My bodega is only a little bigger than my studio apartment, and sells no fewer than 10 kinds of Muscle Milk. In the drink cases, crowded with bottled water, Snapple, and Arizona iced tea, Muscle Milk occupies prime, eye-level real estate, protein counts splashed across the front of the bottles in black, bold lettering: 15, 20, 35 grams. Inside the bottles are creamy shakes in flavors like Chocolate, Strawberries ‘n Crème, and Mango Tangerine. The branding is literally protein-themed, and the higher the number, the greater the halo: protein is the reason for its central location and fluorescent spotlight.
We all need more protein, even if few of us know why. Protein has emerged as an undisputed Good Choice over the past 50 years of warring scientific studies slagging fat and carbs, endless opportunistic fad diets, and skyrocketing obesity in America. Just as one might look at all the world’s religions and decide that, while none is correct, there must be “something out there,” one might look at all the world’s weight-loss diets and note that, while they contradict each other in many ways, they all seem to preach protein, so protein must be good.
I’ve been lifting weights in pursuit of stronger muscles for a few years now, and one of the first things I learned was that strength can’t be built if it’s not supported by copious amounts of protein every single day (about one gram per pound of bodyweight is the bro’s rule of thumb). As a crazy and unique human, I love eating, but I also spend a fair amount of my time trying to round out my protein count. Oddly, an increasing number of convenience foods have become attuned to my extremely specific nutritional needs. Most people who visit my bodega are not preparing to load a barbell with 220 pounds and squat it, which makes the rise in striving for more and more protein remarkable.