THE LOW-DOWN ON PROTEIN + HOW TO PACK MORE OF IT INTO YOUR DAY
WHAT IS PROTEIN + WHAT DO WE NEED IT FOR?
When you hear the word protein, you might think of extreme diets or muscle building. Although it does have a strong connection with weight control and muscle strength, this macro-nutrient is also the centre of a lot of confusion and conflicting information. I am often asked about protein by my clients in practice, so let’s look at the facts.
Nutrition 101. Protein is vital for human physiology because it supplies the body with amino acids, also known as the building blocks of literally every cell in our body. That fact alone is super cool! Your body uses proteins from your diet to build new cells, maintain tissues, and synthesise new proteins that make it possible for you to perform basic bodily functions.
In a nutshell, protein helps to:
- support weight loss and healthy metabolism (ie, help us lose weight as much as it can help build mass)
- assist in hormone production
- support digestive health
- repair and maintain healthy skin and hair
- keep blood sugar levels stable
- satisfy appetite
- make antibodies and help maintain a healthy Immune system
- sustain lean muscle
- prevent muscle wastage
- support nutritional needs during pregnancy and breastfeeding
- assist recovery from sport or illness
HOW MUCH PROTEIN DO WE NEED?
We can't store protein, so in order to replace, rebuild and repair, we need to consume protein very regularly – and it's safe to say that most people aren’t consuming enough. Often we make the mistake of trying diets that involve calorie counting and deprivation. On a high-protein diet, you will feel satisfied after eating, and you won’t have to deal with the blood sugar highs and lows that lead to cravings and moodiness.
To simplify it as much as possible, I recommend that you aim to eat some form of quality protein with every meal and snack. Especially for children, who need regular amounts of quality protein because they are growing so rapidly. By maintaining a good balance of quality protein over the whole course of a day, you are helping to support nutritional needs, balance blood sugars levels, keeping metabolism high, and staying energised between meals.
The amount of protein you consume each day varies slightly depending on your age, weight, and activity level, however the Australia Nutrition Society recommends 1 gram of protein per 1 kg of body weight per day (ie, 70 kg person needs 70 grams of protein per day).
Athletes and pregnant women need to increase their protein intake substantially (1.2 to 1.6 g/kg/d) or potentially higher depending on training needs. Research tells us that the highest level of protein ingestion that provides muscle building benefit is 2.2 g protein/kg/d. You can ingest more protein than 2.2 g/kg/d, but it will not help build muscle!... and too much can be harmful.
Dangers + Symptoms of incorrect protein intake
Protein in Excess
- creates products which the liver and kidneys have to filter – puts stress on these filtering organs
- fluid imbalance/constipation – protein metabolism requires 7 times more water than carbohydrates
- increased risk of bone issues – blood becomes more acidic with a high protein diet so calcium is taken from bones to alkalise the blood
- strong body odour as protein is high in nitrogen
Although it's rare to see true clinical signs of protein deficiency, sub-clinical signs are increasingly common. These may include;
- lack of strength, muscular weakness
- poor immune response and requent infections such as cold and flu
- tiredness and lethargy
- irritability, mood changes, depression
- poor wound healing, dry and flaky skin
- bloating, poor digestion and appetite
- poor growth and development
Some amino acids can be produced by the body but some can’t, and are therefore needed in the diet to meet metabolic demand. The amount of amino acids present in a protein varies from food to food.
Animal sources of protein: beef, lamb, chicken, fish, eggs, yoghurt and cheese. They contain all 9 essential amino acids and are therefore examples of 'complete' proteins and are able to supply all of the functions above.
Plant sources of protein: nuts, seeds, legumes (such as lentils, chickpeas and kidney beans etc) and whole grains (the protein is removed when a grain is processed). Most plant foods are 'incomplete proteins' meaning they don’t have the essential 9 amino acids required by the body to make protein. They need to be combined with other protein foods to create complete proteins. You need to eat them in the same day, not necessarily in the same meal. However, traditional cultures protein combine at each meal; eg Mexico; beans, rice and corn, India; dahl and rice, The Middle East; hummus and tabouli, Asia: rice and soya beans/products.
Other examples of protein combining that create complete proteins include; hummus (chick peas & sesame seeds) and porridge (oats or another grain & soy or almond milk). Basically any legume combined with any grain will allow your body to form a complete protein.
Of course it is totally possible to be a healthy vegetarian or vegan, it just takes a conscious effort to combine foods to form a complete protein in EVERY meal and snack.
A short list of some of the most often used protein-rich foods in my kitchen
Animal sources of protein:
- meat (chicken, lamb, beef) 100g – 25-30g of protein
- wild caught fish 100g – 22g of protein
- sardines 1 tin in olive oil 100g – 21g of protein
- bone broth 1 cup – 10g of protein
- yoghurt natural full fat 1 cup – 10g of protein
- egg 1 large – 7 g of protein
- whey protein powder 2 tbsp – 22g of protein
Plant sources of protein:
- tempeh 100g – 20g of protein
- buckwheat 1/2 cup – 12g of protein
- oats whole raw 1/2 cup – 12g of protein
- tofu 100g – 10g of protein
- red lentils 1/2 cup – 9g of protein
- black beans 1/2 cup – 9g of protein
- kidney-beans tinned 1/2 cup – 7g of protein
- quinoa cooked 1/2 cup – 6g of protein
- chickpeas tinned 1/2 cup – 6g of protein
- pumpkin seeds raw small handful – 8g of protein
- sunflower seeds raw small handfull – 6g of protein
- almonds raw small handful – 6g of protein
- millet cooked 1/2 cup – 3g of protein
- cashew nuts raw small handful – 5g of protein
- hemp seeds 1 tbsp – 4g of protein
- spirulina 1 tbsp – 4g of protein
- tahini 1 tbsp – 3g of protein
- brown rice 1/2 cup – 3g of protein
- spinach 1/2 cup – 2g of protein
- broccoli 1/2 cup – 2g of protein
- pea protein powder 2 tbsp – 18g of protein
- hemp protein powder 2 tbsp – 15g of protein
NB: always consume organic, grass-fed and wild-caught animal sources when possible to reduce the amount of antibiotics and stored toxins in the food (and of course for the ethical reasons saved for another post!).
No need to get all caught up counting protein grams per meal per day and worrying if you’re short! Just eat a wide variety of quality sources of protein, from a variety of sources to support optimal health. Eat mostly a combo of whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds and if you're an omnivore, consume lean grass-fed meat or sustainable seafood a few times a week.
A day with sufficient protein at each meal and snack could look something like the following;
An omnivore could have:
- eggs for breakfast
- hummus as a snack
- chicken with lunch
- yoghurt as a second snack
- salmon with dinner
Someone with a plant-based diet could have:
- buckwheat with breakfast
- hummus with a snack
- quinoa and bean salad for lunch
- nuts and seeds as a second snack
- lentils and rice with dinner
A great way to boost protein intake is by loading up breakfast with protein-rich ingredients. Having it first thing in the morning ensures you're not snacking the rest of the day. My favourite breakfast for this time of the year is porridge. Try this delicious gluten-free variety below by Emma Galloway from her book 'My Darling Lemon Thyme'.
PS. in my next post I’ll be lifting the lid on protein powders – when should protein powders be incorporated into a diet and what are the best types?