This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Sometimes anger makes you eloquent. Sometimes, it does the opposite. As I rolled down the arrivals ramp of Heathrow airport to the Underground recently, I was brought up short by a poster. "Are You Beach Body Ready?" it asked, the text wrapped around an apparently semi-conscious woman, her eyes drooping, dressed in a yellow bikini. "Oh fuck off," I said out loud, a knee-jerk reaction.
I'm not the only one to have reacted this way to the insinuation that we should only approach coastal areas if our stomachs are flat enough to land a helicopter on. Nearly 51,000 people have signed an online petition to get the adverts taken down, others have defaced posters across London and even Dove—that bastion of white underwear and wet underarms—launched a counter-attack under the #CampaignForRealBeauty heading. Now mass demonstrations are being planned this weekend in Hyde Park.
Not that any of that seems to have shaken Protein World. "Our advert has appeared in the news and across social media more times than we could have ever hoped for," Richard Staveley, Head of Global Marketing at the company tells me over email. "Sales are up and we're also receiving an incredible amount of support, not only from our customer base, but also from some who haven't even touched supplements before but still see the irony in the uproar… We haven't suggested that everyone should look like Renee [the model on the poster], but she is an aspirational figure who has achieved a phenomenal body in conjunction with a healthy diet, exercise, and Protein World."
You can make of that what you will. Personally, I see the Protein World campaign as a powerful example of advertising's, "Hey! You're ugly! Buy something to make yourself less ugly!" technique (and this is coming from someone who has done her fair share of work in advertising) but the pro-protein concept is hardly new. Whey protein has long been used as a dietary supplement by bodybuilders or those unable to eat solid meals but in dire need of calories—elderly people in residential homes, cancer patients, those in recovery from an eating disorder. Holland and Barrett has been hawking the stuff for years.
What may be surprising is that these protein supplements are now marketed by companies like Protein World as meal replacements and dieting tools for those already able to eat solid, green and pink, buy-it-down-the-shop food. "I don't like meal replacements at all," says nutritional therapist Laura Stirling. "I want to teach people how to incorporate food into their life, as a way of life. The only thing I'd recommend is adding protein powder to a smoothie if you don't have time or energy to eat a protein-rich breakfast," she adds. Because protein—which has gram-for-gram almost exactly the same number of calories as carbohydrates—takes longer to digest than carbohydrates and so doesn't cause the spike in blood sugar that might leave you ravenous a few hours later.
You may also be slightly surprised by the list of ingredients on the side of Protein World's so-called "Slender Blend" capsule. As a side note, the Slender Blend used to be called the "Fat Melter" which had a nice, David Cronenberg-esque ring to it, but seems to have been passed over in favor of something more holistic—more likely to appeal to people buying into the "goddess" school of slimming supplements. Or, as Richard Staveley put it, "The Slender Blend has developed in to somewhat of a successful sub-brand for us so it was simply a logical move."
Per serving, the Slender Blend capsules contain 200mg of caffeine anhydrous, 200mg of green tea extract, 150mg of guarana extract (22 percent caffeine) and 100mg of yerba mate powder—a Portuguese herb also containing caffeine. In short, these capsules contain various herbal forms of caffeine. They are stimulants; appetite suppressants. Stimulants that contain choline bitartarate and vitamins, sure, but stimulants nonetheless. No wonder the Protein World lists "✓ No jitters!" as one of the capsules' main selling points. Although it would be a miracle if that much caffeine didn't cause jitters.
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The capsules are described on the Protein World website as "a supplement designed to reduce the amount of fat you digest, ignite your metabolism, and increase the rate that your body burns fat." The language of burning or melting fat is incredibly attractive to someone who, like me, carries a fleshy bagel around her waist, despite regular exercise and eating like a monk.
There is something strangely enticing about the idea of such painless violence. But, of course, it's not that simple. "My best advice is understanding that this will be a lifelong endeavor," says obesity and family medicine physician and former athlete Dr. Spencer Nadolsky. "Many people are able to lose weight but most people are unable to keep the weight off because they resort to their old habits. Find a way to sustain the caloric deficit (your preferential diet and exercise plan) and get a good support system. Using protein supplements is a tool to help but they aren't magical."
They might not be magical, but they have their place. As Dr. Nadolsky says, protein powders are useful in treating obesity because they can help retain muscle while "in a caloric deficit," i.e. on a low calorie diet. But just adding them on top of your diet won't do much for weight loss and becoming reliant on a meal replacement rather than learning how to eat a balanced diet for the long run may make it harder to stay healthy.
"It's a low-carb plan," says nutritionist Jo Travers. "Because the shakes only have 4g of carbohydrates and, as a guess, you'll probably be eating between 20 and 100g of carbohydrates in that one meal." So what's the problem with a low-carb plan? "Low-carb plans tend to be quite bad for regaining weight afterwards."
So, if you've been restricting calories, when you start eating normally again, your body tries to get those fat stores back up to what they were. You can end up actually putting on more weight that you started with. Travers also points out that as well as a strangely low iron level for a product aimed at women (we tend to lose a lot of iron thanks to all that menstrual bleeding), these shakes also have quite a high level of Vitamin A. "The toxic level for vitamin A is 4,000 micrograms, so although you're not up to that toxicity level with these, if you're taking any other supplements then it's likely that you'll be getting close."
If you're having two protein shakes, taking a multivitamin, eating something like liver because you've heard it's good for you and a cod liver oil tablet then, according to Travers, you'll be way over the toxicity level. The consequences of that are skin conditions, hair loss, and mood swings. Luckily, you can usually repair those problems by reducing your vitamin A level but it can be quite severe, particularly if you're a smoker or pregnant, as too much vitamin A can cause birth defects.
Of course, it's not the ingredient lists on the side of Protein World's various packets and jars that have upset people. It's their current marketing. The implicit message of that now-famous poster campaign is that only people who look a certain way are welcome by the sea. Protein World's Twitter feed, where women hold jars of Fat Melter next to their huge, bra-clad breasts and rock-hard stomachs does little to counteract that impression.
So, has Protein World been pulled up by the response? Will they take heed of the online petition, the broadsheet opinion pieces, the guerrilla graffiti, and the mass protests? Will they change their approach? "We haven't got any plans to pull this current campaign," says Staveley. "On the contrary, we feel the campaign is doing extremely well!"
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