There are so many things that annoy me about protein shakes, it is amazing I’ve ever got one as far as my mouth. The packaging is heavily gendered, and the women’s ones all seem to talk about hormones, as if men’s hormones didn’t exist, and there always seems to be some subtle weight loss agenda to anything packaged in pink. They have names like The Slender Blend (though that one is actually yellow). There is a strong millennial tang of body-as-machine to the enterprise: “I put in, I pump out, I know exactly how everything works, I am purely self-sufficient and without needs from the external world.”
Yet if you want to exercise like a maniac, or even at all, you do need protein: a sedentary woman – let’s say she’s my age, though that’s not relevant – is recommended to eat about 0.8g of protein per kilo of bodyweight; an active one, 1.5g. When you exercise you destroy muscle cells; then, when you rebuild them, they’re larger, for which you need protein – and fast. Some argue that even the less active should be eating more protein, which would be easy if protein-y foods were entirely protein. But even the richest sources, such as chicken breast, are only a third protein. Meeting your quota entirely with food is doable, but quite an undertaking. I interviewed Panther the Gladiator once, who said that in the days before a body-building contest, she ate 18 chicken breasts every 24 hours, and this for some reason stayed with me for years, as a good reason not to be a bodybuilder.
Protein shakes are just easier. I found, after a bespoke vegan shake at Barry’s Bootcamp, that I couldn’t contemplate eating again for many hours, but there was something faintly unnatural about it – less like fullness and more like a blockage. I felt like a python that had swallowed a safe.
In the olden days, if you ever saw the word “whey”, it was on a mass-gainer, something high in protein, carbs and fat – like a fried breakfast, only not nice. Now whey is in all the protein powders, except for the vegan option, which is pea derivative (Free Soul uses pea protein isolate, rapidly absorbed and designed for straight after a workout). In fitness circles, there is a mantra about never eating a shake with more than eight ingredients, but when half of those are legit vitamins you’ve heard of, it’s hard to carp about the remainder – xylitol, pantothenic acid; also, some are legit vitamins (pantothenic acid is Vitamin B5). It’s much better to mix the protein into an actual shake with food in it: mango, banana, spinach (if you like your drinks the colour of stagnant water).
Did the shakes do anything for me? I was full, yes, but didn’t love drinking my meals. It’s all in the convenience: who wants to look for yet another chicken breast when they’re out and about? Who wants to do all that tedious chewing? Who wants to spend one second thinking about the composition of their jackfruit wrap? It’s a spaceman level of functionality, for people who fancy themselves as busy and self-caring as an astronaut. That’s not me. You can decide whether or not that’s you.
What I learned
If you weigh 70kg (11 stone), roughly an average woman’s weight, you should eat about 55g of protein a day if sedentary, 105g if active