shot causing autism has been largely disproven by recent clinical studies. That leaves severe allergic reactions and the Guillian-Barré syndrome as the major complications of the flu vaccination.

Proponents of the flu vaccinations have estimated that if all children in this age range were vaccinated, around 200 would develop severe complications to the flu shot, and if all children in this age range were unvaccinated 20,000 would develop severe complications from the flu. I have not been able to independently substantiate those statistics. We also need to keep in mind that in those rare years, such as during the 1976 swine flu epidemic, when approximately 1 in 100,000 vaccinated children developed Guillian-Barré syndrome the incidence of severe complications to the flu shot could have reached the 2-3,000 range if the vaccination program had not been terminated early.

I realize that this is an emotional issue for parents, and there is no perfect answer. However, at present the weight of evidence is slightly in favor of vaccination for this age group.

 

Is The Flu Shot Effective in Healthy Children Age 8 To 18 Years?

According to a recent meta-analysis of all available clinical studies (Oosterholm et al, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 12: 36-44, 2012), we simply don’t know whether the flu vaccine will be effective in this age group because no reliable studies have been conducted.

Even worse than that, we may never know whether the flu shot offers any protection for this age group because of a Catch 22 situation in modern clinical research. Once a particular treatment becomes “the standard of care” it is considered unethical to withhold that treatment in a clinical trial. Since the CDC is now recommending the flu shot for everyone over age 2, it would be considered unethical to conduct a clinical trial in which half the population received flu shots and half did not.

Summary: I suspect that the flu shot may offer some protection in this age group, but there is no convincing clinical evidence to support that belief at present and for the foreseeable future.

 

Is The Flu Shot Effective in Healthy Adults Age 18 To 65 Years?

is flu shot effectiveHere the answer is yes. According to a 2012 meta-analysis of 31 published clinical studies (Oosterholm et al, The Lancet Infectious Diseases) the flu shot gives an impressive 75% reduction in the relative risk of catching the flu. However, in an average year only 4% of this population will catch the flu if unvaccinated, so the absolute risk reduction is a modest 3%.

This is also the group that has the least to fear from the flu. Only about 1 in 100 people in this age range develop severe complications as a result of getting the flu, and these are usually the people with severe diseases and/or compromised immune systems. For most healthy adults in this age range, the flu is merely a one or two day inconvenience.

Summary: For healthy adults in this age range the flu vaccine offers only a modest decrease in the absolute risk of catching the flu, and this group has a relatively low risk of developing severe complications from the flu. If the self interest of this group were the only consideration, it is hard to understand the insistence of the medical community that everyone in this age range get a flu shot. It would appear to be a matter of personal choice.

 

Is The Flu Shot Effective in Seniors Age 65 And Older?

Flu shot proponents will tell you that flu shots cut the risk of death in this group by 50% based on a meta-analysis published in 2002 (Vu et al, Vaccine, 20: 1831-1836, 2002).

However, more recent research has come to the opposite conclusion. A recent meta-analysis (Oosterholm et al, The Lancet Infectious Diseases, 12: 36-44, 2012) concluded “Evidence for protection in adults aged 65 years or older is lacking”. The 2010 Cochrane Collaboration systematic review concluded “Due to the poor quality of available evidence, any conclusions regarding the affects of influenza vaccines for people aged 65 years or older cannot be drawn.”

The lack of protection of the flu virus in seniors is most likely due to the fact that, in many cases, their immune systems have weakened with age.

Summary: This is another group where you would most like to see protection by the flu shot, because this group is likely to suffer severe complications and death from the flu, so it is disappointing that the flu vaccine is not more effective for this group.

 

Who Has Most To Fear From The Flu?

flu shotWhen you hear that the flu shot significantly reduces the risk of severe complications and death from the flu, you should know that the risks are not spread evenly over the population. The very young are at risk because their immune systems haven’t fully developed. The very old are at risk because their immune systems have weakened with age and they may already be in precarious health because of other diseases. And, of course, anyone at any age who is in precarious health because of disease or who has a compromised immune system is at risk as well.

 

Why Do Health Professionals Recommend That Everyone Get A Flu Shot?

If you are a healthy adult in the 18-65 age range, your risk of severe complications and death is from the flu is very low. It is not zero, but it is low. So why are health professionals so insistent that you need to get a flu shot?

The reason is straight forward, but it is not the reason that they are giving you. It is a public health measure, pure and simple.

The very young, the very old, the sick and the infirm are the ones most likely to develop severe complications and die from a flu infection. However, the flu shot doesn’t offer them much protection because their immune systems are often compromised. The best way to protect those groups is to immunize everyone else. If the flu virus can’t gain a foothold in the rest of the population, those at greatest risk will never be exposed to the flu.

So the constant warnings that you need to get a flu shot is less about protecting you than it is about protecting those whom you might infect. Now you know the truth. If you decide to get a flu shot it will be for the right reason, not the reason you are being given by the medical profession.

In a similar vein, many health departments are warning about hospitalizations and deaths from enterovirus D68 infections and urging people to get flu shots. They are not telling people that the flu shot has no efficacy against enterovirus D68.

I understand the concept that the rare combination of the regular flu and enterovirus D68 infection in the same patient would be particularly deadly. But, I also believe in truth in advertising. The medical profession needs to level with people about why they are recommending flu shots, not use scare tactics that make promises the flu shot can’t deliver.

 

Should I Get A Flu Shot?

As you can see, your decision about whether or not the flu shot is the right thing for you is not an easy one. Both the benefits and risks of the flu shot have been greatly exaggerated in the media. I have tried not to be an advocate either for or against flu vaccinations. I have evaluated the scientific literature and tried to give you the unvarnished truth. It is now up to you to make an educated decision – one that is right for you.

My personal decision about the flu shot is influenced by my father’s example. He dutifully got his flu shot every year, and every year he came down with the flu shortly after getting the flu shot. I’ve seen the same phenomenon with several of my friends who work at area hospitals and are required to get an annual flu shot. I know that the experts claim you can’t get the flu from the flu shot. I don’t know about that. I only know what I have observed.

In addition, I do not have young children or elderly parents at home who might be compromised if I were to develop even a mild case of the flu. So I chose to follow the kind of lifestyle that keeps my immune system strong rather than relying on a flu shot to protect me from the flu. That immune-healthy lifestyle, of course, will be a topic for a future “Health Tips From the Professor”.

 

The Bottom Line:

  1. Both the effectiveness and risks of the flu shot have been greatly exaggerated.
  2. The flu shot has no proven effectiveness in children ages 6 months to 2 years, children aged 8-18 years and seniors 65 years and older.
  3. In children, aged 2 to 7, nasal sprays with partially inactive flu virus give a 17% decrease in absolute risk of catching the flu. Side effects of the flu vaccine in this population group are severe allergic reactions and an autoimmune response called Guillian-Barré syndrome. Both severe complications from the flu virus and side effects of the flu vaccine are very rare, but complications from the flu virus are several fold more common than side effects from the vaccine.
  4. Fears that the flu vaccine could trigger autism have not been validated by clinical studies. However, mercury is a neurotoxin so I recommend that you insist on mercury-free vaccines for your children. You may also wish to inquire about other preservatives and additives in the vaccine, because some of them are toxic.
  5. In healthy adults, aged 18 to 65, flu shots give a 3% decrease in absolute risk of catching the flu. This is also the population group with the lowest risk of severe complications from the flu. For most adults in this age group the flu is nothing more than a one or two day inconvenience.
  6. The groups most likely to develop severe complications and die from flu infections are the very young, the very old, and the sick. They are also the groups least likely to benefit from the flu shot because their immune systems are weak.
  7. If you are a healthy adult in the 18 to 65 age group, the constant warnings that you need to get a flu shot is less about protecting you than it is about protecting those whom you might infect if you catch the flu. It is a public health measure to protect the very young, the very old, and the sick. Now you know the truth. If you decide to get a flu shot it will be for the right reason, not the reason you have been given by the health profession.
  8. In addition, the flu shot has no efficacy against either enterovirus D68 or Ebola virus. Although both of these viruses are real concerns, neither is a justification for recommending that people get flu shots.
  9. As for me, I am influenced by the example of my father who got the flu from the flu shot every year. I chose to follow the kind of lifestyle that keeps my immune system strong rather than relying on a flu shot to protect me from the flu. That, of course, will be a topic for a future “Health Tips From the Professor”.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Comments (10)

  • Leslie Ann Johnson

    |

    Exactly what I was looking for! The truth about the Flu shot from a reputable source! Now I feel like I can make my decision based on the facts, and not the hype from media. Thank you, Dr. Chaney!

    Reply

  • Karen Hux

    |

    Dr. Chaney,

    I am 63 years old, work full time in a school, and my 89 year old mother lives with my husband and me. Based on your excellent article, It sounds like it may be a good idea for my husband and me to continue getting flu shots for Mom’s protection rather than ours. Have I understood correctly?

    I understand your statements are not intended as medical advice.

    Thank you!
    Karen Hux (via my dear friend Billie Lane)

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Karen,

      I don’t want to give medical advice, but if I had an 89 year old mother living with me and her health were fragile, I would strongly consider a flu shot.

      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Mary Mika

    |

    Very helpful information which I will share.

    Reply

  • Mary Ahrens

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    Just the facts man! I love it! Thank you Dr. Chaney for giving us information based on facts. That make sense!

    Reply

  • Kathy

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    Be careful! I got a flu shot October 14th, 2014. The pharmacist shot it into my bursa instead of my muscle. Make SURE they do not put it too high on your shoulder. I am still in pain a month later. I think the flu would be better.

    Reply

  • Opal Hernandez

    |

    Thanks, you always tell it like it is! my husband, 85, and I, 76, haven’t had a flu shot in about 15 years, no flu, either. i strongly believe in doing everything I can to have a strong immune system.
    however, we do get the pneumonia shot, I have a history of pneumonia and thought it might be best. do you think it wise?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Opal,
      I am a bit reluctant to weigh in on that question. We normally develop immunity to diseases that we have had recently. If you have had pneumonia recently, I’m not sure what the additional benefit of a pneumonia shot would be. I’ll have to research that question. Perhaps it could be a topic for a future “Health Tips From the Professor”.
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

  • Robbie

    |

    Dr. Chaney with all the issues with ongoing vaccines the ingredients alone in these vaccines are very toxic, why would anyone take them at all?

    Reply

    • Dr. Steve Chaney

      |

      Dear Robbie,
      There are benefits to the flu vaccine for some people, but those benefits have been oversold by the health industry. I tried to give a balanced overview of the benefits and risks of the flu vaccine in my article in “Health Tips From the Professor”
      Dr. Chaney

      Reply

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Latest Article

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

Posted May 15, 2018 by Dr. Steve Chaney

How Do You Gain Muscle Mass & Lose Fat Mass?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

protein supplement timingMost of what you read about protein supplements on the internet is wrong. That is because most published studies on protein supplements:

  • Are very small
  • Are not double blinded.
    • Both the subjects and the investigators knew who got the protein supplement.
  • Are done by individual companies with their product.
    • You have no idea which ingredients are in their product are responsible for the effects they report.
    • You have no idea how their product compares with other protein products.
    • There is no standardization with respect to the amount or type of protein or the addition of non-protein ingredients.

Because of these limitations there is a lot of misleading information on the benefits of protein supplements timing and maximal benefit. Let’s start by looking at why people use protein supplements. Let’s also look at what is generally accepted as true with respect to the best supplement timing.

There are 4 major reasons people consume protein supplements:

  • Enhance the muscle gain associated with resistance training: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed concurrently with the workout.
  • Preserve muscle and accelerate fat loss while on a weight loss diet: In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals or as meal replacements.
  • Provide a healthier protein source. In this case, protein supplements are customarily consumed with meals in place of meat protein.
  • Prevent muscle loss associated with aging or illness. There is no customary pattern associated with this use of protein supplements.

How good are the data supporting the customary timing of protein supplementation? The answer is: Not very good. The timing is based on a collection of weak studies which do not always agree with each other.

The current study  (J.L. Hudson et al, Nutrition Reviews, 76: 461-468, 2018 ) was designed to fill this void in our knowledge. It is a meta-analysis that compares all reasonably good studies that have looked at the effect of protein supplement timing on weight gain or loss, lean muscle mass gain, fat loss, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

How Was The Study Done?

The authors started by doing a literature search of all studies that met the following criteria:

  • The study was a randomized control trial with parallel design. This means that study contained a control group. It does not mean that the investigators or subjects were blinded with respect to which subjects used a protein supplement and which did not.
  • The subjects were engaged in resistance training.
  • The study lasted 6 weeks or longer.
  • Reliable methods were used to measure body composition (lean muscle mass and fat mass).
  • The subjects were healthy and at least 19 years old.
  • There was no restriction on the food the subjects consumed.

The authors started with 2074 published studies and ended up with 34 that met all their criteria. They then separated the studies into two groups – those in which the protein supplements were used with meals and those in which the protein supplements were used between meals.

Both groups were diverse.

  • Group 1 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement with their meal and those who consumed their protein supplement as a meal replacement.
  • Group 2 included subjects who consumed their protein supplement concurrent with exercise (usually immediately after exercise) and those who consumed their protein supplement at a fixed time of day not associated with exercise.

Does Protein Supplement Timing Matter?

 

protein supplement timing workoutsBecause the individual studies were very diverse in the way they were designed, the authors could not calculate a reliable estimate of how much lean muscle mass was increased or fat mass was decreased. Instead, they calculated the percentage of studies showing an increase in lean muscle mass or a decrease in fat mass.

When the authors compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals:

  • Weight gain was observed in 56% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 72% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • An increase in lean muscle mass was observed in 94% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 90% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • A loss of fat mass was observed in 87% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 59% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In other words, protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • An increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass was observed in 100% of the studies of protein supplementation with meals compared to 87% of the studies of protein supplementation between meals. In short, protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass.

The following seem to suggest protein supplement timing matters:

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when protein supplements are consumed with a meal they displace some of the calories that otherwise would have been consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors stated that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

The others concluded: “Concurrently with resistance training, consuming protein supplements with meals, rather than between meals, may more effectively promote weight control and reduce fat mass without influencing improvements in lean [muscle] mass.”

What Are The Limitations Of The Study?

Meta-analyses such as this one, are only as good as the studies included in the meta-analysis. Unfortunately, most sports nutrition studies are very weak studies. Thus, this meta-analysis is a perfect example of the “Garbage In: Garbage Out (GI:GO)” phenomenon.

For example, let’s start by looking at what the term “protein supplement” meant.

  • Because the studies were done by individual companies with their product, the protein supplements in this meta-analysis:
    • Included whey, casein, soy, bovine colostrum, rice or combinations of protein sources.
    • Were isolates, concentrates, or hydrolysates.
    • Contained various additions like creatine, amino acids, and carbohydrate.
  • As I discuss in my book, Slaying the Food Myths, previous studies have shown that optimal protein and leucine levels are needed to maximize the increase in muscle mass and decrease in fat mass associated with resistance exercise. However, neither protein nor leucine levels were standardized in the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.
  • Previous studies have shown that protein supplements that have little effect on blood sugar levels (have a low glycemic index) are more likely to curb appetite. However, glycemic index was not standardized for the protein supplements included in this meta-analysis.

protein supplement timing workout peopleIn short, the conclusions of this study might be true for some protein supplements, but not for others. We have no way of knowing.

We also need to consider the composition of the two groups.

  • Protein supplements used as meal replacements are more likely to decrease weight and fat mass than protein supplements consumed with meals. Yet, both were included in group 1.
  • Some studies suggest that protein supplements consumed concurrent with resistance exercise are more likely to increase muscle mass than protein supplements consumed another time of day. Yet, both are included in group 2. We also have no idea whether the meals with protein supplements in group 1 were consumed shortly after exercise or at an entirely different time of day.

This was the most glaring weakness of the study because it was completely avoidable. The authors could have grouped the studies into categories that made more sense.

In other words, there are multiple weaknesses that limit the predictive power of this study.

What Can We Learn From This Study?

Despite its many limitations, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, most of us are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio. Simply put, we are either trying to lean out (shape up) or lose weight. And, we want to lose that weight primarily by getting rid of excess fat. For us, calories do matter. With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

 

The Bottom Line:

 

A recent study looked at the optimal timing of protein supplements consumed by subjects who were engaged in resistance exercise. Specifically, the study compared protein supplements consumed with meals versus protein supplements consumed between meals on weight, lean muscle mass, fat mass, and the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass. The study reported:

  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were less likely to lead to weight gain than protein supplements consumed between meals.
  • Timing of protein supplementation did not matter with respect to increase in muscle mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were more likely to lead to loss of fat mass.
  • Protein supplements consumed with meals were slightly more likely to lead to an increase in the ratio of lean mass to fat mass.

The authors pointed out that their findings were consistent with previous studies showing that when a protein supplement was consumed with a meal it displaces some of the calories that would have been otherwise consumed. Simply put, people naturally compensate by eating less of other foods.

In contrast, the authors said that previous studies have shown that when foods, especially liquid foods, are consumed as snacks (between meals), people are less likely to compensate by reducing the calories consumed in the next meal.

As discussed in the article above, the study has major weaknesses. However, despite its many weaknesses, this study does remind us that protein supplements do have calories. This is of relatively little importance for people whose primary goal is to increase lean muscle mass.

However, for those of us who are using protein supplements to lose weight or to increase our lean mass to fat mass ratio, calories do matter.  With that in mind:

  • If we are consuming a protein supplement immediately after exercise or between meals we probably should make a conscious effort to reduce our daily caloric intake elsewhere in our diet.
  • Alternatively, we could consume the protein supplement with a meal, but time the meal so it occurs shortly after exercise.

For more details, read the article above:

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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