When the chipper woman at GNC asks if she can help me find something, I don’t think she realizes what a deeply existential question that is. I don’t know, Megan. Can you help me find my purpose in life? Can you help me find the career path that will end in both homeownership and a deep sense of personal satisfaction?
Can you help me find the perfect protein powder that will somehow help me achieve every single one of my health and fitness goals in one pleasant-tasting, plant-based, low-sugar, low-calorie formula?
Staring at the wall of tubs featuring images of impossibly muscular midsections, these all feel like equally challenging pursuits.
Ultimately, I tell Megan I’m just looking. I say this both because I am socially awkward and because the only thing worse than how long I know I’ll be reading labels is the thought of spending that time with a pair of perky eyes trained on the back of my head while she waits to offer suggestions. Plus, because of my body type, I know she’ll likely slip in some kind of plug for a metabolism booster or other weight-loss product, and I’m just not in the mood.
Besides, I want to be left to my own (copious) thoughts about all these giant containers full of even bigger promises; picking out the perfect protein powder is a surprisingly intimate affair. The process goes roughly like this:
Good lord these are expensive.
Look, the main reason it’s hard to pick out a protein powder is because you are going to have to drop some coin no matter what, so it kind of feels like a major commitment. And while you can return them if you really hate them, that feels like an even bigger commitment.
Ugh. OK. Better get this exactly right on the first try then.
Maybe I should just stick to protein bars and peanut butter…
It would certainly be cheaper. And less confusing.
No! I’m doing this! I want to be the kind of person who uses a protein supplement!
Once you’ve resigned yourself to the reality of plunking down at least $30 for a bucket of dust because you know in your heart it's the right thing for you, the real fun starts. What, exactly, do I expect my protein powder to do? Do I want a meal replacement? A supplement? A gainer?
Ugh, maybe I should get Megan back here.
Whey? Casein? Plant based? Existential crisis?
Good god, I thought I knew something about nutrition, but as I compare the myriad kinds of protein I feel extremely lost. Fortunately, I do have a very-useful guide to protein supps ready to go. I still feel overwhelmed, but this helps.
OK, PROTEIN. I AM READY.
Let’s start by eliminating what I definitely don’t want.
Deep down, I know no single protein powder can somehow burn all my fat; create giant, glorious muscles; and somehow also taste great and not give me the kind of gas that could power a small propellor plane.
Sometimes, the best way to narrow your search is by setting guidelines or at least getting very specific about what you do and don’t want. Once I’ve determined the kind of protein I want (i.e., the source of it), I can further assess my options.
For instance, I never want something that has "gainer" or "mass" in the title because that’s not what I’m looking for; mostly, I just need protein as a supplement to help in recovery after workouts. My boyfriend, meanwhile, doesn’t want anything that promises "fat burning," "metabolism boosting," or has the word "lean" in it, because he is trying to gain.
Unfortunately this typically means…
My, but protein powder marketing sure seems to be deeply gendered. A shirtless, disembodied collection of highly defined abdominals on what appears to be a man’s body? HUGE MAN MUSCLES JUST FOR MEN. A shirtless, disembodied collection of highly defined abdominals on what appears to be a woman’s body? VERY LEAN. WOMEN MUST BE SMALL AND WITHOUT EVEN A HINT OF FAT.
Barf. Just give me something that’ll make me super strong so I can thwart the daily cascade of gender norms.
The protein industry needs a design makeover.
Why are all of these tubs so ruthlessly ugly?
Oh, that’s why, I guess
As I ponder the objectively unfortunate typography and design of protein powders, I will inevitably be interrupted by a humongous man in a tank top who will offer me unsolicited advice ("You know, if you’re looking to lose, you really just need to up your cardio"). So I guess that’s why these are all so aggressive. They appeal to Steve over there.
Hey, this one looks like it meets all of my needs!
**36 grams of sugar per serving**
At long last, you find the perfect one.
Right amount of protein per serving? Check.
In my caloric range? Check.
Has an additional perk I want? Heck yes.
OK, HERE COMES AN AMAZING, WONDERFUL, NEW ME.
Watch out, world! She’s got an expensive container of minimally sweetened protein isotope, and she’s not afraid to shake it up in a bottle and drink it immediately following a workout!
God, I hope it’s not that gross.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and political consultant who also has an exercise habit. She enjoys plant-based proteins and working out in t-shirts with snarky phrases on them. You can follow her on Twitter @mshannabrooks.