Protein Is for Eating, Not Drinking

Step away from the protein shake.


For the past 50 years, American eating habits have shifted away from consuming meat. The dawn of eating plants is here to stay among the Millennials and Gen-Xers.

According to a 2015, titled Study on America’s Consumption of Fruit and Vegetables (pdf), Americans 40 and younger consume more vegetables than their counterparts a decade ago. Fresh vegetable consumption is expected to grow by eight percent overall, the study suggests, in the next few years.

As more and more Michael Pollan-esque books are published—Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma hit bookshelves in 2006 and is considered the bible of this new food movement—younger Americans are beginning to question their relationship with eating meat.

To put in perspective the decline of eating meat, consider that in 1972, the average American ate 104 pounds of red meat each year, highlighted in this MSNBC story from last fall. In 2012, that dropped to 75 pounds per person. All meat consumption, including poultry and fish, according to the USDA data in this 2014 Wall Street Journal article, has dropped about 11 percent per capita since 2004 (from 146 pounds to 132 pounds).

We are now drinking our protein, going as far as replacing our meals on a routine basis for a protein shake.

And this is not a bro-only phenomenon. Sure, Hugh Jackman would not be Wolverine without his protein shakes, but the trend is happening among women as well—those who wish to look more like X-Men: Apocalypse star Olivia Munn, thinking that by drinking a shake for dinner with a powdered protein, they consume less calories in a healthy way.

Is it a good idea?

According to Megan Wolf, a NYC-based registered dietitian and the owner of Megan Wolf Nutrition, people should eat their calories, not drink them.

“The brain interprets calories from food differently than calories from drinks; therefore it’s essential that people limit liquid calories,” Wolf told The Daily Beast.

“Most people can drink more calories than they could eat in one sitting. And with any drink, those calories can go down very quickly. The faster we eat, the less amount of time our brains have to ‘talk’ to our stomachs—we need this to happen to help us know when we are full,” she said.

What exactly is in a protein shake? The answer is, it really all depends—which is another part of the problem.

First, there is the actual protein source, typically a powder sourced from plants (hemp), legumes (peas or soy), or some combination of the vegetable variety; or cow’s milk, either as whey (quick absorption) or casein (slower absorption).

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A majority of protein powders on the market are also sweetened with Stevia, Ace-K, or another sugar-substitute (if not sugar itself) and marketed as natural. Additional color dyes, anti-caking or preserving agents, vitamins and minerals, and even enzymes are added to help digest the protein. It’s a lot of secret-sauce-wheeling-and-dealing, as well as making the powder appealing to the American sweet tooth.

With no standard as to what else goes into the shake—be it fruit, vegetables, fat like coconut manna, a fiber source like chia or flax meal, or even extra sweetener like honey or agave—there’s a real risk of consuming more than one could eat in a sitting, or eating too much of one nutrient and not enough of the other, or not properly digesting the shake’s contents at all, as nature intended—slowly, over time.

Biting, chewing, and swallowing an apple is a lot different than blending it and adding in vegan protein powder plus coconut water and some flax meal. Would you call this dinner?

According to Wolf, the fad also stems from a place of convenience. There has been an increase in the number of juice, smoothie, and shake shops across the country, she said, making it even easier for people to drink on-the-go. And she’s right—it’s a billion dollar business that is on the rise.

“There is an appeal to ‘eating’ a quick meal while on the move, but in that convenience lies part of the problem,” she said.

Wolf suggests it really comes down to you, your priorities, and your schedule.

“Is there a place for meal replacements in a healthy diet? Absolutely. But, is it better to eat your calories instead of drink your calories? Again, absolutely.”