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The mainstreaming of sports nutrition consumption in the Norwegian food culture

L’intégration de la consommation des produits diététiques pour les sportifs dans la culture de l’alimentation norvégienne
Silje Elisabeth Skuland and Siv Elin Ånestad


In modern Norwegian food culture eating to achieve physical performance and muscular strength is a growing phenomenon. The market for sports nutrition products has increased and a range of new market actors and sales channels have appeared. In this article we will discuss why consumption of such products has become normalised and mainstream. To explore this question we investigate consumer motives and purposes of consuming sports nutrition products. Sport nutrition consumption has become legitimate and mainstream in a cultural climate where living a healthy lifestyle is highly important, where individuals are increasingly held responsible for their own health, and where food is increasingly valued for its nutritional components. We find that the emphasis on the ideal body in close relation with food regulation regimes has set the scene for the growth of the consumption of sports nutrition products. New body ideals of the slim, fit, toned, and healthy body, coupled with the large scale trust placed on authorities and commercial actors such as gyms seem to have paved way for a normalisation and mainstreaming of the consumption of sports nutrition products among Norwegians.

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Both authors, Silje Elisabeth Skuland and Siv Elin Ånestad, have contributed equally to the process of writing this article.


1In modern Norwegian food culture, eating to achieve peak physical performance and muscular strength is a growing phenomenon. News articles such as “Eat to become fitter”, from the newspaper Dagbladet, tell us what to eat in order to “double the effect of training”. Moreover, we read in the same article that “the body has a window of 30 minutes after your workout where it is more receptive to nutrients and saves these in the muscles used during exercise” (Dagbladet, 2011). Similarly, the newspaper’s article “How to eat right food to do fitness” claims that “proteins are essential for building and maintaining muscle and tissue in the body. If your body does not get enough energy, it will use protein for energy, which weakens the body's tissues and muscles” (VG, 2006). Within this context, specialised sports nutrition products and ingredients have been developed and a range of new market actors and sales channels have appeared (Ånestad et al., 2009). The consumption of specialised ingredients or food in order to enhance performance may seem to be a new phenomenon. However, eating energy rich food in relation to hard physical work has a long tradition in the Nordic countries. The food that was most associated with forestry work at the turn of the 19th century was fried pork fat. To compensate the energy loss while working as a forester was a time-consuming part of life at that time, and it was not to be done with just any food (Johansson, 1994; Notaker, 2000). The forestry workers’ choice of pork fat aimed at compensating for the need of 4000 – 7000 kcal a day (Johansson, 1994: 71).

  • 1 Although not making any concluding remarks upon the prevalence of sport nutrition consumption the s (...)

2Nutritionally engineered foods and supplement products such as sports nutrition, which include protein and energy products in various forms (bars, drinks, gel, and powder), are nowadays used in order to intensify the effect of exercise and build a desired body shape. At the end of the 1990s only a few sports nutrition products were sold in special stores. Nowadays, sports nutrition products are widely available through various sales channels in the Nordic countries: grocery stores, pharmacies, health food stores, gyms, sports stores, cosmetic stores, and an array of Internet sites. Marketing of such products has also become more visible and has grown rapidly in the Nordic countries in the last decade (Schjøll et al., 2009). There are no precise figures of the current consumption pattern of sports nutrition in Norway. However, Ånestad et al. (2009) report that consumption of such products is rather common in Norway and that more Norwegians consume sport nutrition products compared to Swedes and Danes.1 The market growth in the Nordic countries illustrates that sports nutrition products are increasingly promoted to, and used by “everyone” – not only professional athletes. Thus sport nutrition products “have emerged as accessible for those seeking to lose weight and/or gain muscle or for those simply wishing to look healthier” (Atkinson, 2007:166). In other words, not only weight lifters, but individuals involved in a variety of sports. There are also more and more sports nutrition products especially designed and promoted toward women.

3In this article we will discuss the market increase for sports nutrition products in Norway and why consumption of these products has become normalised and mainstream. To explore this question we investigate consumer motives and purposes for consuming sports nutrition. We thus argue that sports nutrition usage has become legitimate and mainstream in a cultural climate where health is a highly held ideal, where individuals are increasingly held responsible for their own health, and where food is increasingly valued for its nutritional components. These are progressively more important aspects of the food cultures of western societies and they frame the social and cultural context where such consumption takes place. The market development of sports nutrition products thus represents an expression, extension, or consequence of a food culture (perhaps a postmodern food culture?), in today’s Norwegian society. Moreover, we argue that the large amount of trust in the Norwegian government’s regulation of food products on the market has paved the way for the consumption pattern of sports nutrition we find today.

Background: Healthy lifestyles in Norway

4There are several historical, political and economic forces which contribute to shaping the pursuit of healthy lifestyles- eating healthy, exercising, and “looking healthy”- in the western countries as well as in Norway. The World Health Organization (WHO, 1997) has identified obesity as one of the greatest health challenges the world is faced with today and some claim that the number of obese persons has reached epidemic proportions. Similarly, a major objective for the Norwegian government is to establish health-promoting habits among its populace in order to circumvent disease and combat increasing rates of obesity (The Norwegian Government, 2007). In 2011, the National Council for Nutrition (NCFN, 2011) in Norway published thirteen guidelines for what to eat, how to lose weight, and how to exercise. In addition to dietary recommendations, the council advised the public to participate “in daily physical activity for at least 30 minutes” (NCFN, 2011: 217). This recommendation is quite similar to dietary recommendations of the Danish Veterinary and Food Administration and the Swedish National Food Agency. Underlying the public health recommendation is an assumption that consumers can be managed best through (cognitive) encouragement of self-governance (Halkier, 2004). More recent developments point in the direction that people are increasingly made responsible for their own health (Sobal, 1999; Bugge & Lillebø 2009). A comparison of Norwegian state documents from 1993 and 2003 shows that while the state documents from 1993 place more of the responsibility for health on public institutions and structures, the documents from 2003 are explicitly based on a premise that the individual should be responsible for her/his own health. It is also underlined that increased public attention on healthcare issues can ease the government’s public health work making people take better care of themselves (Stenvoll et al., 2005). Individual consumers differ significantly with regards to their eating habits and exercise level and with regards to other consumption practices often related to negative health consequences such as drinking and smoking. According to Kjærnes (2011), lack of compliance with governmental regulation can be seen as ineffective governing or lack of freedom to “choose health”. Or perhaps people “use” their freedom to not follow governmental recommendation or even resist such regulation. Concomitantly, taking the responsibility to reduce or avoid consumption practices with negative health consequences may as well be considered an active choice in contemporary Norway.

5The recent nutritional recommendation also exemplifies how closely intertwined food and exercise have become in the Nordic official health discourse. There is a strong emphasis of sportsmanship and outdoor life in Norwegian physical culture. An interesting development in this context is the increased participation in exercise in Norway throughout the last decade. Norwegians of all age groups, across the whole country, do more exercise now than a decade ago and women and men do the same amount of exercise. The share of participation in weekly exercise increased from 63 % to 73 % from 1997 to 2007. Concomitantly, the share of non-exercisers has decreased from 27 % in 1997 to 11 % in 2007 (Statistics of Norway, 2007). Central market actors in the field of health are fitness centres and gyms. There has been a substantial growth in membership in fitness gyms (Bakken & Strandbu, 2007). Moreover, the current focus on health and body is reflected both in trends such as growth in the emergence of food products with health claims (functional foods) and a magnitude of diets (e.g. low carb and high fat, super food, raw food) (Bugge, 2012). Discourses of health and nutrition has adjusted consumers’ minds and bodies to the nutritional marketing strategies and nutritionally engineered products of the food industry (Scrinis, 2008). Concomitantly, media messages are bombarding us with messengers telling us that we should eat healthy, lose weight, and exercise to look our best. It is the slim and trained body – the fit body – that is advocated as the morally correct body both in terms of health and beauty in the western world. This body represents an ideal that seems to have gained popularity the last years (Williams & Germov, 1999; Sobal 1999, Bugge & Lillebø 2009). In parallel, we are being informed by the media about the problems of increasing body weight and obesity in the population. Research has related the moral imperative to appear “fit and healthy” to the fear posed by modern health crises such as obesity (Coveney, 2000; Lupton, 1994; 1996). According to Parasecoli (2006), it is in this context that the mainstreaming of body building has emerged. We believe the normalisation of sports nutrition consumption among men and women who exercise regularly has also appeared in this cultural milieu.

Understanding sports nutrition

6Besides biomedical research, consumption of sports nutrition has remained away from mainstream sociological inquiry (Atkinson, 2007: 166). The few studies of this phenomenon have tended to focus on professional sport athletes and the sub-cultural phenomenon of bodybuilding. Supplement use among professional sport athletes has achieved a lot of focus from researchers since the detection of several cases of traces of illegal substances in “legal” sport nutrition products. Such studies have often focused upon risk behaviour among athletes (Molinero and Márques, 2009; Bartee et al., 2004). Sports nutrition products have also been studied as part of the subordinate practices of eating, dieting, and supplementation by bodybuilders (Probert & Leberman, 2009). Recently, attention has been focused on the sport supplement use among non-professional, recreational athletes, and on the normalisation of such consumption. Since the muscular body is commonly embraced as desirable and prestigious, Parasecoli (2006) argues that “the food and supplement industry has tapped into these trends to acquire new consumers for highly processed products that ensure growing revenues for a sector structurally plagued by intense competition” (Parasecoli, 2006: 20). Existing literature of sport supplement use has reflected upon existing ideals about masculinity and the male body (Atkinson, 2007; Parasecoli, 2006). Atkinson understands sport supplement use in connection with a perceived “gender crisis”. He claims that sport supplements are used by white middle class men as a pursuit of masculinity. Similarly Parasecoli understand the technical and scientific vocabulary in advertisement of sport supplement products in male fitness magazines as related to masculine ideals about the fit body (Parasecoli, 2006).

7Although reflection about dieting and eating practices in connection with sport athletes’ or bodybuilders’ competition, exercise, and supplementation practices have been discussed, consumption of sports nutrition has not been investigated as part of food culture but as a subcultural phenomenon. In the introduction of the special issue of Anthropology of food which this article is a part of, Bergflødt et al. argue that food culture is a subcultural phenomenon. We claim that a nutritional focus within the Norwegian food culture is essential in order to understand the current normalisation and mainstreaming of sport nutrition consumption. This nutritional focus may not be shared by everyone but should be considered an important and influential discourse of our time. Thus sport nutrition consumption reflects collectively shared aspects of the Norwegian food culture. We argue that the increased market growth of sports nutrition products and the growth in consumption of such products challenge a sub-cultural perspective. Moreover, we argue that since women are a growing consumer group of such products, masculinity and male body ideals may only partially explain such practices. Sports nutrition consumption necessitates an understanding of this phenomenon within a wider sociocultural context. We thus claim that since consuming sports nutrition products is becoming more commonplace, investigating this consumption practice within the wider social context of our food culture may provide a fruitful understanding. However, we do acknowledge that sports nutrition products are part of a growing number of products and food items with health claims that make it challenging to draw the line between food and supplements or food and medicine (Lehenkari, 2003: 499).

Methodological approach

8This article explores when and why people consume sport nutrition products, and for what reasons, based on two focus groups with sports nutrition consumers (one group with men and one group with women). The focus groups were conducted in Oslo. We recruited participants who reported consuming sports nutrition products on a regular basis (at least twice a month.) Eight men, aged 24 – 55 years, and ten women, aged 21 – 42 years, participated. Age and gender have been shown to be important factors that influence food supplement use (Johansson & Solvoll 1999, Knudsen et al. 2002). By securing an even age spread in the groups, the purpose was to capture a variety of experiences. The division of males and females in the groups was influenced by international studies of food supplements; men and women seem to use different types of food supplements and have somewhat different reasons for using them (Johansson & Solvoll 1999, McDowall 2007, O’Dea 2003). Furthermore, shared gendered experiences were anticipated to open up for good discussion in the focus group and contribute to a more comfortable setting when talking about sensitive subjects such as body ideals and health.

9The focus group discussions covered the following themes: participants` knowledge of the sports nutrition products, attitudes and consumption practice, perceived effect of the products, natural groupings of different sports nutrition products, information and sales channels, perceived boundaries between sport nutrition and regular food intake, perceived boundaries between sports nutrition and medicine and sports nutrition and doping, perceived risks connected to consumption, expectations concerning state regulation of the sports nutrition market, and exercise and current body ideals in the Nordic countries.

10With a few exceptions, all the focus group participants exercised several times a week, on average between three to five times during the week. Three of the participants, both male and female, regularly participated in bicycling competitions, and one male participant was a dedicated weightlifter who exercised six times a week, sometimes even twice a day. There is no doubt that for the majority of these participants, exercise was an important part of their lives. Most of the participants were members of a gym and did a large part of their training sessions there. The participants had generally been consuming sports nutrition products for one to six years. There were some differences in what types of products the participants consumed both within the groups and between the male and female group.

Theoretical approach

11Investigating the consumption of sports nutrition as an expression of increased focus upon healthy lifestyles, a growing individual responsibility for healthy eating and living, and an increasing nutritional evaluation of food and trust in the government’s food regulation necessitates conceptualising how bodies, health, and nutrition are regulated. Inspired by Foucault’s analysis of the development of the modern state, state power, and control, as well as a more recent conceptualisation of Foucault’s thoughts, our aim is to understand the sociocultural context of sports nutrition consumption. We find Foucault’s thinking enriching although it is widely understood as a description of state formation in the western societies, but we argue that his concept of governance in particular is relevant in the Norwegian context since Norway has a well-developed welfare state with strong health regulations.

12Foucault's (1977) theories of the development of the modern state and state power has been used to explain how and why modern subjects internalise important values of society such as living a healthy life. According to Foucault, government control manifests itself through producing knowledge and discourses that individuals adopt which guide their behaviours and subsequently the behaviours of populations. We thus view consumption of sports nutrition as shaped by discourses and knowledge which act upon the individual consumers (Foucault 1977, Corrigan 1997). In line with Foucault, Coveney (2000) argues that the science of nutrition was one of many population sciences that emerged at the beginning of the eighteenth century in order to develop knowledge to inform the regulation of health, life, and the conduct of subjects. Nutrition emerged as a concern for the population’s health and welfare through problematisation of life and labour. As a population science, nutrition made individuals into ‘objects of nutrition’, a formation which depended upon individuals problematizing themselves in terms of consumption choice (Coveney, 2000). We understand consumption of sports nutrition as a specific choice which rests upon consumers scrutinising themselves with regards to nutrition, health, and body shape.

13The science of nutrition, Scrinis (2008) argues, has implicitly or explicitly encouraged us to think about foods in terms of their nutrient composition, to make the connection between particular nutrients and bodily health, and to construct “nutritional balanced” diets on this basis. These are the aspects of what Scrinis has defined as an ideology of nutritionism – an ideology which has changed the understanding of the body: “Just as foods are broken down into their component parts and these parts are assigned health-related functions, so too does the body come to be understood and experienced in terms of its component parts and processes” (Scrinis, 2008: 42).

14For Foucault, individuals’ self-discipline through internalising the governments’ discourses and knowledge is the essence of modern state power. Through the establishment of human sciences, he argues, the body becomes a site of control where society’s power is inscribed, an ordering principle where the regulative powers in society are formed. The modern state thus rules through the individual’s self-regulation, not through external force. Within this perspective, bodily surveillance and discipline techniques such as exercise, dieting, and sports nutrition consumption are not practiced by individuals as a result of hierarchical top-down state power, but as a result of individuals having internalised society’s morality and values. One can say that surveillance and discipline closes in on the body making it into an object to be disciplined and controlled by its owner. The body becomes the external piece of matter to be kept functioning in good condition through various body-disciplining techniques (Foucault 1977, Corrigan 1997). In modern, western food cultures it is the appearance of the body that “becomes strongly linked with moral control, self-discipline, and ‘caring about yourself’” (Lupton, 1994:37). Healthy lifestyles are thus expressed by appearance and perception of what being healthy looks like. The body then becomes the evidence of a person’s moral conduct. Coveney (2000) questions if there has ever been a time when we have been required to demonstrate so much concern about our eating habits. He explains that “as the twentieth-century discourses about public’s health focused more specifically on the behaviours of individuals, food choice took on a new importance. The habits of the whole population now required greater scrutiny through discourses on the diseases of lifestyle and perceived problems of affluence and increased food choices” (2000: 176). Today’s focus, in Norway, on healthy lifestyles and the increasing pressure on individuals to take responsibility for their own bodies and health through various diets and exercise routines, has led to the perception of the health effects of food becoming increasingly important for consumer perceptions and choices of food (Bugge, 2012).

15In the following discussion we will explore the social and cultural context where consumption of sports nutrition takes place. The discussion will relate sports nutrition to the body ideals of modern societies. Based upon the focus group interviews we start off by describing the motive for consuming such products instead of eating food.

Food, health and body

16Focus group participants consumed sports nutrition products even though they all agreed that natural food is the best alternative. Throughout the discussion, they uttered statements such as “one might as well have a crisp bread or a banana”; “ordinary Norwegian diet is all you need, it should be cooked from scratch, not frozen or fabricated food”; “Litago [brand name of a popular chocolate milk] is as good as the expensive protein powder and has the same effect.” Time, availability, practicality, variation, and receipt of a lot of energy from small amounts of food seem to be central reasons explaining why practice deviated from the participants’ ideals. Some of the participants admitted using sports nutrition products as “a necessary shortcut” in a hectic weekday, even though it made them feel a bit guilty because these products were not as “natural” as regular food. However, the believed effect of sports nutrition as maintaining, grooming, shaping, and strengthening the body seemed to be the most important reason for consuming such products.

17When talking about different sports nutrition products, the debate in both the male and the female focus groups quickly turned to protein products. In the male group, almost all participants consumed protein powder and it was claimed to be a necessary component of a proper training regime. In the female group only three women consumed protein powder on a regular basis. But all of the women had consumed protein bars. A typical explanation for consuming protein products was to build muscles. Protein products were usually consumed right after training, because then the body’s ability to absorb this particular nutrient was argued as very efficient. While carbohydrate products (energy bars, drinks and gels) were used more ‘here and now’ to keep up the energy level throughout the training session, protein products (protein powder and bars) were used more in the long-run, commonly in relation to strength training and body shaping practises – e.g. building muscles. The participants told that the benefit of consuming protein products was to lose weight without losing muscle mass. In contrast, carbohydrate products were consumed with more ambiguity, since such products may increase body weight if not consumed in connection with condition and endurance-related exercise.

18While discussing the motives and explaining the advantages of consuming protein products, participants often used metaphorical expressions such as “gasoline on the tank”, “building blocks”, “keep the machinery going for a longer time”, “if you just put enough gas into the body it obeys you”, “keeps the machinery flexible”, and “fills up the storages.” Such expressions signify the body as a mechanised object such as a car, which should be filled with proper fuel (protein) to yield maximum power. Both Turner (1992) and Schilling (1993) connect the vocabulary of the ‘body as a machine,’ to the point that as much as we are a body for someone else, we are indeed a body for ourselves. Thus, the metaphor signalises that the body is an object which its owner should maintain and keep in good order. Interpreting participants’ expressions of motives such as to “put enough gas into the body” in order to perform or to keep it “flexible”, “going for longer time” or for the body to “obey you”, illustrate that consuming sports nutrition is viewed as a powerful tool or technique to discipline and control the body. Using the word fuel instead of food is also common in masculine work-settings where energy is needed to work (Roos & Wandel, 2005).

19Such metaphorical expressions may also be understood as part of the emerging ideology of nutritionism which has led to an increased focus on food components and their function on the body (Scrinis, 2008). For instance representation of protein as gasoline or building blocks relates to a nutritional understanding of the function of the nutrient protein for the body. Turner (1992) also argues that the growth in diets appears to be closely connected with the development of the idea that the body is a machine, which provokes ideas about precisely-quantified mathematical input and output requirements (1992:182). Sports nutrition may thus be understood as an archetype product within the ideology of nutritionism since “pure” nutrition is marketed. Protein products can be precisely measured and consumed in accordance with bodily needs and functions. This was evident in the consumption practices some of the participants described. For instance, consuming protein products on resting days was practiced among participants explaining that muscles are built on days of relaxation and restitution.

20The participants were asked about their aims of exercising and consuming sports nutrition. For the males, the aim was to build more muscles without becoming fat. They were rather upfront about the point that the male body ideal is to be muscular and athletic. One of the younger male participants explained why he used protein powder for each workout: “I have begun to use protein rather recently, because I am so small and skinny that I’m trying to build up some more muscles.”

21The female participants, on the other hand, first answered that the important thing was not first and foremost how you look, but how you feel, claiming that that beauty does not primarily have to do with body shape or weight. “There are plump women who look beautiful and thin women who don’t look so good.” At the same time they agreed that people who exercise in general tend to have more beautiful bodies than those who don’t. While the male participants focused on performance in relation to exercise and body ideals, the female participants focused more on balance. In their discourse, exercise was presented as an element of a larger picture, a part of establishing an appropriate lifestyle that fitted them. “If one exercises, one produces endorphins which are good for both the mind and the body. The most important thing is to be balanced in mind and body and not to overdo anything, not to exercise too much.” However, when going deeper into the subject of body ideals, the women somewhat reluctantly began to talk about the ideal female body: a slim woman with feminine curves. Yet, the ideal which was voiced by the participants was that women should also have strong and trained bodies. Avoiding losing muscle mass was addressed, and it was especially important among the women to have a nice “butt” and stomach. Even if women’s bodies should be toned and strong, the female participants were careful not to build too big of muscles. In their opinion, the female body should not have too much arm and stomach muscle. A female boxer said that of the eight girls she boxes with, three or four of them use protein powder. “There are different levels of muscle building among the girls. Girls have to use restraint when it comes to building, they should not look too big. My boyfriend is not so satisfied now because I’m starting to grow bigger muscles than him”.

22In contemporary western societies, maintaining the body and keeping it order so it remains an attractive commodity, is central. In a sense then, our bodies belong to the social world, and it is our duty to present proper bodies to this world through various sorts of body practises (Turner, 1992; Shilling, 1993). The female participants’ reluctance to discuss the ideal female body can be interpreted as a strategy to liberate them from a narrowly defined ideal that can be hard to live up to. Furthermore, a strictly beauty or body focus may signalize being shallow and is perhaps more problematic for women. The female participants also commented that they feel there has been a turn from a “body focus” to a “health focus” in the public debate, which has made it more legitimate to talk about health and well-being than to talk about body ideals. Perhaps it is more correct to say that today`s focus on body and beauty has become veiled behind a health and well-being discourse. Steward (2006) argues that the modern health and comfort centres (such as fitness gyms) have a central role in establishing an interrelation between beauty and health (Steward, 2006). Understanding the entrance of the spa trend in Norway Bjelland argues that “in today’s marketing and propaganda the limit between health and beauty has become blurred, it is partly explained by each-other” (Bjelland, 2008: 64). Lupton (1996) argues that the outward appearance of the body is understood as demonstrating the inner worthiness and personality of its owner. “A slender/attractive body is interpreted as a healthy, normal body, tangible evidence of rigid self-discipline. By contrast, an obese/ugly body is understood as unhealthy and deviant, out of control, a moral failure (Lupton, 1996: 137). As a self-disciplining practice, “a strong desire to control not only one’s body appearance, but also to curb one’s desires and appetites, a fit body becomes the material expression of one’s domination over the self, over the flesh and appetites” (Parasecoli, 2006). One can thus argue that eating habits, beauty, health, and self-discipline are a part of the same moral universe. A morally correct body is a beautiful body as well as a healthy body. Moreover, a morally correct body – a slim and fit body – is more than skin deep. It portrays the morally correct conduct by a morally responsible individual.

23In line with Foucaultian reasoning, then, self-disciplining and controlling one’s body in accordance with the health discourses of our modern society seems to be a success since food, beauty, health, and self-discipline have become important moral questions for the individual. Yet, the focus group participants have taken further steps or included their excessive training and consumption of sports nutrition as a part of this responsibility. In the discussion above it is evident that the desire of the participants is to appear healthy, slim, fit, and toned. However, is the “the material expression of one’s domination over the self” the only process at work here? In the next section we will discuss the consumption of sports nutrition as in compliance, or in conflict, with modern society’s health discourses. In discussions about the side-effects, it becomes evident that this consumption practice has some problematic aspects.

Sport nutrition consumption as disciplining of flesh and gut

24Consuming protein products in order to build muscles without gaining weight can be understood as a self-disciplinary practice in its own right. According to Lupton (2000), there are many historical accounts about restraining and depriving oneself of certain kinds of food. Moreover, modern-day self-starvation or anorexia nervosa have received considerable attention in social science as well as in public debates. Most adults, both men and woman do restrain themselves regularly from eating energy-dense food in order to avoid gaining weight (Lupton, 2000: 216). A few participants in this study used protein products the very same way as dietary products. Claims that protein powder and diet products were similar, or basically the same, were made in both focus groups. Thus consuming protein products when performing extensive training does not only increase muscles, but regulates what kind of flesh one wants to keep or wants to loose.

25Meanwhile, quite a few of the participants had experienced unwanted side effects from the consumption of sports nutrition products, especially from energy gel, energy drinks and protein powder. Users of energy gel had experienced diarrhea and stomach pains. Still, participants had decided to continue and they adapted to the adverse effects they experienced. For instance one participant said: “One cannot consume energy gel at the beginning of a [bicycle] race, one has to take it in the middle of the race so that you will get over the goal line and can run quickly to the toilet.” Claims were made that side-effects were only due to the fact that their bodies needed to get used to the new substance, and that these bodily reactions were part of the process of finding out which products and serving amounts fitted their bodies. An illustrative example here can be the manner in which some of the male focus group participants used protein powder. For example, one male claimed that protein powder commonly will produce an upset stomach for about the first two weeks of usage, and that the important thing is to not stop using it but to stick with it until the body adjusts to the new substance. Building on Foucaultian interpretation, potential side-effects from sport nutrition seem to be adapted to the self-regulating body-shaping practices of the participants. Moreover, disciplining the body by consuming sports nutrition thus seems to involve disciplining all parts of the body; flesh, muscles, and the intestines.

  • 2 Some studies have defined exaggerated muscle building practices as a kind of eating disorder named (...)

26Some of the male participants did not necessarily use protein powder in compliance with the recommended dosage on the package but in a manner they felt “fit their body” based on a notion that “I know my body and I know my protein powder.” Thus we see how individual responsibility in the field of health in some cases can lead to a form of risky, creative consumption. Yet, some will claim that extensive training and sports nutrition consumption is already deviant behavior.2 Atkinson (2007) stresses that an uncritical use of sports nutrition products is often related to an “it can’t hurt, it can only help” mentality. This mentality, he argues, is a part of a neoliberal, do-it-yourself method of “getting fit” or “healthy.” Acknowledging that such consumption practice may for some individuals bear signs of deviance or disorders while others perhaps just overdo it, risky or deviant consumption behavior of this kind should not be understood as resistance to official health discourses. Instead, when individuals are given more responsibility for their own health and new “healthy” products constantly appear on the market, the new freedom may lead to creative use of supplements and sports nutrition products which actually create risks for individuals (Atkinson, 2007). Still, it is somehow a paradox that people who express a preoccupation with health and exercise engage in risky consumption practices, which for some of them are related to obvious physical discomfort. Perhaps consumers of such products do not believe in their riskiness, or perhaps they are willing to take the risk?

27To further investigate the consumption of sports nutrition products we thus find it necessary to explore the focus group participants’ knowledge and trust in these products. We argue that Norwegians’ trust in the governmental regulation of food products on the market has paved the way for the consumption pattern of sports nutrition we find today.

Trust in state regulation

28Consuming sport nutrition in order to build muscles, lose weight, or enhance exercise performance is not a part of any governmental nutritional or health recommendation. On the contrary, the governmental recommendation is to eat healthy food and perform moderate exercise regularly. According to Kjærnes (2011) such a lack of compliance may be due to inefficient governance, but it may also be that people’s choices are not as free as they are thought to be or that people use their freedom to not follow up or resist nutritional recommendations (Kjærnes, 2011, 524). In the discussion above we argued that consumption of sports nutrition is a self-disciplining practice the focus group participants do in order to pursue the ideal body shape in our society. Hence, their practices do not represent resistance, but conformity or obedience to the society’s demand. Since eating healthy and living healthy lifestyles are important and powerful ideals in Norwegian society, we may claim that consumer choices are morally constrained. Yet, the “do-it-yourself method” of gaining muscle and losing weight may be viewed as deviant behaviour.

29In general, focus group participants saw few risks connected with sports nutrition products. Participants placed a large degree of trust in food authorities and believed that the products on the Norwegian market were regulated and safe, that the state ensured that there were no particularly harmful products on the Norwegian market. The focus group participants expressed that:

“I don’t think we have dangerous sports nutrition products in Norway, there is such a strict alimentary regulation”;

“It is safer in Norway than any other country”;

“Norway is very strict with regulating food. There are so many products that you can find in other countries that are not allowed in Norway because we have stricter laws.”

30When asked which ingredients sports nutrition products contain, participants actually had little knowledge. Participants knew the main ingredient in a sport nutrition product – such as protein or carbohydrates- but they usually did not know much about the other ingredients and additives the products contained. It was found to be difficult to understand the list of ingredients on the product packages since they were written with complicated Latin names and number codes, which made it difficult to know what the ingredients really were. As one participant put it: “I don’t know what they are and what they do in my body.” According to Atkinson (2007) the “recreational supplement user knows only a marginal amount about the actual content of the products, has no scientific method for evaluating their impact, and has no long-term plan of use” (Atkinson, 2007: 182). Participants were insecure about what sports nutrition products really contained, but they were upfront about the fact that they did not worry too much about it: “I read the back of the energy bars, but of course I don’t understand what the ingredients are. I read it, I open the pack, I eat it and I’m done.”

31While Norwegians commonly express a large amount of trust in state regulation of food, trust in the food industry is rather low (Berg & Kjærnes, 2001). Interestingly, focus group participants generally had a large degree of trust, not only in health authorities but also in the commercial actors and especially the gyms. Many of the participants had first been introduced to sports nutrition products at the gym, where such products were explained to be commonly centrally placed in the reception area. After gym classes, participants described how some fitness instructors would stress the importance of eating right after training, and would often recommend their audience to buy a protein or energy bar in the reception area on their way out. Since such products were marketed as healthy and distributed through gyms, most participants did not believe sports nutrition products were risky. Participants expressed that “I believe that Norwegian authorities regulate what is dangerous for me. I think the same about the gym,” and that “I buy everything that is sold at the gym uncritically. Everything connected to the gym is supposed to be very healthy for you.” Because sports nutrition products are firmly associated with gyms and exercise, these products are perceived as healthy even though the participants know that many of these products contain a lot of additives and preservatives. The gym context thus seems to normalise the use of sports nutrition products and give these products a healthy appearance. Another important way to discover sports nutrition is through friends and family. The three women who consumed protein powder all referred to how they were introduced to this product through their boyfriends. The trust in, and impact of, primary informal reference groups on consumption choices is well documented (Bristor, 1988).

32Coupled with the large-scale trust placed on authorities and commercial actors such as gyms, as well as family and friends, participants also underlined the fact that they are responsible for their own health. The participants saw no need for stricter regulations on the basis that every consumer had to take responsibility for his or her own consumption of sports nutrition products. “You have to know your own body and feel how much sports nutrition you can consume. And if you should consume too much, it is never as dangerous as, for example, steroids.” A parallel was also drawn to sweets in the words of a female participant: “I also have to limit for example how much sweets I eat.” Similar to finding it natural to have the responsibility for regulating their own food intake, participants saw the need to control and manage their consumption of sports nutrition products.


33Governmental control of the population’s health through the science of nutrition and individual internalization of its subsequent discourse seems to be a success so far as people follow the governmental recommendations. However, this is never a one-sided process, as the social regulation of bodies makes them also sites for resistance against political control (Foucault, 1984). While consumers of sports nutrition products have internalised the government and society’s healthy-eating ideals, they also perform their freedom to choose the means by which to fulfil the moral obligation to sustain and shape healthy bodies. This study thus argues that consumption of sports nutrition both complies (weight control, consumption of high-valued nutrition such as protein, balanced energy intake and exercise), and deviates (excessive training, risky supplement consumption, ignoring unwanted side-effects) with the modern governance of healthy living. When individuals want to be healthy, experts instruct them in how to do so, and entrepreneurs will exploit and enhance the market for health (Coveney, 2000: 148).

34While nutrition as a population science has made individuals into ‘objects of nutrition (Coveney, 2000), there are also consequences of how nutrition is understood by lay-people and within marketing and industry. The implicit, or explicit, consequence of nutritional science, thinking about foods in terms of their nutrient composition and to make the connection between particular nutrients and bodily health (Scrinis, 2008), has not only brought about nutritionally engineered products, such as sports nutrition. This development has also influenced consumers’ perceptions of sports nutrition and their claimed function for the body or body parts. By separating nutrition from food such as protein or carbohydrates, we may thus argue that modern day health discourses or the ideology of nutritionism sustain, or perhaps even strengthen, the fate of products such as sports nutrition. While the influential nutritional discourse may shape the consumption of sports nutrition products, the mainstreaming of such consumption may indeed reproduce and intensify public understanding of nutrients and their effect on bodily processes.

35In Foucault’s later work, the focus is put on the power and governing of markets (2010). According to Utaker (2005,) Foucault launched the concept of biopolitics which comprises human biology and its union with politics in his lectures at the Collège de France in 1978 – 1979. Biopolitics forms a different way of governing than traditional discipline; by not aiming at the individual, but at populations, and by not preventing or hindering certain actions or desires, but seeking means to fulfil the needs and wants of the population. Thus, new market possibilities appear. These include possibilities of exceeding genetic determination such as improving one’s appearance through plastic surgery (Utaker, 2005: 29; Foucault, 2010), emergence of nutritionally engineered foods and nutritional marketing strategies (Scrinis, 2008: 47), or in our case, by consuming high doses of either protein or carbohydrates through sports nutrition products.

36Foucault claims this presents individuals with a new kind of freedom, which is only achieved through capital and goods on the market. He claims that the notion of biopolitics encompasses the economic rationale in all institutions, political and social, as well as in the personal lives of individuals. As such, the state regulation contributes to the new form of governing by ensuring free market choices for all market actors. Individuals seeking to maximise their human, economic, and social capital, as well as personal freedom, are governed to do so through the market and through consumption of goods and services. While freedom to choose is ensured for all market actors, the market indeed dictates that we are “in need of nutritional recommendation, weight loss plans and products, «functional foods», nutritional supplements, nutritional «enhanced» genetically engineered crops, quantified and managed diets, and a range of other commodified products and services” (Scrinis, 2008: 47). The mainstreaming of sports nutrition consumption can thus be understood as a complex governance of health by the state, the individual consumers and the market where nutrients and bodily functions are central.


37In modern Norwegian food culture the role of the consumer has changed. As stated by Unni Kjærnes, “from being protected by a paternalistic welfare state, people appear to be accorded more freedom and responsibility as individuals, where attention is redirected from the state towards market relations” (Kjærnes, 2009: 3). Living a healthy lifestyle has thus become a moral responsibility of the individual, where body appearance is connected with eating habits and fitness practices. A muscular and slim body portrays a person with self-control as well as someone who fulfils society’s demands of healthy eating, beauty, and exercise. Nutrition has come to serve an important role in today’s Norwegian health discourses, and evaluation of food for its nutritional qualities and nutritional function for the body has paved the way for the mainstreaming of consumption products with nutritional benefits such as sports nutrition. Leading a healthy lifestyle has perhaps never been more important than in today’s Norwegian society, and ideals of being strong, toned, and fit coincide with the physical culture of sportsmanship and outdoor life. Looking healthy is a moral responsibility of the individual. Consumers’ self-regulation and disciplining projects, coupled with a «do whatever it takes» mentality, trust both in government regulation and commercial actors and are important features of the current mainstreaming of sport nutrition consumption in Norway.

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1 Although not making any concluding remarks upon the prevalence of sport nutrition consumption the study describe some figures in explaining the recruitment procedures. By recruiting users of sport nutrition with the help of the opinion poll, Norstat, 3500 invitations were sent to panel members in Norway. In all 1000 respondents were recruited, 800 users and 200 non-users of sport nutrition. It thus seems that the prevalence of sport nutrition usages in Ånestad et al.’s study is almost 23% in Norway. In comparison, in all 13000 invitations were sent to the Danish and Swedish panel members in order to recruit the same amount of users and non-users from both countries (Ånestad et al., 2009: 22-23).

2 Some studies have defined exaggerated muscle building practices as a kind of eating disorder named muscle dysmorphia or bigorexia (Vandereycken, 2011: Baghurst, 2012). The disorder, as opposed to anorexia nervosa, consists of a preoccupation with the idea that one’s body is too small or skinny and not sufficiently lean and muscular (Vandereycken, 2011), and furthermore connected to male body ideals (Baghurst, 2012).

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Electronic reference

Silje Elisabeth Skuland and Siv Elin Ånestad, « The mainstreaming of sports nutrition consumption in the Norwegian food culture  », Anthropology of food [Online], S7 | 2012, Online since 14 January 2013, connection on 19 November 2018. URL :

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About the authors

Silje Elisabeth Skuland

the National Institute for Consumer Research, Norway

By this author

Siv Elin Ånestad

the National Institute for Consumer Research, Norway

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