Do you really need protein powder?

by Ryan Wagner

I’ve been a gym rat for around 15 years now. That’s how long I’ve been lifting weights and learning about movement. Over this time, I’ve also consumed my fair share of supplements in my attempt to be “bigger.” I’ve dabbled with all the usual suspects: mass gainer, creatine, and protein powder. Let’s talk about the latter. Specifically, let’s try to answer the question: Do you really need protein powder?

In my experience, new lifters are the ones most interested with supplements. At the competition level, the pendulum swings the other way, but for the most part, guys who have just recently discovered weightlifting are the ones most likely to be found perusing the shelves in GNC, one of the clones, or online. Now, I don’t offer up any nutritional advice on Motus because I’m not a nutritionist, but I would like to share my own experience with protein powders.

When I first began lifting weights I was in college. And like most college guys I was looking to build muscle, get bigger, and get a date. My strategy was pretty typical. I was going to lift weights and take on extra protein because I knew that in order to build new muscle mass I needed extra protein in my diet. I started with milk. For a couple weeks, I remember that I was making every effort to drink milk in place of water and the faster that I went through those plastic jugs, the better, I thought. After all, milk was cheap and as a college student I was on a perpetual budget. But all good things come to an end, and being a mere mortal, I wasn’t able to consume large amounts of milk for long.

Enter protein powder.

do you really need protein powder

A google search is revealing of what’s on people’s minds.

I’m assuming you’re familiar with protein powder. Today, it inhabits far more shelving space than just the supplement store. There are variations in Whole Foods, your corner grocer, even most buff celebrities have supplement lines these days. And they all appear to be relatively similar, don’t they? They are a very light powder that is packaged is a huge round bin with an oversized scoop buried somewhere within. But they aren’t all the same. Some brands seem to have more sugar than protein and are covered in shiny labels with overly masculine marketing.

If it seems like there are more brands of protein powders today than there ever have been, you’re right. And interest in “protein powders” in Google continues to grow (the annual spike in the graph below are the New Year’s resolutions folks).

do you really need protein powder

In my weightlifting career, I have generally had two long term relationships with protein.

Firstly, I purchased one of the big name brands. I looked for a label that was relatively boring and a product that wasn’t overpriced or endorsed by any champion lifters. This is because I was always a bit put off by the big flashy labels and brands that had pretty ridiculous marketing. I figured that any brand willing to compete that heavily in marketing wasn’t focusing on the product. Whether I was right in this thinking or not, it doesn’t matter anymore. Long story short, I was now supplementing my diet with a protein powder. I would mix it into my post workout shakes and oftentimes mix up a drink about an hour before my workout. Sometimes I would mix my shakes with two scoops because I wanted to get big fast! And I was always a little torn by this doubling down tactic because I knew that my tub would just empty twice as fast and I’d have to find another forty dollars to keep things going. People would ask me, “Ryan, do you really need protein powder?” I would just shrug and say, “of course, because my muscles need it.”

Let’s fast forward to my mid twenties.

By now, I was working at a large corporate firm earning a healthy paycheck. I was also focusing more on my nutrition and admittedly, looking for the best of the best. I was learning more about my beloved protein powder too. And the supplement market as a whole. Most importantly, I learned that it isn’t regulated by the government. So all that marketing can pretty much say what it wants. But I didn’t want to give up on protein powders because I still wanted to get bigger and impress people, right?! So, I found what I thought was the best. I found an online source that assured me of its integrity and quality product. But what really sold me was that I could create my own protein powder. Seriously! I could choose from grass fed protein, egg protein, a blend, etc. The list went on and on. And then I could even add specific BCAAs or vitamins. There were dozens of knobs that I could turn to create something truly bespoke. Nevermind the fact that I wasn’t a nutritionist or had much clue what I was doing. I purchased this premium protein for a number of years.

Then, about four years ago, I was very honest with myself. I realized that after all these years of taking protein, that it never really had an impact on my ectomorph frame. Every time I stepped on the scale (one of my misguided attempts at recording what I considered to be progress), regardless of whether I had been taking on extra protein or not, the number was usually the same. You see, I wasn’t really getting bigger at all after all that protein. Instead, I had been having digestive issues and flatulence that I largely ignored. I came to terms with the fact that most of this added protein was really just going right through me.

Looking back, I imagine my stomach looking at all this protein powder coming in and saying “Who the hell ordered all of this!? Get it out of here!”

I don’t want to make any generalizations. Protein powders may very well work for lots of people. And my nutritionist friends have explained to me that for vegetarians, there can be real value in supplementing. Nevertheless, speaking for myself, I just never saw any progress. I was very much blinded by the standard perception that in order to get big and strong, one needs to drink shakes and drink a lot of them. Instead, I should have just done a better job of listening to my body.

So, where does that leave me? What am I doing now?

Today, as many of my close friends can testify, I eat a lot of eggs. And a lot of food in general. I’m a healthy eater, too. Although it may seem tempting to bulk using junk food because it’s so calorically dense, we all know that’s not a good idea. And eating real food has been working well for me. Plus, I still make my shakes, but sans protein powder.

Real food. What a concept!

And looking back on my college days, eating a boatload of eggs would have even been less expensive than my failed adventure in lactose loading ;). So, do you really need protein powder?

Food for thought, everyone.

What’s your protein powder experience? Sound off in the comments below.

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