The diet industry is undergoing a revolution. Celebrities are more likely to be papped bouncing out of a gym than falling out of a nightclub. Catwalks are more likely to be graced with glowy, smiling models than the heroinchic skeletal types of years gone by. And, always a big indicator of an official ‘trend’, there’s even a social media hashtag - #strongnotskinny.
As our perception of beauty is evolving, so is our relationship with food. The low-fat mantra of the 80s and 90s is slowly being replaced by the low-carb revolution. Reams of articles are dedicated to the fats v carbs debate, as Paleo advocates practically roll in coconut oil with glee while eschewing sugar, and others steadfastly maintain that wholegrains are essential for health.
But, in the cacophony, one macronutrient has, until recently, been overlooked. Protein, the nutrient responsible for cell growth and repair, is slowly gaining a foothold on our consciousness as celebs are pictured clutching whey shakes, the latest health food bars come fortified with added protein and every body-overhaul success story seems to credit balanced protein as the secret. A recent survey by consumer research firm Canadean said that 49 per cent of people were “very aware” of the benefits of protein, and indicated an increasing demand for protein supplements and protein-fortified foods. It’s estimated that by 2017, the world will be spending £8bn a year on shakes and bars.
Protein-rich foods have traditionally had a bad rep - and were regarded as calorific and fattening. For women especially, there has been the perception that protein can cause you to bulk up, perhaps due in part to the traditional packaging of protein supplements, complete with an intimidating picture of a bodybuilder’s torso. The idea of imbibing a protein shake would have filled most calorie counters with horror. Now, we see protein-rich ready meals at M&S, protein-enriched snack bars, drinks, even ice cream.
The Paleo movement, which is high in protein and good fats, but low in carbs, has gone a long way to smash the stereotypes. And with good reason: protein is a powerhouse when it comes to weight-loss or maintenance results. Protein takes longer to digest and metabolize, leaving you fuller for longer and preventing blood-sugar spikes - plus you actually burn more calories in the digestion process. If weight loss is your goal, a balanced supply of protein ensures that you are building lean muscle and losing fat, rather than the other way around. On average, men need 55g of protein a day, and women 45g.
At the GSK Human Performance Lab (HPL), scientists study the impact of nutrition on world-class athletes, from Polar explorer Richard Parks to the Brownlee brothers and F1 driver Jensen Button. Gareth Nicholas, Head of Nutrition for MaxiNutrition, explains that we have a daily turnover of protein, so replacing it is essential - and this doesn’t mean simply chowing down on a mammoth hunk of steak every night. “A slow, sustained release of protein during the day is necessary - and difficult if people have a tendency to skip meals or grab unhealthy snacks,” he says. “Eat a little protein every two to three hours. Planning your meals is the way to go.”
Timing is everything when it comes to protein - and why you see gym bunnies reaching for protein after a workout. The athletes at the HPL are tested rigorously to see what effects nutrition has on their bodies - and when. “The ‘anabolic window’ is important to get the most out of your workout,” Nicholas explains. “After exercise, due to increased bloodflow, metabolism is at its highest. This is the time to replace what you’ve lost and have some protein within an hour of exercising, to stop you from your body taking from your muscle mass. This can be from a healthy omelette, some lean chicken, or a protein shake if you’re on the move.”
The HPL operates across the six pillars of expertise to help athletes achieve their fullest potential - strength, stamina, cognition, metabolism, hydration and recovery. Nutrition plays a role across all of these. Using special machines, experts at the HPL can push the athlete’s muscles to tearing point so that they can monitor recovery, pain and inflammation.
In the cognition lab, hand-eye co-ordination and concentration skills can be monitored. Nutrition is at the heart of all these studies - and the results go beyond the athletes they work with - the research into improved recovery from injury, increased flexibility and stamina, and improved cognition could also have far-reaching effects for people with chronic illness and the elderly.
The HPL has also been working with protein supplement veterans MaxiNutrition in an effort to rebrand their products to suit everyone (the pictures of bulked-up torsos, for instance, are now absent). “We are working on breaking down the myths around protein. Traditionally, there was a perception that protein shakes were only used by bodybuilders. The science has evolved, and we have tailored products to suit your needs and level of activity.”
But can you have too much protein? “Balance is important, but it is quite difficult to have too much protein. Then again, with the right diet, it is easy to make sure you’re getting enough. Rugby players wouldn’t consume that much more protein than Kimberley Wyatt, for instance. Whether you’re a man or woman, the protein content doesn’t change.”
Wyatt is a dancer, former Pussycat Doll and MaxiNutrition ambassador - and, while undeniably svelte, certainly fits the ‘strong not skinny’ criteria. She insists nutrition is a key priority in keeping her lean dancer’s body - and fuelling her workouts. “I think a bit of a turning point in terms of nutrition for me was when I joined the Pussycat Dolls. We are all trained dancers, and need a planned and balanced diet, which involved lots of protein in the form of lean meats such as grilled chicken, as well as poached eggs and steamed vegetables.”
And far from being an afterthought, protein is a key factor in Wyatt’s diet. “When you dance a lot and work out as much as I do, it’s only natural that your body needs protein to help build itself back up after exercise. Not to mention protein also helps maintain healthy bones, teeth, skin and hair.”
Wyatt has welcomed the shift in attitudes towards body image. “I am pleased to see that being strong is overtaking the desire to be skinny. At the end of the day the most important thing is to be healthy and this means a balanced diet as well as regular exercise, be that walking, running, or intense gym workouts. We should never need to put a label on beauty, you’ve just got to be healthy, happy and enjoy yourself.”
Power breakfast: We know that skipping breakfast is a no no, but a slice of toast doesn’t exactly cut it. Poached, boiled or scrambled eggs are a great way to make your toast more effective (and, let’s face it, interesting), protein powder works wonders with porridge, or add Greek Yoghurt and nuts to fruit instead of just grabbing an apple on the way out the door.
Stretch it out: Research shows that the optimal amount of protein per serving is 20-40g, so eating a whole chicken after a workout or ‘catching up’ on your protein needs at dinner-time won’t do you much good. Have a palm-size serving of protein at every meal.
Snack smart: Having protein with every snack helps you to balance your glucose levels and keep your body working at its optimum level. Think of it as a protein drip effect, optimizing the rate of muscle synthesis. A handful of nuts with some fruit, some yoghurt in your smoothie, or carrots and hummus are great ways to get in some balanced protein.
Veg out: If you’re vegetarian or just not that much of a carnivore, don’t worry. There are plenty of ways to introduce protein into your diet. Dairy is a great source of protein - try cottage cheese for a low-cal option - as are tofu, Quorn, legumes, eggs, nuts and seeds.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies