Protein is an essential component of our diets. It is necessary for growth, renewal of cells and for repair of tissues. Amino acids, the building blocks of protein, can be made by the body or obtained from food. There are 20 different amino acids in the food we eat, but our body can only make 11 of them. The remaining 9 are described as “essential” amino acids (EAAs) because we have to get them from food. If you eat meat or fish or if you are vegetarian and eat milk products and eggs regularly then this will happen quite naturally. If vegan then as long as you eat a varied diet including some peas, beans or lentils along with a variety of grains, nuts and seeds then you will be fine.
Adults need about 0.75g protein/kg body weight so a 60kg woman would need 45g/day and a 70kg man about 53g/day. Most people easily meet this. You may see foods being described as high quality protein. This is because protein containing foods can be ranked based on how many of the 9 essential amino acids they contain and on the amounts and proportions of the different essential amino acids. Meat, fish, eggs, milk and soya are often described as “high quality” proteins. However the most important thing is to have a wide variety of protein containing foods and that way you will stand the best chance of getting all the amino acids you need in the right amounts. Even if you are vegan including a variety of pulses (beans, lentils and peas), cereals (wheat, rye, barley, oats, corn, millet), other grains (quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat), nuts and seeds will give you a healthy balance,
If you are very active then you might need a little more protein and it’s important to have a protein containing meal within 2 hours of exercise. For most people 15-25g protein within 2 hours of exercise would be about right. A salad with some meat or fish followed by some fat free natural yogurt with a few nuts and seeds would be perfectly adequate. If you are vegetarian or vegan then swapping the meat/fish for tofu and having a soya yogurt with some nuts or seeds would also work. The key point is that most people don’t need fancy products.
If you are pregnant you will need an extra 6g protein each day which is equivalent to a glass of milk, a carton of yogurt, a portion of pasta or a slice of bread for example. In all reality most people are already having that extra 6g each day anyway. When breastfeeding requirements go up by 11g/day. This sounds like a lot but women tend to feel more hungry and naturally adjust so again nothing special is needed.
So why do people suddenly feel that they need all their food to be “high protein” when we know that most people get more than enough just by eating normally? Well the main reasons are that people are being enticed by claims about the power of protein for weight loss and the prevention of ageing. So what’s the story and is there any truth in it?
Protein and weight loss
Protein foods certainly do help us feel fuller for longer and this is a great bonus when it comes to trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. However you really don’t need specialist products. Numerous products are now being promoted as “high protein” when in fact the original and less expensive version is already a good source. For example fat free natural yogurt is a great source with 10g/100g so there is no need to buy a similar product promoted as high protein if it contains 11g/100g. There’s nothing wrong with these products nutritionally and they taste pretty good but they are not essential. If you can afford the extra cost and you significantly prefer the taste then by all means go for it but it’s always good to be a savvy shopper.
The other great thing about protein when it comes to managing our weight is that it helps build muscle which is more metabolically active than fat. If we exercise and eat enough protein then we will build muscle whilst we lose fat. This will leave us looking more toned and comes with the added benefit of pushing our metabolic rate up a little. If you exercise but have a really busy lifestyle and you tend to miss meals then having a high protein snack or shake tucked away in the car or your desk might seem important. However what your body really needs is regular meals containing protein but also providing other crucial nutrients without all the additives you often get with special products. It’s really just a case of getting organised. High protein products have their place when life throws a curve ball and you just don’t have time for anything else but you don’t need them regularly. Think of them as emergency foods.
Protein and the prevention of ageing
We all lose muscle naturally starting in our 40’s and 50’s. This is due to hormonal changes and for some of us, being less active. Protein is needed for maintaining muscle mass and strong muscles certainly support a longer, more active life. This is because they improve balance, strength and mobility. We need essential amino acids to build muscle and specifically we need branched chain amino acids (BCAAs). The older we get the more BCAAs we need and research has shown that we need them regularly throughout the day to replenish the muscle tissue that we are losing throughout the day. The best dietary sources of good quality protein that would supply the EAAs and BCAAs needed are meat, fish, dairy products, eggs and soy products. If you are a vegan ask your Dietitian for specific individualised advice. You should have a good portion of food from this list at every meal and make sure you have good quality protein after exercise. Again there is no need to buy expensive specialist products, ordinary food will do.
So protein is certainly a useful tool to support the maintenance of a healthy weight and strong muscles which are key for healthy ageing. However protein is just one part of a balanced diet and most people can get what they need for ordinary everyday foods without needing to spend money on supplements or specialist products.
If you would like to check you diet to make sure you are getting enough protein with all the right EAAs and a balanced diet overall then make an appointment with a Dietitian. Details about my services can be found at the link below.