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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  1. You don’t need protein powders. I have many food allergies. I have yet to meet the protein powder I can eat. I eat meat. I eat beans. When I exercise heavily I crave more of those things, so I have an extra serving of chicken or beef or whatever protein source is in front of me. I know I don’t need all of the chemicals they load the powders with. I don’t need another excuse to add more sweeteners into my food. Keep avoiding protein powder. You’ll be just fine.

  2. I don’t like protein powders and like you, I don’t get why they are so highly touted by those in the health and fitness industry—actually, I do get it; it probably has something to do with the all mighty dollar. People who are always talking about clean healthy eating, whole foods and the dangers of processed foods from one side of their mouth, are always promoting the “benefits” of protein powders out of the other. Last I checked protein powder isn’t a whole or clean food, and you can find better sources in nature. I’d rather add chia seeds or flax to my shakes then stomach the chalky “food stuff” that is protein powder.

  3. Average workout folks don’t need protein powder and can get adequate amounts of protein via everyday food intake. It is only when you enter the realm of more extreme forms of exercise that require larger amounts of calories in general, not just protein that protein powders start to make sense. I use them for convenience and because for my specific situation I can’t always eat a meal. I’m a natural bodybuilder (as in no steroids or hormones used) who eats 6-8x per day. At least 3-4 of those times are at work. I can’t always eat a meal if I’m sitting in a meeting, but I certainly can suck down a protein shake. I have no delusions about them being “clean” or unprocessed but they serve a purpose and I use them for that purpose. On weekends I’m far less likely to use them because I can sit down and eat in most cases. I’m also really picky about which companies’ products I use. Lots of research and reading goes into my choices about any supplements I use. All that said, real, whole foods should come first when building a diet no matter what your health/workout goals are.

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