Pump You Up: The Enduring Power of Protein Powder

Everything you could possibly want to know about gym goers’ favorite hack

Rowan Jacobsen
Elemental
Published in
9 min readJul 15, 2019

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Illustration: George Wylesol

MyMy friend David recently hopped on the protein-powder express. Everyone I know seems to be downing the stuff, but I never thought David would join them. He’s a world-class food photographer, a Brooklyn boulevardier, a brilliant cook. He’s also Mr. Natural. David shops at farmers’ markets, drinks biodynamic wine, eats with the seasons. He forages. But the last time I saw him, he confessed that Gold Standard whey protein is his new culinary bestie.

Why? David was on a mission to get ripped, and that involved intense lifting every day, and that meant his body was chewing up calories like Quadzilla. If he was going to build serious muscle, his trainer told him, he needed to eat 200 grams of protein a day.

That’s a ton of protein. The recommended daily amounts are 46 grams for women and 56 for men. In food terms, that equates to eating four large chicken breasts a day, which David actually did for a while, but he found it dull to spend that much time eating. More often than not, he’d reach the end of the day well short of his 200 grams — and a couple of scoops of Gold Standard 100% Whey (24g of protein per scoop), blitzed with bananas and berries, got him over the line.

I’ve written about food for 20 years, and I stay on top of nutritional science. I’ve eaten semi-paleo for years and I’m pleased with the beefcake-lite results, but I’ve always relegated powdered protein to the realm of health scams. I favor writer Michael Pollan’s rule about not eating anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. (Then again, my grandmother made it through the 1960s and 1970s on little more than cigarettes and Bugles.)

But it’s become obvious that protein powder is no longer a trend reserved for muscle boys. It’s a $30 billion industry. It’s being pounded by Instagram influencers, teenage athletes, and aspirational octogenarians. It beckons from coolers of ready-to-drink shakes in every Walmart, Costco, and Whole Foods. What is so appealing about consuming daily dollops of beige powder?

Most obviously, it’s about getting fit, which is often really about not getting fat. And since Americans have been taught that…

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Rowan Jacobsen
Elemental

I’m a crossing guard at the intersection of Food, Adventure, and Natural Systems.