The Protein Question of Ashoka University
By Smriti Nambudiri, ASP '23
It’s a simple question, really. But I’ve heard it echoed around the campus without an answer in sight. The words have been plastered on the walls of the sports complex, etched into the gym equipment, painted across the football fields and badminton courts. The question that has left the lips of many Ashokans that have walked down these hallways and have looked at an item of food:
“How much protein does this have?”
Like I said, simple enough.
Now, I am not a “gym bro”. I don’t suffer a dearth of physical activity (my yoga mat is well-loved), but the gym – with all its mechanical equipment, closed space, and loud, pounding music with multiple sweaty people all breathing very loudly – isn’t really my thing. I am, however, friends with several of these elusive creatures, whose language of ‘gains’, ‘reps’, and ‘Smith machines’ never ceases to confound and amaze me. And so, of course, I have witnessed the chosen drink of this species, contained in plastic shakers that are definitely bigger than my face: a light brown liquid, powder-trails on the sides of the cup-like structure, smelling of either chocolate or strawberry. Ze Protein ShakeTM .
I first learnt about the basic components of a truly balanced diet back in 3rd grade, with the food pyramid illustrating what kind of foods you were and weren’t supposed to eat more of; a nightmare to draw in exams that took up 10 excruciating minutes of my time and made me want to throw my pencils off my desk. Since then, it was something I’ve had in the back of my mind for the one week it was taught to us again every year, making me scrutinise every meal like I was Gordon Ramsey’s sous chef. As soon as the week was over though, I would go back to not caring about what exactly I ate, just ensuring that it seemed acceptable to my mother’s cursory glances. Even in college, a desperate need for self-discipline had me passively consuming whatever the mess had to offer, with a splash of Dhaba food and a dash of ASG. As long as there was food, and it seemed substantial enough to fill my stomach, I wasn’t complaining too much. I knew people cared a bit more about what they were putting into their systems at college, even getting into meal planning! However, I always imagined that people were tracking all of their food groups equally, maintaining the balance of the food pyramids that I had grown up studying. And for the most part, yes; that is how most people are. But as the years went by, and I grew more and more aware of my surroundings, I started to notice something. Daily intake requirement numbers were thrown around, food packets closely scrutinised on every tuck shop visit, and a certain complaint rose in volume.
I’m pretty sure you already know what that was.
There was a certain group of people spearheading these talks, with shakers, those ‘extra protein’ drinks that the vending machine stocks that just seem like a liquid mistake, and protein bars whose price tags are enough to make me Scrooge McDuck. I have heard their talks about the food on campus and how it doesn’t satisfy their dietary requirements, one of them even going so far as to say, “If I don’t get more protein, I may just start eating other people.” Not a good sign for the rest of us. This specific quest for protein, this craving for a specific food group that has extended into verbal proclamations for it — it fascinates me. So in order to understand it, I managed to track down a few such strange creatures in order to hear from them: what exactly makes protein so special?
“Oh, the Holy Grail of all gym-bros!” one of them proclaimed, their arms raised to the air like a salute to the all-encompassing god of venerable protein. “It’s something we want at every point of the day, even when we’re sleeping.”
It isn’t just something that they crave out of joy. There is something far more fundamental to this particular desire. See, protein — and I learnt this from these gym bros themselves — is important when wanting to build a good physique, particularly for toning one’s muscles. It’s what enables them to take those mirror selfies flexing in the reflection of windows while you’re standing there just wanting to go for dinner (but no, the tricep selfie is incredibly necessary!) To each their own, I guess.
This also seems to go deeper than just a carnal craving for muscular superiority. It’s about one’s feelings about themselves — something I found myself nodding along to in agreement with them. “It makes me feel good about myself, about my body’s capability to do physical activities,” one of them said. “It gives me the strength to do sports and do the things I want.”
There is a flip side to this, however, that I also wish to bring up to these gym bros. This constant conversation of nutrients, protein, and daily intakes, is normal in your lives, consuming your every day. We understand that you have a need to know what it is you put into your bodies, and you may advocate for a clear indication of everything that is contained in the metal pans we peruse at every meal on campus. But there is a fine line between casual and harmful when talking about counting and needing numbers displayed, and arguing about the “right” things to be putting into your body. Talking about the search for protein is all fun and games until it becomes what causes someone to suffer.
All that aside, though, there’s just one problem.
“The food on campus does not satisfy this requirement at all,” they say. emphatically. “The calories are a mess, you never know how much of what you’re putting in your system. There’s no sustainable source of protein on this campus that isn’t insanely expensive.” You’d think, with the dals served every day and the regularly scheduled days of chicken and paneer, this would be sufficient, but it isn’t. Plant-based protein found in lentils and such is nowhere near the amount recommended for those building muscles, and the quantity of protein that is in the meats and lentils served in the mess doesn’t feel substantial, even to a novice like me. So I can only imagine how these gym-bros cells must cry out every day when they don’t get what they need. The search for protein on campus leads them to incur immense costs, of both money and energy, in order to be able to satisfy their requirements. I have almost started to feel sympathy for them.
This constant search for protein is taking a toll on this withering species on campus. “Not getting protein makes me hyperactive, and anxious,” one of them said to me as they downed a whole bottle of protein shake in one breath. “I can’t sleep, I can’t work, I’m always trying to find protein in all my food to the point that I can’t tell what is what anymore,” another mentioned, compulsively drawing dumbbells on their notebook. “If only there was an easier way to get protein on this campus,” one cried out, falling to their knees in my dorm room.
We may not understand them, but seeing them like this, we can certainly help them. So if you see a gym-bro needing protein approaching you, don’t run away. Talk to them. Help them. And try and support them in calculating the amount of protein that is in that packet of chips.