Leg Day Observer

Weightlifting: protein supplements went mainstream — and why that's a problem

How a weird protein orgy got us here.

A man drinks a protein supplement shake.
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Hello! Welcome to Leg Day Observer, an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day.

Michael Burry, the guy with the bowl cut played by Christian Bale in Adam McKay’s The Big Short, based on the 2011 Michael Lewis book, was one of the first people to call the housing bubble — maybe the first.

Investors were bundling risky mortgages into impenetrable asset classes for speculative purposes that seemed to get more complicated by the quarter. Burry, who ran a hedge fund, noticed this. "One of the hallmarks of mania,” he wrote to his investors, “is the rapid rise in complexity and the rates of fraud." He was referring to collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps, growing more profitable, more dangerous, and more worthless.

I believe we are in a similar moment with protein supplements.

In the past five years, supplements — powdered whey, pre-workout formulas, protein-right baking powders, augmented snacks, branch-chain amino acids — have moved past the edge of the bodega fridge and bottom shelf of the grocery store into the mainstream of American nutritional life. Supplements are a multi-billion dollar industry, growing at around 8 percent a year as it veers into stranger, ornate and worrying territory.

Why are there pizza protein waffles now? How did Nutter Butter get involved? Why is there protein powder for children? It’s a different world even from a few years ago, a mania that seems like the logical endpoint and deranged evolution of protein, from staple to ignored subject of misinformation to profit driver.

How did we get here? — Things started off simple: 1950s bodybuilding magazines like Strength and Health and Muscle Power sold readers on lifting programs with diet as an afterthought, albeit a well-considered one, promoting strait-laced, available foods: protein (a meat), a starch (usually potatoes), and vegetables (probably creamed spinach).

As bodybuilding matured, athletes like Arnold Schwarzenegger specialized their diets further, dialing protein up and fat down, double-clocking their macronutrient requirements. (Macronutrients can be thought of as hyper-specific calories: the required grams of fat, carbs, and protein, each containing a certain amount of calories, to maintain muscle mass and organ function. Losing weight roughly requires a calorie deficit, in which fat and carbs are cut and protein is increased.)

Women advertise Vic Tanny's Hi-Protein Food Supplement in Los Angeles in 1954.

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Bodybuilders, seeking unsustainable body-fat percentages, would cut nearly all the fats from their diet and kept protein intake high, which yielded results — miserable, unhealthy results —in the long weeks before a competition. The popular diets that followed took these ideas and mistranslated them, causing more harm than good. The 1980s and ‘90s were low-fat: dieters, having cut out that satiating macronutrient, would get brittle and hungry, and a decade later, sugar and carb consumption rose.

By the time Barack Obama became president, corrections had come, in the way of carb-limiting protocols: sugar- and gluten-free, paleo, keto, and low-carb. These strict regimens — heavy protein, light on veggies — then morphed into more real-world diets like Whole 30, and the Mediterranean diet, which insisted on actual food, and macros counting, or flexible dieting, a sort of unholy hackable mathematical approach that returned to the original bodybuilders’ methods of measurements. (I’m ignoring meal timing here since this is a post in itself.)

Most of these diets worked or could work, for a little while, since by cutting out the fats and carbs that most folks underestimated —what we think is a cup of rice is closer to three; a cup is really a handful — pounds could come off. It was a way of returning, accidentally, to the old Arnold diet. Bodybuilders measured everything, developing a preternatural ability to gauge a meal’s nutritional value by sight. (This ability would later provide the plot for Predator.)

But while bodybuilders cut out the extra cup of rice, diets like keto and paleo threw out the whole subcategory, creating a contract as strict and unfun as the weeks before a competition. If you only eat depressing foods, and half the grocery store is off the table, you’ll never be full, and the diet will stop working — because you stopped dieting.

In a sense, then, it’s understandable how this weird protein orgy has spilled over from lifters to everyone else in the past decade.

Protein’s the most satiating macronutrient — the same calories of lean chicken, let’s say — will fill you up more than carbs or fat. The popular diets — old ones which didn’t focus on protein; new ones which confused it — didn’t focus on satiety, or how muscle mass improved metabolic rates and hit walls in the long-term.

Outside that sphere, there’s a general confusion about protein requirements: one New York Times story lists the daily requirement at 50 grams, which is a three-egg cheese omelet and a couple of sardines — which seems low. On the sports side, reports say active people need a gram per body weight or more. For a female of average weight that’s a rotisserie chicken a day. Who has time for that? And which is it?

This weird grey area has become a space that protein supplements have filled.

The problem with protein supplements — Consumers who need macronutrients at that athletic rate now have options. This historically, mostly male space — a Met-Rx scene in Jackie Brown 20-plus years ago came as a shock— hasn’t really been that anymore for a few years now. What’s come is a baroque status quo based on pleasure, a strange, ever-evolving set of hyper-specific and advancing strains, pre-workout formulas, and ancillary substances.

There are specific protein powders for women and children; there are proteins produced by gyms and one inspired by American Pie. This summer, M&Ms have released protein chocolate bars (in Europe), Ghost, a supplement company, put out a whiskey sour pre-workout supplement, and Amazon has a sports nutrition chips section. Kid protein shakes are wildly popular, and the Taco Bell Power Menu just celebrated its sixth anniversary.

It all creates a market and mood different from the ones based in those earlier diets, or anything from the Jackie Brown era.

Protein supplements for sale in Miami Beach.

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Instead, the supplement era is based on indulgence and pleasure. Flavors are gluttonous, or snacky, or exciting, and sweet; there are cereal and candy brand collaborations, like with Swedish Fish, and Chips Ahoy. For companies who don’t feel like paying a license, their knockoff flavors hint at a flavor —think “toaster pastry.”

What results is a dialog with the sort of high-indulgent snacking behaviors that are, frankly, fun and relaxing. And it’s a good thing! If you’re drinking a protein shake every day, forever, why not mix it up? If you’re hitting your protein goals for the day, why can’t it be with a pizza waffle or a Clark-bar flavored powder?

In a sense, though, it seems like the unfortunate final stages of an economic reality. And questions arise: supplements are completely unregulated, information is meager, companies label and advertise falsely. Sites like Labdoor, a subscription testing service, do test some protein supplements on their bonafides, but should the private market have to? (Labdoor tests a minuscule fraction of what’s on the market.)

It’s also true that no lifter can live off protein alone. If you’re getting bigger, you need less than you think — and the extra additions, by way of flavor, isolate, or cereal association, have minimal benefit after a certain point.

Double-clocking macros and ratios might work for athletes, or to get from 8 percent to 7 percent body fat, but most people who are generally active are best served by buying the cheapest protein powder there is and eating real foods — even spaghetti — for most meals.

Powders, even the best ones, still feel less like food and more like a hack, and basing a diet around them, even if there are macros, is like having five home equity loans: gains are mortgaged, and costs are intended to be paid down the line. Things like butter-flavored powder aren’t butter; they’re black boxes. Burry could analyze a CDO by looking at its mortgage — but how do we do that for lunch?

The real insight may be that these bodybuilding magazine diets were so effective because they were traditional and hippified. Eating whole foods, with say some extra drumsticks at dinner, is ideal for a lifter or athlete, but it’s not cheap. It shouldn’t be so complicated to eat.

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