A trend of replacing meals with protein supplements is sweeping the nation's gyms. But how healthy is it? Not very, as ShortList's Jon Axworthy discovers
What are you having for dinner tonight? Steak perhaps, griddled, with sweet potatoes, grilled tomatoes and some wilted spinach. Or moussaka, with a green salad and a dry red wine. A shiraz, perhaps. Or maybe you’re going out to eat. We’ve all just been paid, after all.
But an increasing number of men won’t be doing any of this. Instead their main meal will be a flask full of sweet, flavoured protein, shaken vigorously, then downed in one go. Maybe two. And what’s more, they think they’re taking the healthy option. This is the new eating disorder, and it’s affecting an increasing number.
Eating disorders have been, in general, more widely publicised as a female concern. But men are now feeling the pressure as well. In this case, to bulk and tone up. To look like a Norse god. Specifically, a Norse god who hangs out with an angry green man and a billionaire who spends much of his time in a robotic flying suit.
As you read this, up and down the country, people are finishing their gym sessions with one final lift – the one that brings a protein shaker to their mouths. This is not the problem – used to supplement a balanced diet, it absolutely can be part of a healthy lifestyle.
“If you’re a strength athlete with a high-protein requirement you probably won’t hit that target with food alone,” says functional fitness and nutrition coach Troy Martin.
That’s why shaker bottles loaded with strange mixtures are as ubiquitous in gyms as the guy with changing room-based personal space issues.
Media objectification is putting pressure on men to strive for a body ideal that takes extreme and potentially damaging measures to attain
“It’s important to understand that these are an add-in to improve a balanced and goal-specific diet,” warns Martin. “Getting adequate levels of macro-nutrients should come from mostly single-ingredient wholefood sources, so get this right before looking to supplement. Powders are not a substitute for poor nutrition and are not a quick fix. If you think that shakes are meal replacements, you’re just not getting it.”
And therein lies the problem – an increasing number of people simply aren’t ‘getting it’. According to new research by the California School Of Professional Psychology, presented at the American Psychological Association’s recent annual convention, more than one-fifth of subjects, all male and ranging from 18 to 65, replaced regular meals with supplements.
In some of the cases, participants had been told by their doctor to discontinue their use of shakes or pills because it could have serious consequences for their health. Some of the men even ended up in hospital with kidney or liver problems related to their usage.
“There will always be men who are struggling with underlying issues of body dissatisfaction, low self-esteem and gender role conflict, but they are getting expressed as eating disorder behaviours in gym-active men,” says Dr Richard Achiro, one of the psychologists who co-authored the study. However, body dissatisfaction was found to be the single largest predictor of risky eating behaviours and misuse of supplements in the study.
“This was found to be influenced by the extent to which men internalise cultural standards of attractiveness, which are increasingly narrowly defined as a lean and muscular, physical ‘ideal’,” continues Achiro. “Media objectification is putting pressure on men to strive for a body ideal that takes extreme and potentially damaging measures to attain.”
And that could come from one too many bar-bending gym posts from Hugh Jackman on your Twitter feed, to David Gandy in his kecks or Poldark on your TV. “Men’s bodies are being objectified more commonly among global media outlets, including social media,” adds Achiro. “That’s not to say that the media was what caused the men in our study to have low self-esteem and conflicts around their sense of masculinity to begin with. However, body-conscious men who are driven by psychological factors to attain a level of physical or masculine ‘perfection’ are prone to use these supplements in a manner that was demonstrated in this study to be a variant of disordered eating.”
One of the most worrying statistics to come out of Achiro’s research was the fact that only around 30 per cent of the subjects were concerned about their own overuse of supplements. Which leaves a lot of men who believe that their supplementation routine is normal, or even healthy.
One of those men is 32-year-old Matt Traverse, a self-confessed gym-rat who works out every day, often twice a day. “I never miss breakfast, but I have my first shake around 10am – something with a 60:40 carb to protein ratio. I used to get a few funny looks at work, but everyone’s used to it now. It means that I can get to the gym at lunch without having to worry about eating, so there’s more time to train,” reveals Traverse. “Afterwards, I often put ice cubes, peanut butter and protein powder in a shaker and top it up with water for a post-workout smoothie.”
Matt’s fitness goal is simple: single-digit body fat, without losing muscle mass. “I only started working out in my late twenties when I went on holiday with mates to Ibiza and I was clearly the runt of the litter when it came to taking our tops off. I started going to the gym the day after we got back and I haven’t stopped since. When you start to see real results, training becomes part of your life.”
If Matt works out in the evening he’ll often have another DIY protein shake that includes glucomannan, which has been shown to suppress appetite. “That way I don’t undo the good work with a big dinner. The only day that I don’t miss any meals is legs day. I can’t get through my session otherwise. Everyone tells me that physique sculpting is 80 per cent diet, but I’m happy with how I do things.”
The psychological factors at work now are the same ones that drove the original body-building generation, who spent as much time trying to score illegal anabolic steroids as they did under a barbell. However, the gym is for everyone now, not just the muscle-bound few wanting to fill out a Gold’s Gym vest; and the experts agree that the potential for a disordered eating epidemic lies in the increasing body-image pressure men seem to be under.
This is compounded by the fact that they don’t have to seek out chemicals around the back of the gym, or from a dodgy doorman. Instead, the supplements that fuel today’s body issues are totally legal, which is why Dr Achiro predicts that “we should expect to see more men developing eating pathologies as a way to compensate for underlying psychological and emotional issues”.
And the really scary thing? Until society catches up with the same kind of networks that publicise and support other established eating disorders, these guys are on their own. Just them and their protein shake.
(Image: Sam Armstrong)