Fitness in my 40s: Protein increases fitness growth, but who wants to eat a pound of chicken a day?

I refuse to address the conundrum of what diet to deploy on your excess tum. It just seems so wrong, after all we’ve collectively been through, to embark on anything resembling self-denial. Instead, let’s focus on nutrition for exercise, as whatever’s happened, your routine has probably changed. Maybe you’ve done a lot more running than you usually would, and a lot less gym work, which is to say, none. Or maybe you’ve done more exercise full stop, to keep yourself sane. Or perhaps you’ve done absolutely nothing, in which case, for that same sanity, go and read something else and we can talk again in autumn.

James Stark, 31, founded Starks Fitness, which – like a surprising number of personal training programmes – also has a line in protein powders. I mention this only because any diet intended to maximise your exercise will start with protein: forget exclusions and carb-curfews and most of all forget calories in, calories out. We all have different needs, he says. “I want to maintain lean mass; you might want to build muscle.” (I don’t, not really.) “You need micronutrients and you might need fast-acting sugars, depending on what kind of exercise you’re doing. But every single one of us,” Stark emphasises, “needs a base-protein level; as a percentage of total intake, you should aim for 35-40%.” This will necessarily change the way you eat: “If you try to get all of that from animal products,” Stark says, “it won’t be digested as easily as a combination of animal, fish and plant.”

This is where the powders come in. Stark says people who seriously want to bodybuild will aim for 2.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight as a daily intake; you can slide this down to 1.2 grams per pound if you’re looking to stay lean rather than beef up. Either way, imagining you’re 10 stone, that can’t mean more than 350 grams of protein a day. The problem is, foods you think of as pure protein are actually not: your leanest meat will only be one third protein, by weight. So you’d have to eat a kilo of chicken a day. (I did interview a Gladiator once who did that, but she said it was a full-time job.) Protein powders, which you can also bake with, swapping for flour, are your way forward.

Beyond that, think in terms of maximum inclusion rather than exclusions – Stark doesn’t recommend anyone cuts anything out, unless they’re allergic. Have you got enough vegetal variety to be unlocking the most micronutrients? The work of Tim Spector on the gut microbiome – how fermentation, but above all variety, benefits the gut environment – goes double for workouts. You don’t just need a sudden burst of energy, such as a bag of Haribo might deliver. You want the fundamental wellbeing that enables you to get out of bed intending to go for a run in the first place. We know there is a relationship between the gut and the brain, and by extension, your diet and your mood, even if we don’t yet fully understand the mechanism.

What I learned

You can get all nine essential amino acids from a single animal source, but vegans can choose protein powders blending peas, hemp and quinoa.