Protein's no stranger to the nutritional spotlight, first hailed as a miracle weight-loss solution (thanks Atkins!), and now championed as the vital ingredient for reaping maximum muscle-tone rewards with our workouts.
Charlotte Kennedy, a sport nutritionist working with Etixx, isn't surprised that the shift in our exercise habits has been followed by this growing interest in how we're fuelling our bodies. "More and more people are realising how important nutrition is for performance, even if that's just for recreational sport and wanting to get fitter," she says.
Protein's main links with fitness revolve around recovery and muscle repair/growth, and you don't have to be a pro-athlete to benefit. "Our bodies are constantly regenerating themselves, turning over the protein that makes up our skin, hair, lean muscles, bones and hormones," explains SiS performance nutritionist Ted Munson.
"People who exercise regularly naturally have a higher turnover of protein, so to make the most of your training and maintain good health, slightly higher intake's required." But as Kennedy acknowledges, there's still often a "lack of clarity" when it comes to nutrition, and it's never good to over-obsess about one single food group, even if it is in the name of fitness.
Here, Kennedy and Munson share some key protein pointers...
1. Will I start looking bulky?
High-protein diets are often associated with bodybuilders, and some people - especially women - might be put off by the idea of getting bulky. Munson says this needn't be a concern, plus you'd have to really 'try' to achieve a bodybuilder physique!
"Protein contributes to growth and maintenance of muscle mass, but women should associate protein with maintaining a lean physique, not 'bulking'. Women naturally have much less testosterone, which is a major factor in building up lean muscle tissue. Your body will also only adapt to the stresses you put it under, so unless you lift heavy weights in short sets, you won't get bulky."
2. How important are the post-workout time frames for consuming protein?
"You may have heard about the 'training window' after intense exercise or conditioning. This is a good time to take on protein, as your metabolism stays lifted for around 30 minutes after exercise," says Munson.
"Micro-tears occur in muscles during intense exercise and taking in protein within this time-period can help accelerate muscle rebuild. It also supports the strengthening of other tissues, such as bones and tendons."
3. What if I'm trying to lose weight - won't I be 'undoing' the hard work I've just done?
This is a common misconception, but Kennedy warns it's risky to skip eating post-exercise.
"Recovery is very important and it's the one time where I advise you don't cut calories, because that's when your body really needs nutrients.
“If you're trying to lose weight, rather than skipping your recovery intake, look at how you can create a calorie deficit across the whole day: for instance, you could look at cutting 100 calories at breakfast, 100 at lunch and 100 at dinner, then you've created a 300-calorie deficit.
“A lot of people think, 'I've done exercise and therefore if I don't eat for a while I'm creating a good calorie deficit', but if you want to get stronger, fitter and leaner, the recovery meal is not a good one to miss."
4. How do I know how much protein I need for recovery?
"Firstly it depends how much, and what sort of exercise you're doing, and what your goals are. These are all going to impact your nutritional needs, protein included," says Kennedy.
While it is possible to get quite in-depth with calculations and planning, for those following demanding regimes, as a general guide, Kennedy adds: "For post-exercise, we say about 20g. You don't need more than that."
In terms of actual foods, 20g is generally the same as a palm-sized portion, and while consuming more than this (within reason) usually won't harm you, it generally isn't necessary.
5. So if I want to be fit and lean, I only need to think about eating protein after workouts?
No - while protein plays a specific role post-workout, it's important as part of your overall diet too, and vital for far more than ensuring those muscles look good!
Official guidelines suggest 50g a day for adults, and if you are training, you may be taking on more.
"Everybody has different needs; however the ideal level to support the rate of making new tissue is to have around 20-25g every three to four hours. This will help reduce muscle breakdown and facilitate muscle protein synthesis," says Munson.
6. Getting fitter and leaner is my priority right now; does that mean protein should be my main dietary concern?
No again! It's never wise to over-obsess about one food group, as it could mean your overall diet and health suffer.
"Fitness media portray protein as the number one nutrient for health - which means some people may neglect or even completely leave out other nutrients," notes Munson.
"For example, fat's important for the absorption of vitamins A, D and E. If you fully restricted fat, you'd eventually become deficient in these, which can have a drastic effect on health."
Carbohydrates are also often portrayed as a food 'enemy' and associated with weight gain, but Kennedy stresses that carbs are especially important for active people.
"Your body needs carbs to function. There is this misconception that carbs equal weight gain, when actually, it should be more about understating the energy balance," she says.
"If you're not very active, you won't need as many carbs, but all the nutrients and food types matter. It's the overall combination of nutrients, and the exercise you're doing, that needs to be considered."