Protein Powder and the Promise of Transformation

18-30 grams of protein and a lot of internalized ideas about masculinity per serving

Katie Martin / Emily Jan / The Atlantic

Starting around the time I was 10, my brother took me with him on runs I could barely complete—off our street, across the Brooklyn Bridge, and back. I hated every minute of it. Each time my chest filled with a cold-metal ache that reinforced that this was not for me—to this day I run on treadmills, never outside. After one of the first times I remember eating a slice of bread with cheese—“Really?” he said, “We just went for a run, and you’re going to eat that?” If this is what it was to exercise, I would not, I promised myself, exercise again.

That was easy enough for a while—I went to a math and science high school full of kids taught to treat our bodies as meat casings for our brains. But then I found myself at a private university where some of the meat casings were taller, stronger, and belonged to people who sprinted up hills, did yoga, and rowed boats down rivers. A girl I met bemoaned how she only got to the gym three days a week now, and it left her feeling stressed. Having only ever associated the gym with stress, I was confused.

Around this time I got the idea into my head that I could be a happier, less neurotic person if I ran on a treadmill and lifted weights. This has, as far as I can tell, turned out to be true, and the evidence supports it: Studies suggest exercise can help the body respond to stress, and protect against depression.

So I downloaded an app with a catalogue of exercises, and I Googled and rifled through forums that told me I should be getting more protein in order to get the most out of my workouts, and did I know I could get it in powdered form? The justification went something like this: I’m a vegetarian, so it was already hard for me to get as much protein as those who eat meat, and when I’m working out, I must need even more protein than I would otherwise. So I started buying the stuff in bulk, mixing it into water or milk depending on whatever I had handy.

With time, the routine became second nature. I’d fish the measuring scoop out of the jar like a cereal-box prize, mix it with water or milk, and get on with my day. Every once in a while, a friend would catch me drinking from a blender bottle or notice the jar in my apartment and make a joke. Once, while carrying a fresh jar home from my P.O. box, I ran into an acquaintance who asked ironically if I was looking to get “swole.” These are small embarrassments I thought I’d learned to shrug off.

But I know why they joke. YouTube and Instagram are filled with photos and videos of impossibly giant men in small t-shirts weighing the pros and cons of whey vs. casein, or discussing the merits of isolate over hydrolysate. And the hypothetical viewers, ostensibly other men who want to reap all the hypothetical benefits of the powder, can be something of a punchline. In a famous gag from The Office, the character Dwight mocks his colleague for “cutting” his protein powder with water, asking him “Why don’t you just take estrogen?” He then swallows a dry spoonful of the stuff, and nearly chokes. I understand the stereotypes.

Most available protein powders seem to come in four- to five-pound black-colored tubs, embossed with sharp block lettering advertising “100% WHEY,” marketed by brands like Carnivor, Combat, and Serious Mass. Other, less aggressive brands show massive scoops of ice cream splashing into gravity-defying streams of milk, pods of vanilla adorning simple black backgrounds. Several flavors of “Pre-natal” protein powder in pouches decorated with images of Zenned-out women in caftans are also readily available on Amazon.

The brand I chose was as discreet as anything that comes in a four-pound jar can be. The tub comes wrapped in a simple white label with a crop of chocolate chunks floating in the center.

While protein supplements do not exist solely for men like Chad from The Bachelorette, the stereotype may have some staying power. A member of the women’s fitness Reddit, r/xxFitness, posted about the needling she experienced from people who found out she used protein powder to balance out her diet, and the unconscious need she felt to hide that fact from other people. “Whenever I've been ‘exposed’ in the past, I've had all kinds of responses,” she writes, “and it's never been positive.”

The questions she gets range from “‘Oh are you trying to get ripped?’" to “‘That stuff doesn't do anything’— they seem to think that all you have to do to get built is to swig a protein shake twice a day and muscles will magically appear.”

That is not, for better or worse, how it works.

Most people use protein powder to intake a large amount of protein in a single low-calorie go, usually post-workout. Of course, eating more protein on its own will not build muscleand just like that Redditor, many consumers of protein powder seem to understand this; they use it as a convenient way to balance out their protein intake at times when they wouldn’t otherwise get “enough” from a day’s meals. But most people get plenty of protein to build muscle through exercise—and eating extra doesn’t build extra muscle.

As my colleague Katherine Foley has written for Quartz, the guidelines for how much protein a person needs are various and conflicting. The National Academy of Medicine recommends that men who are not athletes consume .8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, while the USDA recommends somewhere around .6 grams per kilogram. But according to David Levitsky, a professor of nutrition at Cornell University, these recommended amounts are likely far more than enough. Even by the National Academy of Medicine’s guidelines, which Levitsky believes are overly high, an average man weighing in at 70 kilograms (or 154 pounds) would need to eat 56 grams of protein per day—that’s just slightly more than what’s found in a salmon fillet or three cups of lentils.

Still, “It is almost impossible to consume lethal amounts of protein,” Levitsky wrote in an email. The liver, he says, is capable of filtering the excess and metabolizing it like a carbohydrate. But Levitsky says this, coupled with the lack of evidence that consuming protein immediately after a workout has any added effect on building muscle, means that protein supplements are essentially a harmless waste of money.

“One of the things that’s pretty prevalent,” Levitsky says, “is the fantastic placebo effect that occurs.” Levitsky claims that those who use protein powder, believing it will help them gain muscle, may be unconsciously more motivated to exert themselves while exercising, creating the effect they hope to see.

If, for some, protein powder is just a benign placebo whose effect is only as powerful as belief, it’s worth considering where those beliefs come from. Jacked bodies are generally considered the ideal for men (excepting the brief celebration of the so-called straight male “dadbod”). And while working out is one of the many ways that women are taught to control their appearance to make themselves desirable, for men, the path to the idealized body almost always leads to the gym. Men are taught not only that getting in shape will make them more attractive, but that doing so is a matter of self-determination.

And what better way to make that hope manifest than with a potion? I’m still struck by this at the gym when I see someone pour casein into their water bottle or pop a pill from a bottle of supplements. If I asked how, exactly, they thought supplements would help, could they tell me? If someone asked me why I still sometimes mix whey protein into a smoothie—could I give them a clear reason? We might both be lying to say no part of it was out of a desire to look different, and we might both be lying to say we completely understood how the powder, or the pill, might make that happen.

Though protein powder itself is not driving men to disordered eating, it is caught up in the same web of ideas and beliefs about masculinity, nutrition, and exercise that can be taken to more disturbing extremes. I know enough men who’ve had strained relationships between the things they eat and the way they look, who limit themselves to egg whites and chicken breasts in the name of ‘clean eating,’ or who chew and spit out foods with the wrong nutritional composition just to get the taste. And a small number of studies—though they sometimes conflate protein powders with other ‘supplements’ like human growth hormone—have found a connection between supplement use, exercise, and eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder.

Many people who lift weights, and order their eating around that, probably do it at least in part out of some hope of transformation. But the intensity of their belief and practice seems to run along a spectrum.

Canadian sociologist Michael Atkinson, in interviewing dozens of men who use nutritional supplements, came to the conclusion that the drive to consume them was a kind of ritual seemingly driven by something other than knowledge: “These men, while realistic about the degree of actual body-composition change created by supplements, choose to continue their consumption with an ‘it can’t hurt, it can only help’ mentality”—an idea all too familiar to those of us who might, even unconsciously, put more faith than we’d comfortably admit in our rituals.