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My Problem With Protein Powder [The question no one will ever answer for me!]

Posted Jul 02 2012 12:28am

See – THIS is the proper way to get your protein.

Over the years of writing about fitness, I still have several Great Fitness Questions that I have never gotten a satisfactory answer for:

- Why does eating one pound of chocolates make me gain more than one pound of weight? How is that even mathematically possible – doesn’t this violate the law of conservation of mass or something?

- Which is the correct way to put on a bra: Do you put it on front-ways and then clasp it in the back or do you put it on backwards around your waist, clasp it in the front, spin it around and then pull it up? (Seriously, settle an on-going Gym Buddy dispute for me! We’re split 50/50 on this one!)

- Why does no one in the fitness industry seem to consider protein powder a “processed food” even though it is so far removed from its original source that it wouldn’t recognize a cow if it moo’ed? (Or a soy bean if it squeaked. Or a hemp seed if it… smoked?)

It’s this last one that’s got me scratching my head lately. Unless you just fell off a (locally sourced, organic) turnip truck then you know that every fitness guru these days is all about “whole foods” – the comestibles, not the store chain. And I love this! I think eating foods as close to the form they come in is great advice. And delish. But what always gets me is how many of these same experts will recommend protein shakes in the very same breath. Since when is protein powder a whole food? The last fit pro I asked that to changed the topic by yelling “Ooh shiny!” and running the other direction.

So: What I’m about to tell you may make me the most reviled person in the fit-o-spere: I don’t love smoothies (if you’re a girl). Or protein shakes (if you’re a dude). Or recovery drinks (if you’re in AA). (Kidding!). Or even drinkable yogurt. The only exception to this rule are milkshakes but even then I only like the kind that are basically candy chunks with ice cream and milk poured in the cracks (helloooo Dairy Queen Girl Scout Blizzards! (Made with Girl Scout cookies, not Girl Scouts themselves. (Specifically the Samoa cookies, coconutty caramel devils they are.))) Triple parentheses! See, I get so worked up about smoothies that I must resort to bad grammar to get my point across.

Now that you are recoiling from your screens in horror – For the love of little green apples, what serious worker-outer doesn’t love a good protein shake?! – allow me to back pedal a bit. I don’t hate smoothies. And my kids adore them (Popeye is so passe, a “Shrek” smoothie is the only way I can get the 5-year-old to eat his spinach) so I do make them with some frequency. And I even kind of learned to see the point in having one after a weight workout when I did my fave Rachel Cosgrove Female Body Breakthrough Experiment.


My first issue is that I like to chew stuff. I blame this on my father who chews ice like the Kardashian sisters chew QuickTrim. Although, to my knowledge, he has never posed in a bikini touting the curative powers of ice chewing (results not typical, spray tan not included.) When I was just a wee tot, he taught me how to make chunky milkshakes – stirred with a spoon and never blended – and it ruined me on the smooth kind forever. He also ate mayonnaise straight out of the jar using a carrot as a spoon which is another one of my secret weaknesses. Aw heck, while I’m airing all his dietary laundry, he also loves unsweetened mineral water, something else I am still preternaturally fond of.
Problemo numero dos is that I don’t like protein powder. I don’t like it in protein bars, cereals, drink mixes and especially not in smoothies. Not only does it taste funny and is often full of tons of artificial sweeteners and other chemicals but I’m leery of protein that doesn’t come from a whole food. (Holla Michael Pollan!) Plus protein powder advertisements are second only to diet pills in obnoxiousness so I feel that I must hate them on principle.
And then there’s this : Consumer Reports this month performed lab tests on 15 popular protein drinks and pre-fab smoothies. Their findings are not comforting. In an industry that is self-policed – the FDA does not regulate supplements, leaving manufacturers to set and maintain their own standards – it is probably not much of a surprise that Consumer Reports found several ingredients that were not on the label (i.e. lead, arsenic and cadmium) and found several listed ingredients to be lacking (oh, like, protein). The top three offenders for contaminants were EAS Myoplex Shakes, Muscle Milk protein powders and Muscle Milk Shakes – two of the most popular brands on the market. Especially concerning was the high levels of cadmium found. Thanks to Tommy Boy, we’re all pretty aware of the dangers of lead poisoning (I think the most popular retort in my high school was “Did you eat paint chips as a child?”) but many of us aren’t aware of cadmium, a heavy metal that infiltrates our food supply through many pesticides.
“This is a highly toxic metal, and while there are some cases where decisions have to be weighed against relative risks, accepting that you have to be exposed to any cadmium at all in your protein drink after your workout is definitely not one of them,” says Michael Harbut, M.D., director of the Environmental Cancer Initiative at the Karmanos Cancer Institute in Royal Oak, Mich. “
In addition to heavy metals, other ingredients not listed on the label – like banned steroids – have been found in protein powders. Thanks to the popularity of Atkins, South Beach and other low-carb diets, protein is the macronutrient of the day with many people, especially athletes, afraid that they aren’t getting enough. Protein powder/shakes companies play on this fear with ambiguous labeling and dosing guidelines, encouraging users to ingest as many servings as possible.
“Shao, the industry trade-group official, says there is no such thing as consuming too much protein, as long as you’re getting other nutrients in your diet as well. Not so, says Kathleen Laquale, a licensed nutritionist and certified athletic trainer. “The body can only break down 5 to 9 grams of protein per hour, and any excess that is not burned for energy is converted to fat or excreted, so it’s a ridiculous waste to be recommending so much more than you really need.”
Excess protein can also have detrimental effects on your health with issues ranging from diarrhea to bone loss to kidney dysfunction. Like anything, you have to find the right balance. Protein is a necessary nutrient and care should be taken to get enough but there is such a thing as too much.
Help me out – can I get sufficient protein from food without using powders? Do you use protein powder? Do you have an unanswered fitness q? Is Tommy Boy a classic in your house too?
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